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.


40 Days of Grace: a book review

While I occasionally review devotional literature, I am not really a ‘devotional guy.’ This is especially true of the 40 day journey variety. Admittedly, I can lack the consistency and stick-to-itiveness to complete the ‘whole 40 days.’ I also have bad memories of being dragged through the 40 days of Purpose (twice).  My big issue is that I find devotional books somewhat shallow. I’d rather pick up the Bible, and maybe a good commentary and study something. So it was with a little bit of apprehension that I began Rich Miller’s 40 days of Grace. Except I did it in like 32. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just letting you know I did it all wrong.

Miller is the president of Freedom in Christ Ministries, USA, an organization founded by Neil Anderson (Miller has also  co-written several books with Anderson).  Miller is the sole author of these devotions; however the book is designed to be used in concert with The Grace Course, a DVD curriculum featuring Steve Goss and Rich Miller (although it can also be enjoyed separately).

Miller’s six week (5 weeks, and 5 day) journey explores the different facets of Grace. The first week is devoted to describing what grace is, how amazing it is, and how good and gracious God is for giving us a gift we do not deserve. The following weeks expand on how  God’s grace ministers to various parts of our soul. God’s grace in Christ deals decisively with our sin and guilt (week 2), our shame (week 3), our fears (week 4), and our pride (week 5). The final five days are devoted to exhorted us to live the “Grace-rest life.”

Miller writes these devotional reflections with wit, insight and good humor.  My initial impression of this book was that it was overly basic. But there are many ways where we can ‘get grace’ intellectually yet still fail to live it out. Miller’s Mission) is to get us to understand experientially what we have been given in Christ, and help us to flourish as a result. This is a good goal, and sometimes a ‘back to the basics’ approach is good for the soul.  However, I think that I would recommend this more for new Christians than seasoned saints.  That isn’t to say that this book didn’t also make me hunger for a deeper, richer experience of God’s grace in my own life.  I loved that Miller is not content to leave his description of grace as God’s gift of salvation from sin.  By tracing the way Grace sets captives free (from sin, guilt, shame, fear, pride), Miller points us to a more grace-full life.

This was better than my previous 40 Day journeys (even if I got done eight days early).  Of course Miller doesn’t say everything about grace (anymore than Rick Warren speaks comprehensively about the purposes of God). What he does say here, is generally biblical, thoughtful and personally enriching. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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.

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You (an examination of the sin of Vainglory)

Vanity Smurf The sin of Vainglory is the desire for inordinate glory. Despite this image of Vanity Smurf, Vainglory isn’t exactly the same as vanity. Vanity often implies an all-consuming narcissism; Vainglory longs for personal glory and the applause of others(hence: vain-glory). As Rebecca DeYoung puts it:

The vainglorious primarily desire attention, approval, and applause–preferably (but not necessarily) heard far and wide. The attention is necessary, and the approval is necessary, but they are both for the sake of generating the public acknowledgment–the applause.(Glittering Vices, 63-4)

Rather than Vanity Smurf (pictured above), an image of any number of smurfs could show Vainglory. Brainy Smurf’s incessant need to be the smartest of his peers; Hefty Smurf’s need to show off his incredible smurf strength; Smurfette’s enjoyment of her own feminine charms, style and appeal. Smurfs are a vainglorious bunch.

But we’d be wrong to assume that Vainglory has been properly quarantined in the Smurf village. It is rampant in our culture and in our own hearts. Everyday we see advertisements that promise that if we where their clothes, put on their makeup, drink their beer and drive their cars, we will be seen as having style, as beautiful, as having superb taste and swagger. We buy in, even though we can spot the lie, because we desperately want people’s praise.

Vainglory manifests itself in countless ways but the Christian tradition points to three biggies: hypocrisy, boastfulness and the lover of novelties (Glittering Vices,69-71). Hypocrites display an exterior image without the internal reality. They desire to appear holy without actually becoming holy. The boastful call attention to their best qualities so that others will take notice. The ‘lover of novelties’ names what we today might call ‘the early adopters.’ There are those who have the newest gadget, fashion, Apps, etc. because they want to be seen as a cutting-edge trendsetter.

Being a trend-setting hypocrite boaster myself I can see how I have been caught in the grips of Vainglory, but I’m not alone. Vainglory is sneaky and perverts even good acts of service. Roberta Bondi captures this well:

Vainglory is a particularly insidious passion in our modern era. It lies behind the notion that whatever your skills, it is essentially yourself you are selling to others. Women are trained to please as little girls, and many women suffer from it all their lives to such an extent that they are not aware of any needs of their own, except to be approved of or loved. It is a special passion for ministers and priests or teachers, and anyone else whose self-identity is bound up in the idea of service. It is deceptively easy to combine being liked with having done a good job. Vainglory is probably the root of a lot of burn-out as the desire for approval replaces the goals of the vocation; certainly an enormous amount of self-deception and hence blindness stem from Vainglory (To Love as God Loves, 75-6)

