A Confession About Confession

Timothy Sheridan

I've always had a problem with confession. Night after night, staring up at the dark ceiling from my bed, I took upon myself the exhausting work of trying to enumerate the sins I'd committed over the past day and then attempted to conjure up sufficient sorrow for what I'd done. Assuming that I reached the point at which I had recalled as many wrongdoings from the past 12, 13, or 14 hours, I would then try to feel the forgiveness that supposedly belonged to me. But the ceiling always stared back at me, indifferent. Was this torturous exercise-an effort most often half-hearted on my part-really what it meant to find rest in Jesus? I coveted physical and spiritual rest, but the yoke felt anything but easy and light. Many nights, I would forego at least some of this agony by falling asleep mid-prayer, giving me one more misstep to confess the following morning or night. As I lingered on the edge of sleep, I felt the old twinge of guilt (more acute some times than at others), because I knew my nocturnal liturgy was really just me hedging my bets. This was not what it meant to receive God's free gift of forgiveness.

When I became a Lutheran, it was hard to resist the temptation to crack an eyelid when my pastor spoke the words of Absolution. It was a marvelous: objective, full, and free forgiveness of all my sins, accomplished by Christ and applied to me by His own Word. I half-expected to see some ray of glory emanating from the pastor's hand as he traced the sign of my forgiveness in the air before him and us. I knew all the proof texts given in the Small Catechism concerning Confession and the Office of the Keys, but the horribly familiar gnawing was never far from me, even as I knelt in the pew.

Even though I would sometimes feel as though the Confession and Absolution combination was just as transactional as my desperate nighttime prayers, I was struck by the marked differences between how the liturgy taught me how to confess my sins and how I had always confessed in private. First, it isn't really just my confession. The Divine Service doesn't allow for anything like an altar call during which members of the congregation would "do business with God," confessing the particular sins that ensnared them. Instead, everyone speaks the same words of confession without giving pause to verbalize the specifics. A general form of confession without any sweat, tears, or brooding introspection. At first, this practice seemed rote, insincere, effortless. But the effortless nature of Confession and Absolution is exactly the point. For us, our salvation is just that: We don't have to work; we do not climb the ladder of piety to gain the approval of God. Kneeling there every Sunday-hearing that I was forgiven simply because Christ, through His called and ordained servant, said so-was the beginning of my consolation.

But I still wanted to know how to better confess my sins daily, outside Divine Service. Article XI of the Augsburg Confession offered peace of mind: "[I]n confession it is not necessary to enumerate all trespasses and sins, for this is impossible. Ps. 19:12, 'Who can discern his errors?'" (AC XI 2, Tappert p. 34). Trying to discern my errors was a huge part of my problem. Those nights when the ceiling would begin to swim with oncoming sleep, I would hurriedly pray something like, "Forgive me all my sins. Amen." It's not the same principle as corporate Confession. My mumbled prayer was just me covering my bases in a different way, but I wasn't sure how.

Reflecting on Luther's explanation of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and being absolved every Sunday gave me perspective that I had never before had on the issue of confession. My personal practice consisted of naming the violations I had committed against God's Law, but I never used the Law itself to reflect on my sins. My harsh words to a friend meant that I had committed murder in my heart, my lusting entailed that I had committed adultery, so the commandments weren't completely neglected. But my way of confessing led me to believe that I was only guilty of certain sins and not others. I knew the Epistle of James says that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10). In my mind, I really only transgressed the Law on a handful of discrete points. The evangelical subculture in which I was raised only stigmatized certain sins and applauded certain virtues. I'd been conditioned to know I was accountable for all the Law, but only because I hadn't kept it perfectly on a couple of points. Some sins didn't need forgiving because I hadn't committed them.

But then I began to pray the Ten Commandments daily. I saw my tortured way of confession for what it really was: a feeble attempt at self-justification. So I stopped beating myself up. There was no need: all my sins were right there, numbered one to ten, staring up at me from the Catechism, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy. Confession and Absolution taught me just what the Law incessantly declares: don't argue your sinfulness. Confess it. The Decalogue will show you, as it showed me, that sinners break every single commandment God gave to the children of Israel. All the time. There are no exceptions. A person's pet sins are only those that he or she commits happily and knowingly. Just because you aren't aware of the times you offend God's eternal will doesn't mean you're thereby acquitted (I Corinthians 4:4). When the commandments showed me that I was guilty of breaking every letter of the Law, I began to repent by verbalizing each commandment and praying to the Lord for mercy.

For this reason, I love the Kyrie Eleison. It is the prayer of every sinner, like the Canaanite woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon beseeches Jesus, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David" (Matt. 15:22). When Jesus seems to brush off her petition, she simply pleads, "Lord, help me" (v. 25). On another occasion, another parent among the crowd pleads for the Lord to cast out an evil spirit from his son. His petition is also spoken in the spirit of the Kyrie: "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) Two blind men on Jericho's outskirts would not be silenced by the masses who think Jesus' time is better spent on other things, but twice called after Jesus, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" (Matthew 15:31) In Jesus' own parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the latter knows that he brings only his sinfulness before God when he prays, downcast and dejected, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner" (Luke 18:13). Predating all of these are the words of the penitent King David, whose groanings, part of which have become the verse the Church sings as she moves from the service of the Word to the service of the Eucharist, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions" (Psalm 51:1).

We know the stories. The sinners receive the Lord's mercy, just as He promised. Jesus forgives them and heals them of all infirmities, spiritual and physical. Despite His comments to the Canaanite woman or His innocent question of the blind men, "What do you want me to do for you?" He doesn't fool us. "Well, of course Jesus forgave them," we say. It's as the Scripture promises, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).

The rub is believing that Jesus gives the same forgiveness to us, here and now. But we are forgiven and made whole because of Jesus' own petition for us to His Father, when as He hung, mutilated and disgraced upon the cross, He prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Do we dare to think that God does not hear the prayer of His own Son, or that same prayer when we pray in His name, the name He put on us in Baptism?

We know the end of those stories, when the demons flee, vision is restored, and the chains of sin are broken. We're in good company then when He extends the same promise to us. Our forgiveness is just as much a done deal as the ones in the passages we read in personal devotion and hear read in worship year after year, as done and finished as the agony and victory of Calvary (John 19:30) and just as final as His resurrection from the dead on Easter morning. We've been crucified and drowned with the One whose greatest delight is to be merciful to us who are just as desperate, depraved, and doubting as the sinners of old. We're fed by with the very Body and Blood by the very hands that touched sinners and were stretched out on the beam of the cross.

The story of our salvation is just as certain as those other stories because it's all Christ's story. God's love for us in Christ Jesus is just as certain and unshakable as it was for David, the publican, Bartimaeus, and all the other legions of sinner-saints who have gone before us. Jesus answers our doubt-ridden petitions with mercy, not as if He were some tyrant who demands to see us grovel, but as One radiant and joyful, living in the power of His resurrection, who laughs, "But of course I forgive you! That's what I promised, didn't I?" If Jesus has taken care of their sin and accepts their confession by His pure grace, then He won't have any qualms with yours. Or mine.

Timothy Sheridan is a member of Our Savior Lutheran in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Created: August 17th, 2015