Confessions About Confession, Part Two

Timothy Sheridan

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" (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 consequently only fetishized 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 the self-flagellation of carving out the ways I had offended my God and my neighbor. 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 Cor. 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, bequeathed to posterity in the Church's liturgy by the most desperate and deplorable of her ranks. 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!" (Matt. 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" (Rom. 10:13). But how do we know that same forgiveness belongs to us?

Did you miss Part One of Confessions about Confession? You can read it here.

You can read Part 3 here.

Created: May 27th, 2015