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A post by Andrew Stephens-Rennie over at Empire Remixed has got me thinking about confession.  My sense is that confession is seen as something of a dirty word in our culture, conjuring up all kinds of unpleasant images of nosy priests and slavish religious rituals meant to assuage unnecessary guilt.  Confession isn’t a popular concept in a self-obsessed culture suspicious of religious power and those who wield it and where we seem to almost instinctively think of ourselves as victims of the myriad forces that act upon us rather than active and willful contributors to the brokenness of our world.

But the truth is that very few of us are nothing but victims.  All of us do wrong.  Some of us do more wrong than others and some of our wrongs have more harmful and long-lasting consequences than others.  Sometimes we do wrong unknowingly and unintentionally, other times the wrong we do is the result of long and wearisome habit.  Sometimes we are actively malevolent, sometimes simply apathetic and careless.  We have done wrong, we are doing wrong, and we will continue to do wrong. There are probably as many different ways of doing wrong as there are wrongdoers!

And all of us need to confess our sins.  I won’t presume to speak for other churches, but I can say that corporate confession is not something that we do very often at our Sunday morning gatherings.  This isn’t to say that confession isn’t a part of inter-personal relationships in our community or that prayer isn’t an important part of what we do in our corporate gatherings, but our public prayer tends to steer clear of confession.

In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says that the two most honest prayers she has ever prayed are:

  1. Help me, help me, help, me, help me!
  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!

You could certainly do worse than this.  And reflecting on how I and others have lead our church in corporate prayer, it occurs to me that we have done pretty well with these two.  We regularly petition God often on behalf of our community, our city, our nation, and our world.  We regularly thank God for the gift of salvation, for material blessings, for opportunities to serve, etc.  We’re pretty good at asking for help and saying thank you.

But perhaps we need to add a third prayer to Lamott’s two: Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!  Or, forgive us!  Because we need forgiveness, both as individuals and as churches.

For many of us, confession is a language that has to be learned (or relearned) gradually.  But all of us can start somewhere.  One place might be the prayer of confession from the liturgy of the Anglican church cited by Stephens-Rennie in the post above:

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 neighbours 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.


We can also start more simply.  Recently, I have noticed that a friend of mine has begun to add a short line to conclude his prayers around meal times and other occasions: “… and forgive our sins, for Jesus’ sake, amen.”

Confession.  For Jesus’ sake indeed.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. andrew #

    I really like your friend’s approach to mealtime prayers – to acknowledge in the midst of thankfulness for God’s rich blessings that we have, in fact, fallen short of God’s glory. It’s a simple, yet poignant reminder of something we often forget. Thanks for your thoughts, Ryan!

    December 15, 2010
    • I think the power of the prayer is in its simplicity and its location in the routines of our everyday lives. Confession comes as a kind of a surprise, at first, because we’re not used to seeing it in these ordinary contexts. It is, as you say, a poignant reminder.

      December 15, 2010
    • EDH #

      I agree. And perhaps, it isn’t totally random to pray that at a meal, but also important seeing that all blessings come through the cross. 😀

      December 16, 2010
  2. Darlene Klassen #

    Yes. I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”, and his last chapter brings provocative thoughts to the community practice of confession. “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and fromthe fellowship.” Now the “how” of the matter is another significant question…

    December 15, 2010
    • Thanks for this Darlene. Life Together is fantastic book. I remember finishing it and simultaneously being awed/impressed by his vision of what the church should be and overwhelmed at the thought of if/how that could ever happen. The quote you cite is a good example of this. How interesting (and challenging!) to think that part of the remedy for the isolation and loneliness that is so prominent in (post)modern life is our willingness to “fellowship as the undevout.”

      December 15, 2010
  3. EDH #

    Confession… definitely a common place in Lutheran churches. By the way, that prayer is what we pray, almost word for word. Cool.

    Another common prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”

    I get a lot of mileage out of that one. It’s applicable regarding physical ailments, like blindness, epilepsy, Matthew 20:31; but it also pertains to personal sin and justification, Luke 18:13. In effect, it identifies us as beggars before God, and we find that we are no different than the beggars in the streets in Jesus’ time. We join with them with the echo of a pure heart, not from self righteousness or self justification, but from a broken and contrite spirit. But its also a good prayer because you can also pray “Lord have mercy” for your neighbour. And it seems to contain the most basic of creeds: Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, fully God; Jesus, also fully man, born of Mary; Christ, because he is our Savior. It isn’t just a confession of ourselves, but also a confession of who Christ is. Simple, pregnant with meaning.

    BTW, what do you think of absolution in regard to confession?

    December 16, 2010
    • Yes, the Jesus Prayer certainly covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it? I, too, get a lot of mileage out of that one.

      Re: absolution, having grown up in Mennonite circles and remained there for most of my life, I have virtually no experience with formal absolution. On one level, I would probably have theological issues with the idea of “the priest” being the one who pronounces absolution; on the other hand, I know that there is liberation and freedom that comes when, after confessing our sins to one another, we hear words of forgiveness and release. I think these words can come from anyone in the community (big believer in the whole “priesthood of all believers” thing :)) and are grounded in the promises of Scripture as opposed to being located in the office of priest/pastor, etc.

