16 Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.
17 I cried unto him with my mouth, and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me:
19 But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer.
20 Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me.
Some years ago, a commencement speaker at Yale University said to the graduating class, “In 1776 you conquered your fathers. In 1865 you conquered your brothers. Now you must conquer yourselves.”
The greatest enemy we have is not without but within. We hear a lot of talk today about outer space, the exploration of it, and eventually the inhabitation of it. But God is far more concerned about inner space than he is about outer space. He made that clear one time when Samuel the prophet was about to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as the king of Israel. The Lord said to him, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7-8).
The Bible tells us that God is looking on the inside at our inner space—at our hearts—to make sure that they are right with him. That’s what the psalmist is talking about when he says in Psalms 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” The word iniquity literally means “to pervert.” It is the idea that we have taken the way of God, the will of God, and the word of God, and we have twisted them and perverted them, and thus we have sinned against God. It is one of those several words that are used interchangeably in the Bible to describe sin.
So, if I regard iniquity or sin in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. The word regard means “to see.” It is the idea that if I look within my heart and I see sin there, and I am content for it to stay there instead of being sorry for it, confessing it, and forsaking it, it means I let it stay there and I enjoy it; I nurse it and I cherish it. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. He is saying that we must learn to deal with our inner space, with our own heart, and with our sinful ways if we are going to have a vital living relationship with God that is established and maintained through prayer.
There is in this passage a statement about the seat of iniquity, about the seriousness of iniquity, and about the solution to iniquity. If you are taking notes on the sermon as I encourage you to do on the backside of your bulletin, I think you will want to jot down notes about these three ideas that are found in this verse of scripture.
The psalmist’s words “If I regard iniquity in my heart” show the heart as the seat or the beginning place of sin. He goes on to tell us about the seriousness of sin or iniquity. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Not being heard by the Lord is tremendously serious. Then there is the solution to iniquity or to sin and it suggested to us in that word, “if.” “If I regard iniquity” means that I may look into my heart, see sin, and be content for it to stay there, but that is an option. There is another alternative. I do not have to look into my heart and see sin and let it stay there. I can deal with sin and dispose of sin and I can be right with God. This passage speaks to us about all three of these truths that relate to sin in our lives.
1. The seat of iniquity
This passage begins by addressing the seat of iniquity or the seat of sin. The writer says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart.” You understand that in scripture the word heart does not often refer to a bodily organ—that muscle that pumps blood throughout our body. Most often, the word heart refers to the control room of a person’s life. It alludes to that place where we make decisions—to our mind, to our will, to the whole decision-making process of a person’s life.
The Bible locates the source of man’s problem as the control room or the heart of his life. He is saying to us in essence, “The heart of your problem is your heart.”
If we could ever see that the heart is the “heart” of our problem—that the problem is within and not without—then we could begin to deal realistically with our sins and with our weakness. We could get on with this business of living daily for Jesus Christ. That is ever and always the emphasis of scripture.
Jeremiah the prophet said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). The writer of the book of Proverbs said, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Now, not only does the Old Testament say that the heart is the heart of our problem, but the New Testament says the same thing. James said, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust” (James 1:13-14). James is saying to us that within us, there are desires and appetites. If we yield to those appetites, we commit sin against God, and the cause of our sin is not God; the cause is not the one who is above us—it is rather that which is within us. The problem is our heart. There is no power in this universe that is strong enough to make you sin without your consent. Any time we do wrong, it is voluntarily. It is because we consent to the temptation. Satan can come to tempt. Satan can come to entice. Satan can come to draw us away, but no person sins against his own will without his own consent.
That’s why you are always responsible for your actions before God. You cannot excuse. You cannot alibi. You cannot blame it on somebody else. If you sin, it is because you have yielded to that which is within you and you have chosen on your own to do wrong. We have all seen apples with a wormhole in them. And we have wondered, “Did the worm start on the outside and bore his way into the heart of the apple, or did the worm start on the inside and bore his way out?”
Well, fruit experts tell us that the egg is laid on the blossom of the apple tree. It hatches in the heart of the apple and it bores or eats its way out. The Bible says that’s the way sin is in your life and in mine. The problem is not out yonder someplace; the problem is within our own heart and our own nature. The problem is our heart.
