C is for Confession (an alphabet for penitents)

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16

Confession is one of those things we think about doing when we get to Lent and try not to think of the rest of the year. Most of us do not do it well.  We either choose to ignore unhealthy and sinful patterns in our lives or we are debilitated by shame and self-loathing. Mostly we vacillate between these two poles. We minimize our sin (or simply don’t acknowledge it) or we obsess over it and are destroyed by it. We see this in religious communities. Some churches never get around to naming evil. Other churches obsess over their total depravity, making God’s grace opaque. Confession steers us between the extremes of minimizing sin’s seriousness or feeling disqualified by it.

Our sin is not that serious!

In the primaries, president Trump famously asserted that he doesn’t think he’s ever asked God for forgiveness. He later stated that he think’s “repenting is terrific,” that he goes to communion which is a form of confession and that he tries to live his life so that he doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. His famous public apology for his 2005 lewd remarks, “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize” may be one of the few examples we see from him of confession. Unfortunately, he followed up that confession with political doublespeak designed to minimize his wrongdoing:

“I never said I was a perfect person,”

“These words don’t reflect who I am,

“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”

Trump gives us the anatomy of a poor confession: (1)minimizing the seriousness of sin ( ‘I am not perfect,’ (2) separating his actions from his character (‘these words don’t reflect who I am’), (3) misdirection (pointing to someone else’s sins). There was an apology, yet this was not repenting with sackcloth and ashes.

We shouldn’t make this about Trump. We are also bad at confession and we try to minimize the seriousness of our own Sin. If a tape of our past indiscretions surfaced, we may also seek to downplay its significance.  More often we distract ourselves so we don’t have to take an honest look at ourselves.

Our sin disqualifies us!

The other side of the coin is that we may carry the weight of past wrongs, wishing we had acted differently. We beat ourselves up  asking “If I only didn’t . . .” We are ashamed of friendships that fell apart because we acted selfishly, and opportunities missed. We regret rash actions, unkind words, angry flare-ups, and untruths. Sometimes the past holds us in paralysis. We are ashamed of what we have done and what we have not done. We keep all this hidden.  This was the first reaction of Adam and Eve in the garden before their excuses (Genesis 3:6-7).

These two poles are not mutually exclusive. We can outwardly act like we have it together or that our sin is insignificant. Inwardly, we may carry the shame of personal failings. I do. I can be gregarious and charming, quick-witted and fun, while privately I may be a mess—full of self-doubt, insecurity, shame for ways I fail and have failed. Publically present, but isolated from others.

Why confession is good for us

Confession is good for the soul precisely because it cuts through our tendency toward both excuse making and self-loathing. When we name sin for what it is, we break its stronghold in our lives. We hear words of abolution—that in Christ we are free and fully forgiven. We are accepted by God and restored to fellowship with others. There is no morbid self-loathing here. We are set free from Sin’s death grip on our soul and set free to live life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

The sinner surrenders. giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and congessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community (Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015, 88).

The fruit of confession is that we act differently in the wake of Christ’s forgiveness. We are forgiven when face-up to the seriousness and consequences of our actions. When we do, we live differently. We repair broken relationships (where they can be repaired), we live and act from a new center. We own up to our missteps and begin the journey back to the right path.

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Prayer: Confession I

Bringing Confession Home

My life is displayed when You drop by:

our shoes piled haphazard at the door, kids’ toys

and clothes on the floor, the paper unread but

spread across the coffee table, the shelves teem with debris,

and countertops covered with dishes—my sink overflows.

 

We are past pretense, You and I;

You know who I am, not what I pretend.

My detritus divulges an inner chaos—

a cluttered heart, a spirit stifled by stuff.

Gather these fragments and see

all I love and I long to be.

 

Create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit in me.

So when You come to my door and knock

I may welcome You in without shame.

 


 

*Dirty dish picture from Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Dirty_dishes.jpg

 

Lord Do Not Rebuke Me in Your Anger: Psalm 38 (the Seven Penitential Psalms)

Psalm 38:title–22 (NIV)

A psalm of David. A petition.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath.

Your arrows have pierced me,

and your hand has come down on me.

Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;

there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

My guilt has overwhelmed me

like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome

because of my sinful folly.

I am bowed down and brought very low;

all day long I go about mourning.

My back is filled with searing pain;

there is no health in my body.

I am feeble and utterly crushed;

I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;

my sighing is not hidden from you.

10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;

even the light has gone from my eyes.

11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;

my neighbors stay far away.

12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,

those who would harm me talk of my ruin;

all day long they scheme and lie.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,

like the mute, who cannot speak;

14 I have become like one who does not hear,

whose mouth can offer no reply.

15 Lord, I wait for you;

you will answer, Lord my God.

16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat

or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

17 For I am about to fall,

and my pain is ever with me.

18 I confess my iniquity;

I am troubled by my sin.

