Living Confessionally, Part 2: Expanding our view of sin

Not long ago I listened as a group of women talked about Bible studies they’d recently been involved in. One spoke of studying First John. “What surprised me most was the emphasis on confession,” she said. “We don’t do this in my church service, and I find I don’t do it very often personally either. I mean, I do when I see I’ve lied or been unkind, but most of the time I have a hard time recognizing my sin.”

It was an honest acknowledgement, and I understood her. We can easily fall into the trap of seeing sin as a list of things to avoid. The rich young ruler did this; he checked off the Ten Commandments as complete. And even though I understand this is impossible, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that if I attack the sins listed in the Scriptures, one by one, I can be free from them. This is not sanctification; this is self-improvement, the belief that I am really okay at the core, it’s just that I have these sins stuck to my surface.

The prayer of confession deepens my view of sin far, far beyond this.

“… we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

In this blog entry I want to look at the last two statements, for these define sin: not loving God with the whole heart; not loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The “whole heart” includes all of our being: mind, soul, and strength (physical self), and the term “neighbor,” as explained by Christ in His parable of the Good Samaritan, does not exclude ANYONE, no matter how unlike me they happen to be.

So for me to NOT sin would mean I would need to wholly/completely love God AND every person I encounter each and every minute of my life

What would that be like?

I have no idea! I don’t even know what it would be like for a single moment because I can’t do it. I am unable to look completely away from myself, unable to focus upward and outward without one eye—at least—always gazing in. Even my “good” works are tainted with this “looking in.” I may do them with partially pure motives, but at some level I am hoping they will make me feel better about myself or exalt me in God’s or others’ sight.

I am incapable of pure love, even when the object is the pure and wonderful God, even when it is a newborn infant, as innocent and beautiful as a human can be.

The prayer of confessions helps me understand that I am not a sinner because I sin. No, I sin because I am broken at my very core.

The prayer of confession leads me to the huge depth of my need.

Note: As I was thinking about this, I listened to a Tim Keller podcast in which he said the phrase “homo curvatus in se,” and explained it was Martin Luther’s definition of sin. In researching this phrase, I discovered an article on by Matt Jenson (Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University) titled “The Shape of Our Sin.” Here’s a summary of part of his article, which is drawn from his book The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’:

Augustine and Martin Luther wrote about sin as “humanity curved in on itself” (homo curvatus in se). Augustine said that because of this “curvatus,” we use everything, even God, for the enjoyment or comfort of ourselves, and Luther said this sin extends throughout our entire person—there is not a single part of us that is not centered on self. Karl Barth builds upon Augustine’s and Luther’s views and says that curvatus is also seen when we believe ourselves rather than God. We exalt our own statements as “truth” and reject God’s truths as lies. And he further makes the point that while we often see our “curvatus” as pride, the opposite is also true: when we debase ourselves and are constantly focused on our shortcomings, this is but another form of the curvatus. We are still focused on ourselves.

A poem (though I’m NOT a poet!)

Though I did nothing to produce the flame,

I want to “contribute,”

so I pile on “good works,” busy-ness, “rightness”

till the fire nearly smothers.

The result: a smoldering smudge

that burns my eyes, sears my nostrils—

All the “good” doing no Good at all

And my vision is bound by Self.

I “do” more, petition with frantic edges, praise with listless duty

and, deep down, miss the pure flame

utterly outside my power to create.

I arrive weary at Christmas Eve service,

just in time to see the bishop wave the incense,

sending up wisps of white

that fade from sight but waft sweet scent—

even to my row near the back.

“Nothing magical,” the bishop explains.

“Just a symbol of the psalmist’s cry,

‘Let my prayer be set before You as incense.’”

I breathe deep and wonder-

What could transform my smoldering smudge

To this?

I examine the Psalm and find no commands to

do, work, fix.

Instead, verbs requesting action on God’s part,

Not mine.

“Set a guard,” “Do not let…” “Leave me not.”

“I cry out to You,” the songwriter begins.

And ends, “My eyes are upon You.”

Such kind deliverance.

The truth releases me to



I sense Holy Spirit hovering.

Wing beats unceasing

fan buried flame

lift the wordless wail.

Set free in stillness,

The Hallowed wind sweeps me

To the edge of myself

And I fall

Deep into the intercession of


Flame–and incense–rise.

NOTES: 1. If anyone reading this is a poet and has suggestions (and would be willing to share them), I would LOVE to hear them. 2. Because I don’t really feel this is “finished,” I didn’t record this one.