Jesus said on one occasion, “For of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Whatever comes out of my mouth has its source deep down inside of me. It comes from the control room of my life—where my thought process and my will acts and works. That determines what comes out of my mouth; my problem is never my mouth. My problem is my heart to begin with.
He says on another occasion, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). This list of evils—these atrocities of the heart and soul—they grow not from without, but from within. If we are going to be right with God, we must be vitally concerned about inner space to make sure that it is right with him, for the Bible says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” The seat of iniquity then is our heart.
2. The seriousness of iniquity
The Bible speaks not only of the seat of iniquity, but it speaks of the seriousness of iniquity as well. This psalm’s writer made it clear that if he kept sin in his heart, the Lord would not hear him. He is saying to us that sin by its very nature separates us from God. There are other passages in the Bible that say the same thing. For example, Isaiah said a long time ago, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). A long time ago, Isaiah recognized that sin has a way of separating us from God. But from the very beginning, sin did that.
Do you remember what happened in the garden when Adam and Eve sinned against God? They became aware of their sin, their rebellious nature, and suddenly they felt guilty. They began to avoid God. They began to shun God. They went out to hide in the garden—not because God had done anything wrong, but because they had sinned, they felt guilty, and they didn’t want to face him. As sin broke the relationship between Adam and Eve and God, and as it separated them, so sin in your life and mine separates us from God. The psalmist takes up that same note, except he says that it separates us at the most vital point of our relationship, which is our prayer life.
Let me speak to you for a few moments about the importance of your prayer life. It is the most vital of all Christian exercises and experiences. For if you do not have a prayer life, then you do not have a spiritual relationship with God. If you do not connect with God in prayer, then you do not connect with God at all. For prayer is that vital link—that living relationship between you and the living God. The rankest form of humanism is prayerlessness.
When man chooses not to pray, he is choosing to go on his own, by his own human resources and by his own thinking and acting ability. He is saying, “I can make it without God.” When we regard iniquity in our hearts, it keeps God from hearing us and we have no vital relationship with him. This shows that the key to your prayer life is your heart. The key to your prayer life is not the posture of your prayer. There are always people who are trying to overemphasize the posture of prayer. Some of them will say that you need to stand and you need to lift your hands up in the air in prayer to God. They say it is so liberating and so exhilarating, and they magnify that posture as though it were the key to effective praying. In the Bible there are all kinds of postures of prayer.
Hezekiah the king was on his sickbed, and he prayed flat on his back that God would spare his life and God extended his life for about 15 years. Elijah the prophet sat down when he prayed. He bent his knees, leaned over, and he buried his face in his knees to pray. It hadn’t rained for three and a half years, and he prayed in that posture that it would start raining. Daniel prayed on his knees. Jesus prayed flat on his face. The publican and the Pharisee stood in the Temple and they prayed standing up. One said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are.” The other one stood saying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”
I want you to know that it doesn’t really matter what posture you are in when you are praying. You can be sitting or lying or kneeling or standing, and you can have your hands stretched up into the sky or you can have them folded in front of you; you can have them stuck in your pocket, or you can have them nailed on the cross like Jesus when he died. That doesn’t affect your prayer life at all. There is no posture of prayer emphasized in the Bible.
Now, if there were one, it would be the posture of kneeling. You study the scriptures intelligently and you leave them impressed that the most effective and often used posture of prayer was kneeling. For example, the Bible says that Daniel knelt on his knees three times a day and he prayed and gave thanks to God. The psalmist said, “Come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker” (Psalm 95:6). The Bible says that Jesus withdrew himself about a stone’s throw from the rest of his disciples and he kneeled down and prayed. When Stephen was about to be stoned, the Bible says he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
When Peter was about to raise Dorcas from the dead, the Bible says that they kneeled down and they prayed. When the apostle Paul met with the Ephesian elders by the seacoast, he knelt down and wept and prayed with them. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father” (Ephesians 3:14). And to the Philippians he wrote, “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow … And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). If you want to emphasize some posture in prayer, the one that is mentioned most often in the Bible is the posture of kneeling.
