Living Confessionally, Part 4: Inviting the Holy Spirit’s Conviction

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.

Meanderings on BEING

When I read the following post to my husband (he and my mother-in-law serve as a sounding board for nearly everything I put on the blog), he responded, “I’ve never ever asked myself the questions you wonder about in this piece, but I’m assuming that if you’ve wondered it, someone else has, so, yes, post it.” I then asked him, “Do you think I’m out on a theological limb in this one–just a bit?” At that he grinned, half-shrugged, and said, “Maybe a little, but not too much.” (I’ve done some adjusting since I first read it to him, and I think I’ve moved closer to the trunk.) SO, if you choose to read on, just know I am NOT claiming this is solid theology but simply, as titled, my mind’s meanderings on my being/personhood/individuality.

It all started with these questions: If I am accepted ONLY in Christ, then does God love ME? For that matter, who am I? If I am called to become more and more like Christ, then WHO am I becoming? How can I still be ME and yet be like Christ? And WHO, exactly, is God loving? Me or Christ in me?

Scripture tells me I have no “good” in me, but it also says I am made in the image of God. I have value as God’s creation in general (like the sparrows) and, to a greater extent, because of that image.

I still wonder, though, do I have value simply in being myself?

But, wait, without God, I do not exist.

Now my head is spinning!

In Him we live and move and have our being. So is there part of God’s being in me? Well, if there is no good in me, then, no, there is no “divine” in me. God is good to His core–no, that’s not strong enough. He IS good, so not only is He never unsure about what is right-wrong/good-evil, He is never tempted to do anything that disagrees with His pure nature. Well, that doesn’t describe me at all. So what does it mean that I am “made in His image”?

I go back to my earlier statement: without God I have no being. I am NOT.

Yet I am. Even in a state of alienation from God—my pre-redeemed state—I have been given being. I am able to think and reason and love and hate and feel pain and joy.

I certainly do not FEEL like a puppet.

Nor did Jesus Christ–very God/very man–treat people as puppets. That, right there, wows me. Each person He encountered was His own creation. He could have chosen NOT to create any of them. In one sense, they were nothing more than clay in His hands.

Yet He treated each person as an individual. He treated each with respect as a human, as an individual. Even when He came down hard on a person or a group of people, it was never belittling but related to the choice they had made to set or follow their own standard/to be their own god–and they were definitely faced with the option of choosing differently. (I think of Nicodemus as a particular example of this.)

We are not only treated as individuals; we ARE so individual—down to our fingerprints, as if God is saying, “I am so big I am able to put a unique image of myself in every single one of you, and I will never have to duplicate or repeat.” (We get a beautiful picture of this in Psalm 139, in which the writer, David, imagines God being present–right there–shaping him in utero uniquely and specifically–no cookie cutter “creation” going on.)

This brings me back to my original question: Who am I? But now I realize that there are two ways to ask that question, one good and one bad. The bad way is when I am wanting an individuality/personhood that is separate from God, from being His, from being linked to Him as the Source and the Sustainer.

And isn’t that the same desire Satan had?

Lucifer wanted to be Lucifer on His own. He didn’t want to maintain his being as an angel OF God. He wanted to be Lucifer, just Lucifer. He didn’t want God to be linked to his being.

God granted Lucifer’s request. I know Lucifer was cast out of heaven, but he wasn’t annihilated. Can anything that God creates ever by truly annihilated?

So Lucifer “won,” in the sense that a rebellious child “wins” autonomy. He was allowed to separate. We see the consequences. Lucifer has lost all good. He has NO good impulses. He never creates, only destroys. He destroyed Eve–and then Adam and all their offspring–with the same temptation.

When I want to be MYSELF (and I am speaking here as one who is following Christ), am I trying to separate from Christ in me? Am I trying to fill the God-blank inside me with ME (pure self-focus). And in so doing, do I, like Satan, ironically, become capable only of destruction, never creation?

Hmm. I am imagining the “God-blank” as a sphere within our souls that has a beautiful, unique shape but which is un-filled. It is merely keeping a portion of my soul from being tainted with the selfishness/self-focus that permeates the rest of me. That empty sphere will either be filled with God or be overtaken by all the rest. In its empty state, it has no power to DO good, only to keep space for Good to enter in. When Christ enters it, His Good has power and begins its work in me, renewing me.

My mind returns to Nicodemus here: is this somehow related to “being born of the Spirit”? When I surrender and say, I am Yours, God. You work Your new creation in me, exactly as YOU want to, then am I born anew to be the ME He originally intended? So, though I am becoming more like Christ, with more of God filling me, yet He is filling me uniquely so that MY becoming like Christ is wholly different than my husband or my children or any other person becoming like Him. Together we are His body, but each cell within it is individual.

He is too great to simply duplicate Himself or even a small portion of Himself. There is TOO much of Him to ever be exhausted.

So perhaps God says to each of us: “You are YOU. Yes, you are from me, yet you are you, and the more you surrender to ME, the more you become the YOU I designed you to be. I take joy in your uniqueness because you display ME uniquely.

“When you are focused on self, you are not YOU—the real YOU is being overcome. The real YOU is completely at peace in your being my intricate masterpiece. You lose self-focus and, in so doing, become more YOU.”

All this is too big for me, but I end in awe rather than confusion because I have returned to my Creator. I place my weary, addled head on His chest; I feel His loving arms encircle me; and my spirit is reminded that He is for me.

I rest my whole being in that.