Have mercy on me, a sinner

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:

  • What do you think about the discipline of confession? Do you find it helpful or condemnatory?
  • Do you mark Lent as a time of fasting or self-examination? What do you find helpful?

    , , ,

    17 Responses to Have mercy on me, a sinner

    1. Constance Ann Morrison 21st April, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

      As our women’s prayer group gathered Sunday, they began to share what God had been teaching them that week. The theme was “sin.” They didn’t know that I had already planned to share this post. Obviously “Have mercy on me, a sinner” fit in perfectly with the discussion. Thanks, Tanya!

      • Tanya 24th April, 2014 at 9:01 am #

        I’m so glad to hear this! That’s brilliant! Thanks for letting me know.

    2. Dawn 11th April, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      I loved your #3badthings and found it refreshingly honest. I’ve been wondering about deliberately posting (EVEN more) unflattering photos of myself on facebook and trying to have a more balanced realism in my posts (I don’t fake-post and I don’t try to make things shiny, but my posts don’t truly reflect my life in any way). Could/should facebook be a medium that is more honest and less like the youtube video on loneliness and social media (hopefully linked below). Can we connect and be honest on social media (or just in blogs?)?

    3. Dawn 11th April, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

      I loved your #3badthings and found it refreshingly honest. I’ve been wondering about deliberately posting (EVEN more) unflattering photos of myself on facebook and trying to have a more balanced realism in my posts (I don’t fake-post and I don’t try to make things shiny, but my posts don’t truly reflect my life in any way). Could/should facebook be a medium that is more honest and less like this: http://youtu.be/c6Bkr_udado. Can we connect and be honest on social media (or just in blogs?)?

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

        I saw your link! I watched it! It’s really good, particularly the thought about praising the value of the ‘individual’ over the ‘communal’. I was thinking that recently with regards to Christmas newsletters – in middle class circles there’s such an emphasis on ‘I achieved this personal goal this year’. Every now and again I want to ask, ‘who’s changing the world? Who’s helping others?’ (But I also don’t want to ask it, because it’s a hard question to ask of myself and my family. Personal goals are much easier).

        And I have SO many thoughts on Facebook and the problems of honesty and integrity. I think that people tend to share the positive things, partly because it’s easier to, and partly because if you share ‘negative emotions’ then you tend to get de-friended. It’s hard to deal with other people’s mess and problems when you’re scrolling through hundreds of friends’ news all at once. Maybe we need to invent a new kind of social media? A ‘this is a smaller group for the messy bits of life’ type…?

        Thanks so much for this comment – it was really thought-provoking.

    4. Alice 10th April, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

      I really like the idea of thinking about what you would do differently … although on my worst days I would beat myself up and think I would do EVERYTHING differently instead of being grateful for what I managed to do.

      I really did think that when I hit 25 I would have stopped lying and hating and all that! What a fool! Let’s hope our kids see that our grown-upness doesn’t equal perfection! (I’m sure my kids realise this in SPADES!)

      Love you for sharing this. Thank you. xx

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

        Thanks so much for stopping by, lovely friend. I’m so excited you also thought you’d be sin-free by the age of 25! And I’m glad you like the idea about what you would do differently. (I reckon on the worst days it’s best just to have a glass of wine, go to sleep, and then answer that question in the morning! Otherwise you’d just never get to sleep…) Much love to you. xx

      • Jessica Sideways 1st May, 2014 at 7:33 am #

        This comment was offensive and has been deleted.

    5. Liz Eph 10th April, 2014 at 4:21 am #

      thank you tanya for this great post. i’ve moved into a new phase of thinking about sin. not that i disagree with how i saw it before, it’s just i didn’t see big enough.

      i went through a very difficult time a few years ago where i was praying about having to take action in a relationship where someone close was being particularly unkind to me. as i started to pray about it what came home more and more was my own sinfulness and my own need of God. it took a whole year of this before i could deal with the thing, but when the time came everything lined up so that it all went remarkably smoothly and peacefully even tho it was terribly sad. the big thing was me being utterly secure in God. the thing is you see is that in that extended period of repentance, what came up more and more was not my “naughtiness” but the whole much much bigger thing of “falling short of the glory of God”. i was more and more thinking not so much about individual sins, as it becoming a craving for more of God’s beautiful purity. a combination of seeing holiness not as things i don’t do, just making myself sterile – hospitals are sterile, and that’s good, they’re not contaminated. but that’s not enough.