But ultimately and finally, your prayer life and the effectiveness of it does not depend upon your knees and it does not depend upon your hands. It depends upon your heart. If your heart is not right with God, God will not hear you. If I regard iniquity in my heart, then it shuts off heaven from me.
Don’t be misled into thinking there is any posture more important than another. The key to effective praying is not in the words that you say. Ever since men have prayed, they have been trying to impress God with their lengthy and beautiful prayers, and God is not impressed at all. He invented every word there is anyhow. You can’t pull a new one on him, so he is not going to be impressed with your eloquence. Jesus said, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetition” (Matthew 6:7). There are a lot of groups that get into the practice of using catchphrases as though that gives them some special power or special holiness in their prayer life. Likewise, the muttering of meaningless words is not only useless, it is worse than useless. Jesus said, “Don’t do it.”
When somebody else is praying in public, if you want to pray, then pray silently enough that you do not disturb anybody else. And if you want to join in their prayer and you want to affirm what they are saying, do what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 14. There it says you should utter “Amen.” That word amen is the word of affirmation. When you say it, you’re saying, “Lord, I agree. Lord, that is how I feel also. Lord, that’s my prayer to you.” And if you want to be strictly biblical, then use that word amen, as it’s a good word of affirmation for singing, preaching, and for praying that’s used often in the Bible.
But let me reiterate that the key to your prayer life is not in how you bend your knees, it is not in what you do with your hands, and it is not in the words that you may say with your lips. The key to effective praying is the heart: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” You can pray without bowing your head. You can pray without closing your eyes. You can pray without bending your knees. You can pray without opening your mouth. You can pray anywhere, anytime, and there is no law in all the land that can ever keep you from praying. You can pray in the public schools if you want to. All you have to do is pray, and you don’t have to put on any show or display about it, for prayer is always a matter of the heart.
The posture is not the key. The words you say are not the key. But let me tell you that neither is faith the most important element in prayer. We are taught to pray in faith—to pray believing. But there are some people who even get that out of balance. They say that if you believe enough you can ask whatsoever you will and it will be done. They say if you ask and it is not done, it is because you don’t have enough faith. If you can ask for anything you want in faith and it will be done, and if you do ask and it is not done, then it is because you don’t have enough faith. “You could even be cured of cancer,” they would say. They’d also tell you that if you just believe enough and pray, you will be healed. And if you aren’t healed, it is because your faith was too weak. I’ve seen some godly people suffer a tremendous guilt trip by that kind of foolish theology. Listen, when almighty God is ready to do something, he doesn’t need your faith to get it done. He can do it whether you believe it or not.
Let me give you an example. Read the 12th chapter of the book of Acts. Peter was locked up in jail. The church started praying for him. God sent an angel and the angel unlocked the jail and brought Peter to the house of Mary while they were praying. He knocked on the door, and when Rhoda came to the door and she heard his voice, she recognized that it was his voice and without inviting him in she turned and ran back to the prayer meeting where people were praying and she said, “Listen, Simon Peter is outside.” They said to her, “You are mad. You’ve seen an angel.” And she kept saying, “No, it is Simon. It’s Simon Peter. I know he is out there.” They finally went out to see for themselves and when they saw him, they were amazed. It doesn’t sound to me like they were expecting an answer. It sounds to me like they were praying without really being sure that God was going to do anything. They had enough faith to pray. It takes some faith to pray, but you can sometimes have enough faith to pray without having enough faith to believe that it is going to be answered. But if God is ready to do it, he can do it with or without your faith. Faith is not the key. Let me tell you what the key is. I think you know by now, don’t you? If you don’t, you need to wake up.
If you regard iniquity in your heart, that’s it. God will not hear you. So, the key is not in your knees. And the key is not in your hands. The key is not in your lips. The key is in your heart. And until that is right, you might as well quit praying. Anything else you do will be futile exercise, because God will not respond to people whose hearts are not right with him. There was a time in the Old Testament when Israel had sinned against God and the judgment of God had come upon them at Ai, and Joshua fell on his face before God and started praying, “Oh, God, what’s wrong with us? And what is wrong with you? Come and save Israel.” Do you know what God said? He said, “Get up off of your face, Joshua. Stop your praying. Get up and go and sanctify yourself.”