19 Many have become my enemies without cause;

those who hate me without reason are numerous.

20 Those who repay my good with evil

lodge accusations against me,

though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;

do not be far from me, my God.

22 Come quickly to help me,

my Lord and my Savior.

When we read Psalm 32 we explored the experience of having been forgiven and set free. Psalm 38 takes us back into the same territory that Psalm 6 put us in, even beginning with the same words. Repentance is cyclical. Sometimes we buckle under the weight of our sins, sometimes we know fully the joy of being forgiven.

But this Psalm speaks more explicitly about how sin stands behind his calamity. The psalmist knows that his peculiar suffering is caused by his sin [Note: Suffering doesn’t always have sin as a direct cause, other psalms explore the suffering of the righteous].  He speaks of God’s wrath, his guilt, his sinful folly, his sin and iniquity. His sin has caused him to suffer and his health to falter.  He longs for forgiveness, healing and restoration but he experiences none.  And he feels isolated and alone. Even the good that he offers others is repaid harshly.

David (presumably the author of this Psalm) suffered for his sin.  He knew that God was right to be angry with him. He had disobeyed God’s law and misused his power when he took Bathsheba and had Uriah the Hittite killed in battle (more about this when we discuss Psalm 51).  He sinned when he trusted in his army instead of God. At times his anger burned hot and he acted rashly. When he was older he failed to address the sins of his sons Amnon (who raped his half sister Tamar) and Absalom (who avenged Tamar and forcibly wrested the Kingdom from David’s hands for a time).  I think he had difficulty confronting his sons because he was guilty of the same sins. A little leniency from David meant that he reaped the whirlwind and many whom he called friends and allies betrayed him.

We do not know the occasion of this Psalm (or even if   the superscription ‘of David’ means that he  wrote this psalm). But we’ve experienced this. Have you held on to Sin in your heart and seen it poison everything in your life? Have you been bitter against someone who betrayed you and abused your trust?  You were justified in your anger but when bitterness grew in you, you were the one who suffered.  All your relationships were poisoned and you felt isolated and alone.

How about lust? Are you tempted to treat others as objects to be used for your own satisfaction? Or greed? Are you constantly reaching for just a little more and find yourself consumed by your own consumption? Does your pride prevent you from turning to God or others for the help you desperately need?And the list can go on. I know it because I am sinner too and in my own way have suffered what the Psalmist describes.

But the Psalmist knows more than the weight of his sin. He knows that hope for forgiveness and restoration are found in God. He lays his soul bare and cries, ” Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior.” His own actions may have caused his suffering and isolation. His health deteriorated because of anxiety and guilt over what he had done. But he knows that he can do nothing to aleviate his condition. If there is freedom and life and hope, it will come when the God of salvation draws near.

May we also look to the Savior of our souls to free us from the sin that entangles us.  Teach us Lord to turn our hearts to you.

Confession is Good for the Soul: an Introduction to the Seven Penitential Psalms

During last year’s Lent, I had a series of posts on the Seven Deadly Sins. Those posts were  a way for me to examine my heart, repent and explore alternative practices. This year I will look at the Seven Penitential Psalms.  These psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 142) were designated the Penitential Psalms in the 7th Century (though four of them were known as such much earlier). because of how suitably they expressed repentance.  In the Middle Ages they were recited after Lauds (Morning Prayer) on Fridays through Lent and were used in Medieval confessions.

These psalms help us pay attention to the way sin feels in us. When I looked at the Seven Deadly Sins, I was exploring how habitual sin affects us.  These reflections are somewhat different. The Psalms name the reality of sin in our lives and express sorrow for it. They also talk about what sin does to our heart, our minds, our bodies and our soul. So I invite you to read these Psalms along with me and trust that through Christ Jesus the grace of God extends to our sin-sick-souls.

The Penitentials  are an invitation to be clean, to be whole, and fully restored. When I compose my reflections on each of these Psalms I will not ask you to do anything. Instead I want to hold out the mercy of God. The Psalms utter our longings for wholeness and freedom. They also instruct us in way of freedom.

But I want to be honest with you. Confession is good for the soul but it is also hard. It is much easier to ignore your sin, shrug it off as no big deal than to take a long hard look at the way Sin stains our best efforts. I am a sinner but a poor penitent.  Absolution comes to those who confess but first we have to take a hard look at ourselves.   I do not know where these reflections will take me (us?) but I hope we will have the courage to repent and turn our hearts to God. 

