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 theotherjournal.com 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.

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Living confessionally

I have been praying the Confession (from the Book of Common Prayer) in church now for a little over a year. More recently, it has become a daily prayer.

The same words, over and over.

I understand that liturgy, through its sheer repetition, can become meaningless. The most wonderful prayers, though filled beginning to end with Truth, can be rote when they are said without thought.

But my experience with this prayer in particular has been quite the opposite: it gains new meaning nearly every time I pray it. Because of this, I have been thinking a great deal about confession, not just the actual prayer but the idea of living “confessionally,” individually and as the Church, the body of Christ. I’ve not given much brainpower to this idea before now, and as I’ve thought about it, it’s grown in its significance for me. I’m planning to write a short series on it. I hope this is not simply a one-way presentation but that it prompts discussion. I feel I still have a great deal to learn about confession (as I do about so very many things), and I would love to learn WITH you.

Today’s post is simply the prayer itself and the prayer/benediction that always follows it.

Most merciful God, we confess that 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.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

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

Almighty God, have mercy on us,

Forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Strengthen us in all goodness,

And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.

Amen.