By Cindi McMenamin, Crosswalk.com
I’m sure you’ve heard the prayer “Create in me a clean heart.” But why do we pray it and what are we really asking God to do?
If God has forgiven our sins – past, present and future – at the moment we repent (Acts 2:38) and confess Jesus as the risen Lord (Romans 10:9), is it really necessary to ask Him to create in us clean hearts?
That prayer (written and sung thousands of years ago, and now a part of Scripture) paints a picture for us of the deep consequences of sin. It shows what true repentance, remorse, and renewal look like.
Where in Scripture Does it Say ‘Create in Me a Clean Heart?’
This prayer, written in the form of a song, is found in Psalm 51:10, but the context of this request gives us greater insight as to why it was prayed.
Israel’s King David—known for his intimacy with God as expressed through many of the Psalms he wrote—experienced a season of sin in which he committed adultery and then murder to cover up his sin.
It’s possible it was a full year or more from the time he first lusted after Bathsheba (a woman who was married to one of David’s “Mighty Men” referenced in 2 Samuel 23:8, 2 Samuel 23:39), to the day he was confronted by a prophet of God for taking another man’s wife and killing that man to cover up his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-9).
Upon realizing the extent to which he had betrayed his God, David penned Psalm 51. It’s a heartfelt prayer, begging for God’s mercy, cleansing, and restoration.
In Psalm 51:10-12, David prayed:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a wiling spirit. (ESV)
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‘Create in Me a Clean Heart’ Invites a Radical Renewal from God
According to Bible scholars, when David prayed “Create in me a clean heart” he used the same Hebrew verb that is used in Genesis 1:1 for the creation of the world, emphasizing that the kind of radical cleansing he needed could only come from God. David apparently knew the redirection of his desires and thoughts could only come about through the intervention of God, as well.
David began his song by asking God to have mercy on him and blot out his transgressions. In verses 2-3, he prayed: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
Although David sinned against Bathsheba, her husband, and David’s other wives, he realized he ultimately sinned against God. Therefore his heartfelt prayer was “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:4).
In verses 7-8, he begged God to “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have broken rejoice.”
David felt crushed under the conviction of his offenses against God. Then in verses 10-12 he not only asked for a clean heart, but for a renewed spirit, too. He also asked that he not be cast away from God’s presence and that the Holy Spirit not be taken from him.
According to The Ryrie Study Bible, in the Old Testament, the holy spirit was particularly related to service, rather than salvation. Thus, David was asking God not to take away his service as the anointed kind of Israel.
David asked that God restore the joy of his salvation, as he was likely tired of going through the motions and not experiencing the fullness and joy that comes from living uprightly with a clear conscious.
Finally, David asked God to give him a willing spirit to obey. In other words, David was praying “Give me a strong desire to obey so I don’t break Your heart again.”
Why Does the Bible Invite Us to Pray This Way?
This prayer is clearly one of repentance and confession, which God desires of us whenever we have become aware of sins that have affected our fellowship with God. When we repent, it means we not only agree with God about the heinous nature of our sin, but we are determining to start over and live a new life – one that is obedient and pleasing to God.
As often as we might sin or start living for ourselves rather than God, we need to turn back and head in the direction God desires. Repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently.
Although this prayer was said under the Old Covenant, when sin was not yet permanently atoned for through Jesus’ death and resurrection, its intent and application for us today is that we continually confess our hearts to God and seek His restoration and renewal.
This kind of penitent prayer shows our awareness of a Creator—and a Redeemer—who can instill in us a right and pure heart, even after we’ve messed up. This prayer also confesses our need for a Savior to atone for our sin, and a need for righteousness we can’t attain on our own, but can only find in Christ.
Finally, this prayer invites us to position our hearts so God can shape and refine us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
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‘Create in Me a Clean Heart’ Prayer of Surrender
If you are struggling with forgiveness or think God can’t create a new heart in you, pray this prayer in the sincerity of your heart. (This is Psalm 51:1-4, Psalm 51:7-12 from The Message – Dr. Eugene Peterson’s translation from the original Hebrew into idiomatic English—the way we think and feel today):
Generous in love—God, give grace! Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry. I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.
You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen it all, seen the full extent of my evil…
Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes, give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Bring me back from gray exile, put a fresh wind in my sails!
You can also pray any one of these “breath prayers,” which are short prayers repeated often, to keep your mind focused on the goal of a pure heart and right spirit:
God, make me new just for You.
God, give me an undivided heart, wholly Yours and wholly pure.
God, clear out the sin and clean me up.
God, give me a fresh start so I won’t break Your heart.
What Should Christians Remember about Psalm 51?
It is important for you and me to remember that praying Psalm 51—and thereby asking God for cleansing and restoration—is not just a one-time prayer. It’s something we should revisit whenever we need to confess and agree with God about our sins and restore fellowship with Him.
It’s also a prayer that can cover even what you think is too dreadful for God to forgive. Sometimes we withhold confession, believing our sin is too great for God to forgive. Or, we think that because we can’t forgive ourselves, perhaps God can’t forgive us, either.
Yet, Psalm 51 is evidence of the forgiving, restoring nature of God.
Even though David got in a world of trouble, God didn’t define him at the end of his life as “the king who was an adulterous murderer.” In the New Testament, thousands of years after David’s sin we read that his legacy and description, as far as God was concerned, was still “a man after my heart, who will do all my will” (Acts 13:22).
That’s what praying for a clean heart and renewed spirit can do for us. It can make us pure and brand new in God’s sight.
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Cindi McMenamin is a pastor’s wife, mom, Bible teacher, and national speaker who helps women strengthen their relationships with God and others. She is the author of 17 books including the best-selling When Women Walk Alone (more than 140,000 copies sold), When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts,When God Sees Your Tears, and When Couples Walk Together: 31 Days to a Closer Connection, which she co-authored with her husband, Hugh. For more on her speaking ministry, coaching services, or books and resources to help you grow in your relationship with God, your marriage or your parenting, see her website: www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.