Jean Alphonse Roehn: Watercolor (c 1850), France
Confession of our sins and its accompanied plea for Divine Forgiveness is a key part of almost any church service and a portion of most prayers -- whether praying corporately as a body or as individuals. Scripture is full of admonishments to confess our sins:
You will never succeed in life if you try to hide your sins. Confess them and give them up; then God will show mercy to you. (Proverbs 28:13); Then I confessed my sins to you; I did not conceal my wrongdoings ... (Ps. 32:5); But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. (1 John 1:9) Just a few of what may be hundreds of references.
In my church (Episcopal) the following Prayer of Confession is found throughout the services of The Book of Common Prayer:
Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor:
"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."
And then followed by:
"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."The above are the words of forgiveness when said by a deacon or lay person. When said by an ordained priest, there is a pronouncement of forgiveness and the us becomes you, the our is your and so forth.
Recognizing our sins and asking for forgiveness is part of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses (or debts, sins, ...) as we forgive those who trespass against us." The precursor to asking God's forgiveness is recognition and confession of our own sin. The general confession seems to hit all possible sins: Our sin against God and our sin against our neighbor. What we have done and what we have left undone. (That last one always seems a "gotcha" for me. About the time I think I'm doing fairly well, I'm hit with what I am not doing!)
The quoted prayer is an excellent corporate prayer of confession and plea for forgiveness. However, I emphasize the word corporate. The prayer is written for community. It is appropriate (and meaningful) in a communal setting. Together, as both the Body of Christ and as individuals in that Body, we confess we are sinners. Sinners who need and ask for forgiveness.
As complete and meaningful as these corporate prayers of confession are, I wonder whether such prayers are what they should be (or I need them to be) for my personal prayer of confession? When I am alone in prayer, is saying "I have sinned against God and my neighbor," quite sufficient? Is it enough to confess to "what (sin) I have done," and to "what I have left undone?" I surely will not presume to speak for God, but for me, these general confessions of my sinfulness seem inadequate.
In my last Reflection, I shared that even though I pray and believe in prayer, I have many questions, and even doubts, about prayer. Sometimes in prayer, I wonder whether I am really speaking to God or just to myself. This can seem especially the sense when I come to any confession portion of my prayer. Am I confessing to God ... or am I confessing to myself? (Perhaps the latter is a helpful thing; but, is it true confession?)
Theologian/Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in Life Together) recognizes the limitations of corporate confession used for our prayer's personal confession. "... [W]e must ask ourselves whether we often have not been just deluding ourselves about our confession to God — whether we have not instead been confessing our sins to ourselves and also forgiving ourselves. ... Self-forgiveness can never lead to the break with sin."
One recommendation Bonhoeffer makes to help us get to the heart of confession is something I have found that transforms my confessional prayer. He stresses the need for us to be concrete about our sins. Not simply the generic sin, but admitting concrete sins. He writes, "People usually justify themselves by making a general acknowledgment of sin. But I experience the complete forlornness and corruption of my human nature, insofar as I ever experience it at all, when I see my own specific sins." (again Life Together)
Bonhoeffer likens this to Jesus' question for the begging-for-healing Bartimaeus: "What do you want me to do for you?" (Luke 8:41) When I am confessing in prayer (in hope of forgiveness), I can imagine God asking, "Keith, just what is it you are asking forgiveness for?" It doesn't seem that a response like, "Well, for my sins," quite cuts it — at least if I am trying to bare my soul.
I think my personal confession needs to go beyond what I say in the corporate prayer. "Forgive me for what I have done," needs to become something more like, "Forgive me for the demeaning way I spoke with my colleague this morning about his not completing his part of our report on time." "Forgive me for losing my temper and cursing at last night's meeting." And in like manner, rather than "Forgive me for what I have left undone," I need to lay it all out there, "Forgive me, God, for 'passing by on the other side'. I saw Jane this morning and sensed she needed a smile and maybe a word of encouragement; not my acting as if I had never even seen her."
Bonhoeffer adds, "It is in confessing these particular sins that we receive forgiveness of all our sins — both known and unknown."
We experience that being specific in other areas of our lives, such as relationship conversations with a spouse or giving constructive criticism to a friend, provides a framework for improvement that generalizations rarely do. In like manner, being specific about sins gives one insight that can open doors to seriously dealing with sin. I know that this being-concrete in confession has made a big difference in my personal prayer life because it gives me tools to work with for growth that simply "forgive me for my sins" does not.
Bonhoeffer, however, takes this more-authentic confession stuff one step further. And for me at least, it seems a much more difficult step. He says we should confess our sins to and with another Christian. Obviously this other Christian has to be someone with whom we share a mutual trust; but, it makes confession totally real when we involve another.
"As long as I am by myself when I confess my sins, everything remains in the dark;" Bonhoeffer writes, "but when I come face to face with another Christian, the sin has to be brought to light. ... The acknowledgment of my sins to another believer frees me from the grip of self-deception." He also adds something I find a bit humorous, but probably very practical. Wouldn't it better for my sin to come to light today in confession to another Christian who is as sinful as I am, than to have it all come to light at the end when we stand before the Holy and Final Judge?
The Roman Catholic sacrament of confession (sometimes call the sacrament of reconciliation) may have at its core the benefits of confessing aloud to another. (Episcopalians, in The Book of Common Prayer, have their own version of this "Reconciliation of a Penitent". See Resources below.) Saying our specific sins aloud and to another can make it all as real as it gets. I would not be so presumptuous to say that I know what God accepts as a valid confession and one that leads to absolution. But, I do know that, when I at least confess in prayer my specific sins and omissions, I feel that I put myself in a mindset for my own dealing with and healing from sin.
Confession of sin and the assurance of forgiveness is a critical component of the Christian faith. I hope readers might find something in these paragraphs to bring more meaning and realness in both corporate and personal confession. If in you own prayer life you haven't gone beyond the generic "what I have done and what I have left undone," give being specific a try. Perhaps after what I have done, pause and actually say a few of the sins you're aware you've committed that day. (For some of us, that might lengthen our prayer significantly!) In like manner, thinking of your day or the day before, after saying and for what I have left undone, verbalize a few sins of omission. (If you already do that, maybe give confessing to another Christian at try.)
We are almost in the Season of Advent. In addition to it being a time of awaiting the celebration of the birth of Christ and his Second Coming, Advent is also a season of penance. In recognition of this, in many Christian faiths, the color of Advent is purple. Perhaps we can think about this special time of the year as a time to personally grow in a stronger penitential nature.
Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength withered as in dry summer heat.
Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide.
I said, "I confess my transgression to the LORD;
and you took away the guilt of my sin." (Psalm 32:3-5)