      to ache for the holiness like where is says your sins were as scarlet but they shall be white as snow – that sound of perfect stillness and the extra brightness before you even open the curtains, and then there it is, the fresh, clean, sparkling beauty of the new snow that makes even my tired old adult heart skip a beat and my eyes twinkle.

      holiness is a something, not a nothing.

      for all have sinned and fallen short. i looked up the word sin. the old english word synn is apparently the translation for a word used in archery meaning when the arrow doesn’t even get as far as the target. i can imagine being lined up to take my turn at a local competition, and it’s my turn to make the bow sing and send the arrow winging and hear it thud into the target. my sweaty fingers slip slightly and instead of pinging, the bowstring does a kind of thwup and the arrow gets into the air but then plops pathetically on the grass in front of the target. i want to die on the inside. everyone laughs or boos. the judges signal a synn.

      the word would have been just as common in Elizabethan times when it was put into english as it was in Jesus’ day. just as common as football or cricket terms now. perhaps we should change it to “own goal” “off side”, a failed free kick that instead of thudding off the boot, swooping through the air to hurtle past the goalie’s fingertips and slam into the net, no the foot clips the ball, it dribbles forward and doesn’t even get past the wall. or “lbw”, or the ball slipping off the willow and with a limp, anemic curve drops sweetly into the wicket keepers waiting hands, or a slip or a gully.

      the net result is to feel like kicking myself for not being more alert to my own weaknesses, not being up to my strengths, not being more aware of Jesus, much much more aware of Jesus. “the evil we have done and the good we have left undone”. the good we have left undone. that’s the thing. that’s the biggie. that’s the key. not to make us feel guilty, but to drive us to spending days on end in the nets working at getting it right, with a positive aim in mind, the goal, the target – the glory of God. what ever you do, do it in love, do it for me. what ever. when ever you did it for one of these you did it for me ….

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

        This whole beautiful comment is like a blog post in itself. (you should totally post this). What strikes me most from this is your comment about reflecting not on your ‘naughtiness’ but on ‘falling short of the glory of God.’ I need to sit awhile with this, I think (as I often have to with your comments!) I think this is prompting me to long and hunger more for holiness, as you say, ‘a craving for God’s purity.’ This comment makes me hunger for more of God. Thank you.

    6. Mark Allman 9th April, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

      My whole family is writing things we are thankful each day. On our son’s birthday we spent the evening in candle light reading what we had for the year. I write mine on a calendar. I’m not good at writing my sins in any fashion on any format at all. I kick against the tug that wants me to own up to my sin and confess it and deal with it. I’m sure it would be helpful to embrace this.

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

        I just love the thought that you and your family spent the evening in candle light reading what you were thankful for for the whole year. That must have been a magical and holy evening. Writing on a calendar is a good tip, too!

        And we are so alike! I also kick against the whole confession thing. (Maybe you should confess your reluctance to confess?? ;-))

    7. Helen 9th April, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

      Very interesting post. Three years ago I became a Catholic and found confession easily the most difficult, knee trembling, discipline. And I still do. But, facing my failings honestly, does help prevent deluded self satisfaction and also reminds me of the endless mercy and love of God.

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

        I just love the adjective ‘knee trembling’. It describes it perfectly – the hesitation and humility involved in it all. And it is always so good to be reminded of the endless mercy and love of God. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    8. Abby 9th April, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      I think we should just start tweeting that, seriously. ANd facebooking it and everything. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, Abby Norman, A sinner.

      • Tanya 17th April, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

        Amen, amen. There is something solemn and humbling about putting your own name in that prayer, isn’t there? Me, Tanya Marlow, a sinner. I need mercy. Thanks, girl.

    Leave a Reply

    Please send me my free ebook and updates