I think of a politician’s worst nightmare, where he or she stands behind a podium with the constant click of camera lenses and the silence of reporters waiting. Then comes the forced admission of indiscretion, addiction, infidelity, or whatever failure has become public and shipwrecked their career. Even in this confession, the person making the admission is a moving target, evading the full weight of their failure the powerlessness and vulnerability that comes when every card has been laid down. I also imagine a trashy talk or reality show where “guests” and “contestants” vomit their indiscretions, relishing this opportunity to “tell the truth” and let everyone know what is real, without a single regret. Rather than evasion there is confrontation. “You are just as bad as me.” “Your misery is deserved.” And the emotions overflow. In both of these the atmosphere is charged with shame, condemnation, even mockery – regardless of whether those up front are touched by it.
These two distorted images of confession are well known and provide telling contrast with Christian confession. Each week in our worship services we have a time of confession, which is described “Rather than shifting the blame or groveling in guilt we openly acknowledge our addiction to self and the ruin it has caused as we look to God’s grace in Jesus.” This confession takes the form of hearing who God is and who we are meant to be then praying, both individually and in unison. What does it mean to lead people in prayers, confessing their sin? Here are seven thoughts – some of which stand in tension with each other. These are are based on three scriptures:Daniel 9, Psalm 51, Psalm 32
1. Leading in public: Public confession is not the same as praying prayers of private confession. In Psalm 51 the prescript makes clear that this confession follows David’s adultery with Bathsheba, yet the prayer itself does not contain any reference to this specific failure. This prayer has been used countless times because it is tied to a real situation but recast for public use.
2. Common stain: Everyone who leads public confession is themselves guilty. The leader is not the reporter listening to the broken politician or the talk show host mediating between feuding guests. The language of us and our will predominate, and God is the only one who stands innocent.
3. It is owed: While confession certainly benefits us (“when I kept silent my bones dried up” “let me hear joy and gladness”), it is first owed to God as our maker, holy judge (“against you only have I sinned”), and redeemer. Our confession, like our thanksgiving and adoration, is centered upon God himself.
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame…
4. Hope: Each of these prayers comes with the expectation that God will forgive and restore. They appeal to God’s character, his promises, and his faithfulness in the past. In Christ this is true all the more. Our prayers of confession are not based on our future reformation, but clearly teach that God’s forgiveness will not let us remain as we are.
5. Specificity: All three of these passages use a breadth of descriptive language to communicate the ways that we have turned against God (deceit, stubbornness, transgression, rebellion, defilement, pollution etc.). These reflect a rich understanding of sin describing it as legal matter, a betrayal of relationship, and self-destruction. In biblical confession is a clear acknowledgment of responsibility without a hint of downplaying the significance of the action or of shifting the blame to someone else. There is a similar specificity in acknowledging all that God will do to forgive and restore his people.
6.Emotion: Along with an accurate acknowledgment of sin against God there is heartfelt emotion which conveys the horror of sin, it’s polluting effects and helps those praying along with these passages to feel the appropriate disgust and shame. The verses below express great hope of what God will do in response to confession but think of what is implied about the horrors of sin:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. – currently I am defiled and cannot cleanse myself
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me. -the spirit within me is wrong
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me. -I in no way deserve to be in your presence
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked, -in your sin you are like a stupid animal
In the midst of these rather devastating descriptions of sin there is no wallowing or self-pity. Mournful reflection and joyful expectation are woven together in emotionally forceful language.
7. Our Sins: In Daniel 9, the righteous servant of God confesses sins of his people, of which he himself is innocent. Thus there is precedent not only for confessing the sins people in our church commit, but the sins of those to whom we belong. In my case this would mean confessing the racism that is a dark stain in the history American Presbyterianism. As a resident of Massachusetts, I could confess our greed and self-interest as we have one of the highest per-capita incomes and ones of the lowest rates of charitable giving. As an American I can confess our country’s increasing tendency to incarcerate the mentally ill (an example).