 

Getting a Head Start on Confession

Confession is Good for the Soul. One of my mentors used to say that and it’s true. Lent is just around the corner and Christians around the world will embark on a season of soul-searching, contrition and penance. But confession is good in season or out. So before the season begins in earnest let me get my ‘confession on’:

  1. I have three wonderful children. They can  also be obnoxious. My wife can take credit for their wonderfulness, but I’m to blame for their obnoxiousness. 
  2. I sometimes don’t try hard enough at things I do because I think I can just rely on my own innate gifting.
  3. I sometimes don’t try hard enough at things I do because I don’t think I can really do it.
  4. Yes I read as much as you think I do (more in fact) but it isn’t always healthy. It is a prolific and productive way of procrastinating. Sometimes I read a book when I should be doing something else.
  5. I enjoy my job a lot. I love the people I work with and I am good at it. But I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. The  longer I do it the more scared I am that I will.
  6. I have a black spandex running shirt with a hood. Sometimes when I’m running I put the hood on and pretend I’m one of the nihilists from The Big Lebowski. I start saying in a high-pitched bad German accent, “We don’t believe in anything” or “Where’s our money Lebowski?!?” I find this   way more entertaining than I should.
  7. I tell my kids to never trust grown men with good heads of hair because of their obvious poor character. While there is a grain of truth in this remark, I have no hard data to support it.
  8. I often make remarks about how soul-less and sub-par the Christian music industry is. However I often listen to it by choice.
  9.  I sometimes get teary at overly-sentimental happy endings to melodramatic movies. If you call me out on it I will deny it.
  10. I am really, really bad at small talk. I’m a big talker.

 

So here is my first stab at confession. What about you? Anything you want to get off your chest? Feel free to share, the internet is a safe place.

Why Evangelicals don’t do confession.

If you had the will or inclination to comb through the Christian blogosphere yesterday you would have seen many Lenten and Ash Wednesday reflections about Sin, Confession and our mortality. Many have observed, and to which I add my voice, that among current Evangelicals there is a discomfort with confession and penitence. I preached a sermon a couple of years back on Psalm 51 and observed that our discomfort with sin, is really discomfort with talking about our own sin and confessing it. My friend Axel tweeted yesterday, “Why does penitence seem so foreign to evangelicals now? It’s certainly in the Bible!” I tweeted back that evangelicals no longer read their bibles, a fact of which we are in sad agreement.

So if we can agree that confession of sin is something that is part of the biblical (and Christian) spiritual life, why don’t we do it?
I can think of several cultural factors which contribute to us getting honest with God and one another about our sin:

1. We’ve over-corrected our bad evangelism

    Years ago Evangelicals thought the way to get people see their need is to show people how bad they were (because otherwise why would they want a God?). There is a certain internal logic to this and people do come to Christ being brought by the Spirit under conviction of Sin. Unfortunately preachers and evangelists have seen fit to do the Spirit’s work and have employed every method they know how to make people feel guilty, sinful and rotten to the core. Evangelicals today look at some of these methods as manipulation, judgmental and they cringe and rightfully so. Unfortunately this has signaled a retreat in addressing personal sin, almost all together.

2. We live in a self-help, therapeutic culture.

    Most of us have not read I’m Okay, You’re Okay but we have imbibed its message (I think, I haven’t read it). Our culture is infatuated with helping people achieve their best, be their best, be comfortable in their own skin and follow their bliss. And the church follows. Do you want to write a Christian book that no one will read? Write about holiness or write about repentance. It won’t make the Christian best sellers list. What does? Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now and books of that ilk. Whatever the merits of books like that are (I don’t know I haven’t read them) they are written to appeal to our longing for self fulfillment but do not face our weaknesses.

3. The church has a leadership fetish.

    Everywhere you look there are books, conferences, speakers, personalities which tell us how to be effective and successful leaders. You can take tests which gage your strengths, your Emotional intelligence, your gifts, your leadership style. I have taken some of these tests and read a lot of leadership books and see their value, but they don’t tell the whole story. Tom Rath’s Strength Finder 2.0 urges you to play to your strengths and leadership and not spend all your time and energy developing your ‘weak areas.’ There is a certain logic to this, but when applied to our moral life and character it is deadly.

4. We live in a culture of tolerance .

    The motto of our current culture is: different strokes for different folks. Nobody wants to be seen as intolerant and judgmental of other people’s decisions (unless they infringe on us personally) so we have grown accustom to not addressing issues of sin in our culture. Is it any wonder that we do not recognize the sin of our own heart?

5. But this is who I am and it feels right

    Without starting a debate on my blog on hotly debated political and theological issues the assumption that activities that feel natural should always be enjoyed is flawed. We live in a culture where personal preferences and desires exert a tyrannical rule over our lives. We all want the freedom to pursue the things we enjoy, but a disordered desire always takes us down a tangled path. With the wider culture, evangelicals have lost the ability to name internal sin. We are still good at pointing out when someone has crossed the line, but we have grown lousy at naming the ways our own passions bring us to ruin.

Put together is it any wonder that evangelicals no longer give much thought to penitence? Certainly there are issues and emphases in the history of evangelicalism that we are wise to not repeat, but naming our own sins is not one of them. As you enter this season what are you doing to reign in the sin of your own heart?