What does it mean to confess our “sins” to God? What if we forget a “sin”? What if we die before we confess all our sins? Will we still be forgiven? These are all questions I have heard on the topic of confession. But something in me was stirred this past week as I sat in a discussion with other Christians on the troubling topic of confession. And what became even more apparent is that people who don’t consider themselves Christian are probably even more troubled by traditions surrounding confession.
So, while we are on the topic of “Teach Me How to Pray,” I thought that a post on prayers of confession might be due.
As I grappled with confession this week, several things came to mind. First, what is sin? The historic understanding and interpretation of sin is “transgression”—simply doing something wrong. But I think that limits our perception of sin, and perhaps even undergirds a problematic mentality of sin. If sin is doing something wrong, then as long as we avoid doing those things, we are good to go, and have no need of Christ or salvation because we can do it on our own.
In Matthew 19:16-26 a rich young man confronts Jesus and asks how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus lists off a few commandments for him, and he says, “I have done all these since my youth.” Then Jesus says, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.” The man is deeply distressed by this because he has so much, and he goes away grieving. Jesus then tells his disciples that it is nearly impossible for the rich to be saved, and they inquire, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
I think in this story, we see a man who did everything right, but still couldn’t attain salvation on his own. He still needed Jesus, even though he followed all the Jewish laws. For this reason, I prefer to define sin as “brokenness,” or as a broken state that we are in as humans. In this way sin covers a multitude of motivations of the heart that we often live out of that are not whole or holy ways of living and being.
When Jesus came into the world, and offered up His life as a once for all atoning sacrifice, it formed a new covenant between God and God’s people. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Similarly, Romans 6:10 says, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” In this we no longer need to go to the priest with a sacrifice for each transgression (as the Israelites did according to Hebrew law), but rather can look to Jesus for forgiveness and learn to live repentant lives.
Repentance is simply a turning away from one way of life toward a better way of life. God desires our wholeness and to be able to live in relationship to us. That is what repentance is about, a turning toward God.
So, what should confession look like today? Confession should focus on repentance (turning back toward God), or as my husband says, “leaning in to Jesus.” When we lean in to Jesus wholeheartedly, we can share everything with him—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being vulnerable with Jesus in prayer means putting it all out there. Often when we pray we give sanitized versions of what we really mean, but God knows our hearts, so this attempt to sugar-coat is both futile and inauthentic.
Being vulnerable with Jesus means opening up about our brokenness: not just listing off the things we have done wrong, but getting at the root of our brokenness. Talking about sin as transgression misses that we need healing from the ways we have been victimized and the ways we have victimized others. It misses that we need healing from the ways we have tried to get there on our own by being good. It misses that we need healing from the ways that our motivations were wrong, as well as from the things that we didn’t do that we should have done. But talking about sin as living in a broken state, resonates with the reality of life on this planet.
Most people are comfortable being just a little bit vulnerable. A friend of mine refers to this type of vulnerability as being slightly “wind-blown.” Maybe your hair is a bit tousled. But abandoned vulnerability before Jesus is equivalent to ugly-crying. Abandoned vulnerability looks like the woman in Luke 7, who weeps at the feet of Jesus, seeking forgiveness. When we let Jesus into those deep places of brokenness, we open ourselves to healing in new ways. We create the opportunity for repentant hearts and repentant lives when we recognize that we are very imperfect, and yet perfectly loved as children of God.
So what should confession look like today? I think confession has more to do with identifying the ways we are not living in the right direction—toward God, and asking God to be involved in correcting that. I don’t think there is some magical prayer we can say to make our sins vanish. I think it has more to do with having repentant hearts and desiring to turn back toward God.
But very simply, a prayer of confession would include asking God to show you the ways that you have failed to love others and to follow Him well. It would include asking for forgiveness, and should also include asking God to help you to live “toward Him.”
A basic template would be: Jesus, Open my eyes to the ways I am not following you. Forgive me for the way I have failed to love you and others well. Teach me to live “leaning in” to you. Amen.
- Read the following prayers of confession from the Bible. (Psalm 39, Psalm 51, Nehemiah 1:4-11, Matthew 23:32-43, Luke 7:36-50) What resonates with you?
- Do you notice a difference in the prayers of confession from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
- Read Luke 7:36-50. What does this tell you about Jesus? What can you learn from the woman and how she seeks forgiveness?
- Write your own prayer of confession. You can use the “template” above to work from or try something totally different.
*For further reading on prayer, and prayers of confession, I would recommend Too Busy Not to Pray, by Bill Hybels.