Let me tell you, there is a time not to pray. There is a time when you need to clean your life up, your heart up, and your mind up. Get right with God and when you get right with God, then you can get back to praying. Until your heart is right, nothing else is going to be right. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”
Now, the seat of iniquity is the heart. The seriousness of it is that it separates me from God. What’s the solution?
3. The solution of iniquity
I do not have to see it and let it stay there. I can be aware of sin in my life, and I can repent of that sin. I can be cleansed of that sin so that I am made right with God in such a way that he does hear me. That little word if means that I can or I don’t have to. I can see it there and let it stay, or I can do something about it. The choice is mine.
How do I deal with sin in my heart? There are three ways. The first one is to acknowledge it—to confess it. The Bible says if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Confession is essential. It is acknowledging that we have done wrong.
You know what happens when somebody commits a foul in basketball? Yes, the referee blows a whistle. That player is supposed to stick up his hand, and he does that in agreement with the referee’s call. Now, he doesn’t always agree. Sometimes the player will make a few ugly faces because he doesn’t want to admit it, but he is supposed to lift his hand and say, “I’m the guilty one. I’m the one who did it. I’m the one who committed the foul. I know you have to put it in the record books. Okay, enter the mark against me. I did it.”
When you confess, that is what you are doing. When the Holy Spirit blows the whistle on you, you are supposed to say, “Lord, I did it. I am the one. I broke the rule; I committed the foul; I sinned against you.” Let me tell you, if you don’t own up to it, there is no forgiveness. You acknowledge it. You confess it.
The second thing you do is you forsake it. You quit it. You need to own it and then disown it. You need to admit it and then you need to quit it. The Old Testament says that. The New Testament does too.
In the book of Proverbs, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). I am to acknowledge it and then I am to turn from it. I am to admit it, then quit it; I am to own it and to disown it. The problem is there are a lot of people who want to have forgiveness for their sins without forsaking their sins. They are willing to admit it but they are not willing to quit it. They want to keep enjoying it—keep living in it. You have to face it and then you have to turn away from it.
The third thing you need to do is you need to make restitution and to be reconciled whenever possible. If you stole something from somebody else, you need to confess it to God and you need to make restitution. If you lied about them, then you need to go and tell the truth. If you have been judgmental of them and critical of them, you need to fess up and apologize. Whenever and wherever possible, if it would be helpful in building a relationship between you and that person, then you need to make restitution for your sins.
There are times when that is impossible. If you kill somebody, you can’t bring their life back. If you had an abortion, you can’t undo that. If you have wasted your virtues, you can never have them back again. There are some wrongs that can never be undone and you can’t make up for them. All you can do is to confess those to God and turn from those sins. But the marvelous thing about God’s grace is that it is sufficient even for those things we can’t do anything about. If you can’t undo it, God can still forgive it and God can make you clean again. You can be right with God and right with other people even concerning those things that you can never undo or repay.
The truth is that you don’t have to continue to live in your sin. And the psalmist didn’t. This whole psalm is a psalm of praise to God for what God has done for him. And having said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me,” he then says, “But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer.” He can answer yours also, if you will deal with your heart and make it right with him.
When Jesus died on the cross, he dealt sufficiently with your sins. When he died and shed his blood, it was for the sins of the whole world, and that includes your sins. I don’t care how dark, how messy, how ugly, or how recent they are. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for your sins. If you will turn from those sins and trust him, he will forgive you. He will make you a new person. He will give you a new start in life, and he is just waiting for you to make the next move. He has already made the move. He has already paid the price and now he is waiting with arms outstretched on that cross saying, “You come to me. You come to me.”
Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. But the blood has been shed. If we walk in the light as he is the light, then we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all unrighteousness. What he did back then and there on that cross has eternal significance. It works now today in your life, and you can be clean. That means you can have a vital relationship with God through prayer. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. But thank God, there is a solution for the pollution of our lives. The blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin. Let’s pray together.