What do we do about our Vainglory

Vainglory, like Envy, comes from a place of insecurity and involves habits of wrong thinking which manifest itself in our actions. In order to overcome Vainglory we need an awareness of the ways this sin entangles are best efforts and re-train ourselves. DeYoung provides a list of practices(Glittering Vices,72-77) which I have adapted here:

    • Overcome (personal) boasting by boasting in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17-18). If the problem with boasting is that it is a strategy to bring yourself glory, the way to combat that is to redirect it towards the one worthy of all our praise. Acts of worship, testimony of God’s goodness, prayerful adoration are all counter-practices of vanity.
    • Overcome hypocrisy by being personally vulnerable with others. DeYoung observes that Vainglory would win us praise by showcasing our best self and hiding our flaws. When we strive for applause we hide ourselves, when we share ourselves and shed our false facades we give ourselves back to community.
    • Overcome the need for approval by cultivating an interior life in solitude. Solitude frees us from the need to perform, to feel approval and to gain acclaim. It is when we are alone and spend time with God. As with the sin of Envy, the way to overcome Vainglory is by knowing God’s love and acceptance of us, the real us.
    • Overcome our culture’s obsession with image by ‘fasting’ from media, Ads, TV, the internet.
    • Cut Vainglory out at the root and deal with your Pride.

An Alternative to Vainglory: Magnanimity

Ambitious people are loved by God and used by him for his Glory. To condemn Vainglory is not to condemn ambition, but only the self-centered variety. We were made to achieve great things and not merely build temples of our own ego.

Let us strive towards the great things of God, radiating his Truth, Beauty and Goodness in all that we do. May we bring Glory to his name and do great things in His service.

You Are Better than Me and That’s Why I Hate You: An examination of Envy

Envy Giotto Envy is the consuming desire to have everyone as unsuccessful as you are –Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, 24.

Envy is another one of the deadly sins that has a hold on my heart. As a parent I envy you for having better behaved and smarter kids (theoretically). As a runner I envy other runners’ speed, stamina, commitment and technique. I think I am a pretty outgoing, friendly guy whose smart, caring and funny. The problem is I keep meeting people who are more likable, more intelligent, more sensitive, and funnier. I think I can lead well but there are better leaders with better ideas and much more follow through. And when I see them it tears me up inside because they embody qualities I want but don’t have. So I hate them.

This is worse when you consider that I see my life calling as a minister of the gospel. I am ashamed of the fact that when I hear someone else preach better, pray better and have deeper insights than I have, I feel the sin of Envy tighten its grip on my heart. When I am at the bedside of someone who is sick trying to listen, love and care for this person and someone else comes and does something more touching and thoughtful than anything did, I feel I am a complete failure as a minister. Rather than appreciating the gifts and characteristics of other people, I see only what is lacking in my own gifts, talents and character.

If you’ve felt these sort of feelings too than you know how Envy can poison your soul, steal your joy and cause you to dwell unhealthily on your own failings.The sin of Envy desires what another has. It ‘targets the inner qualities of another person, qualities that give a person worth, honor, standing or status (DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 43).’ Envy causes us to recoil at another’s good qualities because it reveals our own lack of worth and status. We are incapable of rejoicing with them for their success because they have shown us up for what we truly are: failures.

Of course we aren’t threatened by everyone. We are comfortable putting some people on a pedestal because their rank, social standing and aptitudes far outstrip our own. Those people we can appreciate, but the people who are like us but just a little better are rivals we want to see fail.

Why We Are Envious

When we look at others we are bound to see virtues and goods that we do not have. Somewhere along the way we got in the habit of comparing ourselves and measuring our worth against them. We think that because someone is better than us in some respect, they are inherently more lovable than we are. At our core we doubt the Love of God for us and that manifests itself in bitterness towards people because God must love them more. We might know, intellectually, that God loves us but we doubt it when we look at our neighbor. We are Peter perpetually pissed off because Jesus keeps saying John is the one that he loves. We wish we were the successful and they weren’t. Then we would be the lovable ones. Gollum

How to not Envy

Altering unhelpful thought patterns is a hard habit to break. How do we not Envy our better looking, smarter, more talented neighbor? Fulton Sheen once said, “The only way to overcome envy is, like the thief on the right, to show pity. (Victory Over Vice, 23). With due respect to the late Monsignor, ‘pity’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Today we think of ‘pity’ as patronizing and condescending. What he meant was compassionate action towards our neighbor. What if when we feel the pangs of Envy toward our neighbor we disciplined ourselves to actively respond in love? When we feel Envy towards others for their character, status and talent we can choose to act in love and care. Envy is a great enemy of real love but a practiced love weakens its grip on our hearts.

But there is more. We also need to grow in our knowledge of God’s love. I find that it is as I grow in my confidence of God’s love that I am freed to love my neighbor without feeling threatened by them. To love as God loves I need to cultivate my awareness of the God who is love. This is done through prayer. Taking time to thank God for his goodness, to extol the blessings he bestows on you everyday sets you free from the comparison game. You see more of who you are in God’s eyes: beloved.

As you continue your journey through Lent, may you turn your heart towards the Lover of your Soul and be freed from the tyranny of Envy.

