But David's heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly." And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, "Go and say to David, 'Thus says the Lord, Three things I offerOr hold over you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.'" So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me."
Then David said to Gad, "I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man."
So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand." And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, "Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house."
2 Samuel 24:10-17
Nine months and twenty days. That’s how long it took for Joab, the commander of the army, to get a headcount of all able-bodied warriors throughout Israel and Judah. Nine months and twenty days. That’s how long David deluded himself into thinking that disobeying God was a good idea.
We, the readers, don’t know why this particular census was a sin. There are many other instances throughout Scripture in which God commands that a census be taken. In one case, Joab—the same commander of the army as above—sins by failing to complete a census (1 Chronicles 27:24). So we know from other passages that censuses aren’t inherently evil. What was so wrong with this one? For some reason, the author chooses to withhold details, but we do know David’s sin was quite serious. We can measure its gravity by the seriousness of the consequences. Israel and Judah lost 70,000 men in a day. In God’s kingdom, the punishment always fits the crime. When we live in delusion, the consequences of our choices must serve as a backwards lens through which to understand reality. Oh that we might obtain that lens in advance. (Lord, hear our prayer.)
In David’s case, the reality of his sin hit him the day the reports came back. As soon as he had the numbers in his hands, “his heart struck him.” He pleaded to God, “I have sinned greatly…please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” Here’s the question: where was that thought nine months and nineteen days ago? While Joab and his pals were saddling up their horses and packing their granola to head out of town, what was on David’s mind? When they were five months in, weary from living out of suitcases and being parted from their families, what was David doing?
If David was anything like most of humans, he was doing some combination of the following: congratulating himself on such a good idea, fixating on the pros while minimizing the cons, listening only to those who agree with him, role-playing how it will feel to get what he wants, dousing his conviction with distractions and uppers, proof-texting things God said to him in other contexts to convince himself of God’s approval, moving at a fast pace to avoid downtime for reflection, getting reassurance from his yes-men, etc.
What’s the longest you’ve gone in minimizing your sin? It’s not a contest. After all, some of our blindspots won’t fully see the light until judgment day. On that day, our hearts will truly “strike us.” And by the grace of God, we will also be struck in a whole new way by the love of Christ, who absorbed our punishment in our stead.
But what can we do today? How can we spend as little time as possible in delusion? Consider doing some internal work. Make the effort to connect your emotions to a healthy fear of walking in delusion. When we fear walking in the darkness more than we fear exposure to the light, we foster an environment that welcomes the transforming work of God. We find ourselves doing just the opposite of minimizing behavior: we doubt our desires and instincts, we seek out unbiased counsel, we give proper weight to both pros and cons, we set boundaries on our fantasies, we sit still and listen, and most importantly, we read Scripture for what God says rather than what we want it to say. May we, together, find that our sojourns in the land of delusion get shorter and shorter.