      December 16, 2010
  4. EDH #

    Cool. I think that in personal matters, there is a time and place for consolation, and absolution between laymen as well. But I’m not sure if I would draw a line between the promises of scripture and the priesthood of believers and/or the office of a Pastor. But I would see the public ministry as a continuation of the apostolic ministry in so far as being ambassadors of Christ, stewards of the mystery of Christ, permitted to speak on his behalf. After all, the earliest Christian didn’t have the promises of scripture to the extent that we do in the gospels and epistles etc..

    December 16, 2010
    • Maybe it’s in the Menno DNA… 🙂 We have historically been suspicious of religious offices—I don’t think the rural church of my childhood even had a paid pastor until the 1960’s, both for pragmatic and theological reasons (Mat. 23:1-12 has sort of been paradigmatic in some Mennonite understandings of church leadership).

      On an empirical level, I just think that too many pastors and priests have behaved too badly for too long for me to locate the office itself with inherent significance or to trace a straight spiritual line to the apostles. As in many other areas of life, I think the right to exercise spiritual authority is earned and demonstrated over time; it doesn’t automatically arrive with a collar or a degree of some kind (I’m not suggesting that you have said this, just thinking out loud, mostly…).

      Having said all this, I am certainly not against the practice of priests hearing the honest confessions of their parishioners or in their pronouncing absolution in the name of Christ. I think like any other religious practice, it can become corrupt and/or meaningless, but at its best there is much that is good in it as well.

      December 16, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Formal confession, the sacrament of reconciliation, real and contrite, is one of the hardest things for me to do. I don’t want to do it. I want to believe that a private confession, just me and the Lord is enough. I will tell Him in detail but just alone, me and Him. I want to believe that a corporate “Confeitior”, we as a community, speaking in vague generalities is enough of a public proclamation. I want to believe that both those things alone stand as a worthy confession. But in that place where I think I really hear the voice of God speaking to me, I truly hear Him ask me for, and as always, offer me more.

    I hear Him ask me to believe that the sinner priest is, in the moment of my confession, “in persona Christi” Christ himself. I hear Him say that being absolutely honest about my understanding of my sin, through another person to Him, offers me the grace of true humility in a way that no other experience can. I hear Him say that the absolution given me, if I’ve done my best to be true, is full and complete.

    Being free to begin again, staying exactly where you are but starting over..I can’t imagine that being possible without the sacrament of reconciliation. Praise God.

    December 16, 2010
    • James #

      You might be interested to know, Paul, that I have just spent a season with Dante and Aquinas and have a whole new appreciation for medieval Catholicism. In fact I am also “almost persuaded” to call myself a Thomist 🙂

      December 17, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        Be careful, James! Reformations start over such things 🙂

        I hope you and your family have a very blessed Christmas.

        December 19, 2010
  6. Ken #

    In a book I found this week in a used bookstore, The Living Psalms, Claus Westermann discusses the history of the psalms and of prayer. He says that lament and praise are older than petition and thanksgiving. Psalms are mostly lament and praise. Before there were psalms, there we only brief exclamations of lament and praise. Petition and thanksgiving came later, after psalms, with prose prayers. He notes that lament and praise originate in events in the world, and their subject is God, but that petition and thanksgiving originate in human action and their subject is ourselves. I am reading the Psalms again now, with his book as a companion to understand more about what he is saying. So far, I see his point.

    I think confession is a petition. We can see some instances of confession in the Psalms, but (if Westermann is right) they came late to the Psalms, after petition and thanksgiving arrived via prose prayer. Lament and praise appear to go back beyond recorded history and literature. They are old, older it seems than Sumeria and Mesopotamia.

    It is in those rare moments when lament or praise comes to my mind or lips spontaneously, like it did to the ancients, that I catch myself believing in God. If not for those moments, I think I could not say I have any faith at all. And it is only in or after those moments that I experience any genuine concern for my need for forgiveness, and any genuine feeling of thanksgiving. They come to me mostly when I am in wilderness.

    December 17, 2010
    • Sounds like an interesting book, Ken. Not having read it, it’s not immediately apparent to me what is gained by making a qualitative or chronological distinction between lament/praise and petition/thanksgiving. Does he argue that lament/praise are somehow more “authentic” or “legitimate” by virtue of their more ancient history? I’m no expert on the Psalms, but all four of the types you mention seem to be important parts of human experience, and all four seem to depend on a mixture of events in the world and personal circumstances/agency.

      I’m glad for the moments you have in the wilderness. I often take heart in the fact that God’s goodness is not dependent upon the amount or the quality of our faith. A mustard seed, it seems, is sometimes enough.

      December 17, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “Does he argue that lament/praise are somehow more “authentic” or “legitimate” by virtue of their more ancient history?”

        No. I think he only meant to explain what we are hearing in the psalms. I think of it only as a kind of literary analysis.

        December 17, 2010
  7. Andrea #

    I’m convinced that confession is a key element to Christian Worship. Part of telling the big story in each gathering. It doesn’t always have to be long and drawn out, but it allows people who are wondering if they’re ‘good enough’ to participate in the service to breathe that sigh of relief that they are gathering with other sinners. And if, for some reason, we’ve entered the service with an air of self-righteousness, it brings us back to the reality of our broken lives and broken world.

    December 22, 2010
    • Well said, Andrea. I think you are absolutely right—whoever we are and whatever we’ve done and however we’ve come to worship, confession locates us properly before a righteous God. It tells the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

      December 22, 2010

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