NOTE: For those readers who’ve read the confessional living series I wrote earlier in the year, this may feel a bit repetitive. It’s an essay I wrote for a recent contest, and it summarizes and builds on that series.
“Liturgical prayer” was an oxymoron in the churches in which I grew up. I’d barely even heard of the Book of Common Prayer, much less seen one, until I was 43.
That was when, by choice, I visited a church where the bulletin was more like a small book, and the congregation recited, all together, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer…
And the Confession of Sin.
When the kneelers were pulled out, almost simultaneously, my inner cynic stood up. I thought, “This will be rote, a mere formality.” But then I spoke the words: “…we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done …and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; …not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
I spoke them not alone, but in chorus, for my own lack of love and for the lack we all share.
From that morning forward, this prayer of confession began changing me. I gained a fuller sense of sin; I understood corporate sin in a way I never had before; I began to ask more regularly for hidden sin to be revealed in myself and in the Church so we might “delight in (God’s) will and walk in (His) ways to the glory of (His) Name.”
A year into my journey with this prayer, I went to a party. I, like everyone else there, had been invited to the hostess’s house to buy jewelry made by women rescued from sex trafficking.
Finished with shopping, I joined a group of chatting women. I knew all of them, knew the churches they attended. These women would be considered core members of churches described as “solid, Bible-believing, sound.”
One woman mentioned a Bible study she’d recently led. “We studied James, and the most surprising part of it for me was the emphasis on confession,” she shared. “We don’t do much of that as churches now. I don’t do a lot of confessing personally. I mean, I do when I’ve said something sharp to one of my kids or my husband, but other than sins like that, I’m not sure what to confess.”
I’m not sure what to confess. We don’t do much confessing in our evangelical churches now.
Why is this? Scripture lists many sins specifically, and American evangelical Christianity clearly has its finger on sexual and violent sins. Beyond this, books abound today reminding us of a wide range of ills caused by our common and individual sins. Pastor-writer Jerry Bridges pulled the rug on “respectable” sins such as gossip, selfishness, pride, and anger; Ron Sider exposed the sin of materialism in a world where devastating poverty and injustice abound, with organizations like World Vision and the IJM making that poverty and injustice very visible; and activists like Shane Claiborne, Dr. John Perkins, and Eugene Cho decry the American church’s historic and current lack of involvement in racial and social injustice.
Yet this kind of specific-sin confession, though necessary, is not enough, and often, at least for myself, I’ve found specific-sin confession alone leads to attempts at self-justification and to pride. If it’s an item on a list, then I can “work” on it till it’s crossed off, and if I whittle that list down, I’m getting “better.” This viewpoint naturally leads to a superficial view of sin. Did I make it through my day without raising my voice? Then anger’s off the list! Yes!
This is not the case when I confess my sinfulness rather than simply the sins I see, when I acknowledge that I live in violation of the greatest commandment—loving God with my entirety and my neighbor as myself. In this kind of confession I am reminded I am incapable of that kind of love, and I see God as Other, as Holy, as Good.
As my understanding of this grows, I realize anew that only at the foot of the cross is my great need met. I put down roots in the bloodstained earth, and regular, genuine confession of my sinfulness helps me stay there. Washed by the flow from above and drawing from the infinite depths beneath, my heart is softened for the Spirit’s work of conviction, for the revelation of specific sins, even those hidden from myself.
At the foot of the cross, distinctions of all kinds fade away, and I pray not as the Pharisee did in Luke 18 but as the tax collector, for I see myself on even ground, made equal with all humanity by the most-important, common sin of a lack of love for God and neighbor. This leads to my understanding the confessions of the Old Testament prophets, who often repented in the first person plural: “We have sinned; we have acted unjustly; we have not loved You.” The Holy Spirit enables me to acknowledge my complicity in sins of national and global injustice, to see how my own materialism, selfishness, and silence contribute to them.
So confession leads to a deeper understanding of our sinfulness, but its greater purpose is to lead us beyond that as well. The cross is where mercy and grace triumph over our sin, where the same Holy Spirit who convicts also compels us to share the abundant love we’ve received. The Confession of Sin ends with these words: “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”
I long for “(God’s) will and ways” for the churches in my area: I pray for greater racial reconciliation and harmony; less materialism; more significant roles for women in the church; deep, life-impacting passions for all kinds of injustice…
Yet efforts for these are shortsighted, selfish, and temporary unless they begin at the foot of the cross.
Authentic confession takes and keeps us there.