I’ve had two recent conversations about confession. In both the other person told me they are often not sure what to confess. They want a specific recognition of sin in their lives beyond the “we have not loved (God) with our whole heart/We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.” The prayer of confession* also refers to sinning against God in “thoughts, words, and deeds” and by “what we have done” and “left undone.” What, in particular, are these—and how do we become more aware of them in our lives?
It’s generally not too difficult to recognize when we commit one of the “big” sins: an outright lie; a lustful thought; an outburst of anger; blatant, hurtful gossip, etc.** But the less obvious ones, the ones that pop up like weeds from our inherent self-focus/self-love, are often overlooked. Our bishop at Church of the Resurrection, Stewart Ruch, calls self-love/focus the “seed of sin.” It’s a very prolific seed, and the “small” sins it sprouts are harmful, no less harmful than the “big” ones. But they are also insidious (I love that word—it actually sounds evil!), working subtly and gradually. Many of them can even disguise themselves as something culture sees as good (like selfish ambition). How can we recognize these in our lives?
A couple of verses from the Psalms have been a great help for me as I’ve thought about this problem. Psalm 139 opens with these lines: “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.” It goes on to show how intimate this knowledge is and the section ends with this statement: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” This “knowledge” is about me—ME! God’s knowledge of me is far, far greater than my own knowledge of myself. He knows me in ways I am completely unable to know myself. That can seem terrifying—but it’s actually very, very helpful. Each of us has major blind spots in our lives; we can point out faults in others but remain unable to see the very same sins in ourselves. Psalm 19:12 says, “…who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” The last two verses in Psalm 139 say, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In the New Living Translation that last verse reads, “Point out anything in me that offends you”; the Message paraphrases it “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about;”.
I’ve discovered the Holy Spirit really does answer that prayer and does so in very gracious, gentle ways—in exactly the ways that make me recognize and face my sin without completely crushing me. The Spirit is also incredibly creative in this process: I’ve become aware of insidious sin in my life through a particular word that keeps popping up in my mind, through sermons I’ve listened to, books I’ve read (even fiction), my children’s struggles…
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.***
*The first blog post in this series has the prayer of confession in its entirety.
**It can be helpful to simply read some of the lists of sins in Scripture and ask the Spirit to reveal those in our lives. Here are links to some of them: Galatians 5:19-21, Colossians 3:5-6, Proverbs 6:16-19.
***This is the Collect for Purity from the Book of Common Prayer.