Perhaps among the greatest of Psalms is David’s 50/51:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
The very core of this Psalm is its attention to the heart and its interior state before God. In this much, nothing has changed between Old and New Testament. The great field of battle, the very doors of heaven, as well as the gates of hell, reside squarely in the human heart. Its state before God is the state of any individual.
David, who was known as a “man after God’s own heart,” was also a man who was capable of both murder and adultery. How could the Scriptures give him such a title? The only sense I can make of such a thing is the character of his heart. When the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, his response, without hesitation, was repentance before the Lord. Though he had hardened his heart in such a way as to commit serious sin, He could not turn his back on God when confronted. I have always found this a tremendously hopeful story.
It is, as well, the very core of the Orthodox life. All that we do – praying, fasting, confession, the veneration of icons, keeping vigil – whatever the Tradition may ask of us – all of it is geared towards the condition of the heart. This is why it becomes so strange when people lose their way and begin to think that what is important is the prayer, the fasting, the icons, the details of the vigil, and even allow themselves to be angered when these things are not done as precisely as they might. It is a tragedy, of course. For someone has let the medicine become the focus of their life rather than the health which the medicine should bring.
By the same token, we should rejoice at a humble and contrite heart wherever we find it. If a non-believer extends us mercy, we should rejoice in God and give thanks for His mercies, rather than judging the non-believer. Such merciful men and women will enter the Kingdom before us all.
I have always had a question before me that addresses all of this: is my heart the kind of heart that God could do anything with?
If the answer is “no” then I am in serious trouble. Then I must redouble my efforts and pray more fervently for God’s mercies lest I become someone that He finds useless.
But men and women with humble and contrite hearts are the very stuff of which the Kingdom is made. With such men and women God can and will do anything. For them, nothing is impossible. They cannot be deterred from their appointed meeting with God and His kingdom. Before them earthly kingdoms fall, and the wise of this world become mute.
May God make of me such a man and give me such with whom to keep company.