Seven Deadly Sins: Pracitices of Spiritual Deformation

Bosch Deadly Sins

You may regard this post as a teaser. I plan over the next couple of weeks to post reflections on each of the deadly sins, but I want to say something about what the deadly sins are and my approach to them. My hope is to probe each of the deadly sins as a means of taking inventory of my own soul(’tis the season to be penitent) but also to offer up some insights from the Christian tradition for those like me who struggle.

The Seven Sins were once eight but because of cutbacks Satan had to lay one of the sins off. Alright, maybe that isn’t exactly the story, but the Seven Deadly Sins did come out of a list of eight that one of the desert fathers, Evagrius of Ponticus(345-399 CE)formulated. These ‘eight thoughts’ were part of a demonic strategy to tempt the faithful (monks) away from their rule and their commitment to God. Evagrius’ buddy John Cassian (360-435 CE) built on Evagrius’ thinking but kept his list: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Sadness, Sloth(Acedia), Vainglory andPride. With Gregory the Great (530-604 CE) pride was separated out from the list and identified as a root sin of all the others. When Aquinas formulated his list these were the sins: Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. This is the list I will be interacting with the later list but I think that Evagrius, Cassian and the desert dudes still have important things to say.

Following Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s insightful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies(Brazos, 2009), I will be interacting with each of these sins as ‘vice’ rather than ‘Sin.’ What’s the difference? Sin is a term used broadly to refer to either a wrong action or a persisting condition. Vice is a more limited term referring specifically to practiced sin. Through a series of habitual acts the vice (i.e. Gluttony, Lust, Greed) (de)forms spiritual character. Think of it this way: if you overeat you have committed the ‘sin; of gluttony; if you are caught in the ‘vice of gluttony,’ you habitually overeat and thus are a glutton.

By thinking of each of these ‘deadly sins’ as a vice my aim will be to see where our habitual practices have spiritual mis-shaped us and then propose alternative practices which shape us in the virtuous life and our pursuit of God. I am excited by this series of posts, so please stay tuned. They will be Sinsational.

When I saw this book I thought of you (A book review)

Our Favorite Sins Okay sinners, here is a book for you. Todd D. Hunter, author, Anglican bishop, adjunct professor, and authority on sin has written a helpful book on dealing with the problem of temptation (or dealing with the problem of ‘not dealing with temptation).

What makes this book so good is Hunter eschews strategies for handling sin that don’t go to the root of the problem. He isn’t interested in simply helping you modify your behavior; rather he want you to do the hard inner-work of looking at where your desires are disordered and are causing you to be tempted in certain ways. He writes:

Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are….Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don’t know what to do about it (7)

Hunter is adamant that we can only be tempted when a desire that we already have inside matches something that comes to our attention. Thus temptation is not an outside problem; it’s a heart problem.

Using research from the Barna group, Hunter addresses the five chief areas where contemporary people are tempted: anxiety, procrastination, overeating, media addiction, and laziness. While he has some practical insights into each temptation, he primarily uses these issues as case studies to explore how various strategies do not really get at the core of our sin problem.

Hunter’s proposed plan for dealing with sin involves the recovery of ‘Ancient and Fruitful’ practices such as the abstaining disciplines of silence and solitude, retraining your desires to desire the Kingdom first, liturgical prayer & the daily office, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the Lectionary. He urges us to hold on to hope, carry a vision and make a plan to overcome temptation, but also to make use of the resources we have in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that overcoming temptation will require inner-work retraining disordered desires and cultivating a vision and hope for the Kingdom and a relationship with the triune God.

Each chapter closes with a prayer exercise taken from one of the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or the Celtic prayer book. I really appreciated these prayers (they also feature prominently in several chapters). This made this book more formational than merely informational for me. The book is an invitation into cultivating the sort of inner life which can stand up in the time of trial. There is a lot of wisdom in Hunters words. His reliance on prayer, sacraments and spiritual practices point the way to victory from the sin that so easily entangles us.

One question I would have is what role does the community have in helping us pursue holiness? It is true that some of the practices he commends are communal (liturgical prayer, the sacraments, etc.) but the theme of mutual accountability is underdeveloped. Maybe he’s right that wrestling with sin is personal inner work but I also crave the intercession of the saints, particularly those who know me as I am (not just a general confession). I also have experienced hearing the words of absolution from those who knew my tangled heart in all its tawdry details and it broke the power of my shame. It seems like an important dimension of this.

The appendix of the book includes Barna’s survey which provides the statistic data used by Hunter in the chapters. Frankly I am not sure that the Barna study adds a whole lot. Hunter makes use of the statistical data, but on one level he’s rather ambivalent to it. He hones on the five particular areas of temptation that most of the respondents struggled with but he is clear that even if these are not your areas of struggle, the remedy of inner work, spiritual disciplines, prayer, sacraments and the larger story of redemption provides you the way to freedom.

These small caveats aside I highly recommend this book for you if you are self aware enough to know your struggle with sin and temptation. Otherwise I’m sure you know someone particularly sinful whom you could probably gift this book too. Give it to them and say, “When I saw this book, I thought of you.”

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book. I was asked to give a fair and honest review, and that is what you just read.