When I was little, we used to pray every night before bedtime in the same formula: “Thank you; sorry; please.” We had no problem with the last one, but we struggled to find things each day to thank God for, and while we had no difficulty finding things we had done wrong, we were still somewhat reluctant to voice them. (It was hard to be the first to say, “I’m sorry I hit my sister” without adding, “but then she BIT me!”) Prayer times were often protracted affairs. I looked forward to the time I would be an adult and didn’t do any bad things anymore.
I went to an Anglican Church growing up, so I had the discipline of praying a prayer of confession every week. Partly to ease the boredom of liturgy, I tried to personalise it, so that I would remember all the individual things I had done and make sure I had said sorry for them before I took communion.
This is what I remember about confession as a child: it was a little boring, and a little tiring, and a little discouraging.
Somehow over the last twenty years, I have lost the discipline of confessing my sins. (Lost is perhaps the wrong word: it suggests an accidental component, whereas I actually dropped it – threw it with gusto – as soon as I could.) When I was at university I was growing into myself, but still a little unsure of who I was, and I was so tired of being discouraged and having my failings always before me. I needed to be know that I was also sinned against, as well as sinning. I needed to know that I was also good, valuable, made in the image of God.
I was drawn more to theology that talked of sin only in general terms, not in the specific ‘today I sinned in these ways’, and I bathed in doctrines of grace and freedom. I breathed a little more easily, and saw my gifts rather than my failings.
It was good for me to do that. I see many others who are shrivelled and shrunken by the exhaustion of seeing only their failings and inadequacies, and sometimes I think that Satan’s voice of condemnation can drown what is meant to be a healthy spiritual practice. The Christian life is like sailing – we tack from side to side, and try to keep on course. The balance looks different for everyone.
All of this is to say that for the last month, thanks to my new liturgical devotional material, I have had a reading every day from the Bible about how sinful I am and how I need forgiveness. Lent is supposed to be a time of fasting, and self-examination, and an awareness of sin. I have been out of the habit so long that I have had to overcome my feelings of offence: “Sinful? How rude! And you said the same thing to me yesterday, Mr Bible Passage. Can we not dwell on my more pleasing attributes?”
I am sinful. It is surprising how quickly I forget this. I suspect this is partly because I am housebound, and while there are many disadvantages, the one advantage is that I tend to see only people I like. We are all good and happy. It’s only when I have to deal with obstructive NHS staff that I recall that I am not as serene as I like to think of myself.
I am sinful. I am toying with the idea of trying to restore the discipline of confession. Last year, I started the discipline of thanksgiving, and every day I tried to think of three things I was thankful for. I would tweet them: #3goodthings. People have said how encouraged they are to hear the things I’m thankful for, which in turn encourages me to do it more, and many of my friends have now taken up the habit too.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that confession would be quite so popular – “1. yelled at my husband before 8am. 2. hated twenty different people on Twitter for being rude. 3. didn’t read the Bible because I couldn’t be bothered #3badthings”. I don’t think it would catch on, somehow.
Monks call it the prayer of ‘Examen’, the discipline of looking back over at your day, and seeing what you are thankful for and reflecting on what you would want to do differently. It’s perhaps a little gentler than my childhood naming of things I had done wrong, but I still feel a resistance to it.
As a child, I found confession boring, and tiring, and discouraging – and as an adult, I still do, and I kick against it. Maybe some things don’t change.
We are almost at the end of Lent, and I haven’t really incorporated any great new spiritual discipline. I have had five weeks of being told I am sinful, and kicking against it. But I know this much: this year I am hungry for Good Friday and Easter, and on the day that I remember Christ died so I could have the weight of sin taken from me, I shall be glad.
Lord, Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Over to you: