Thoughts and Prayers: Being Honest with God
(1 John 1:5-10)
The Rev. J. Michael Solberg, July 1, 2018
The Union Church of Hinsdale
I have been a pastor for 28 years now and through all those years, the regular worship order of the congregation has included a prayer of confession. For 21 of those years, the buck stopped with me, so I could basically require there would be a prayer of confession. For the other 7 years, I was an associate pastor, and I got into a huge fight with the senior pastor over this issue soon after I started. I almost got fired, but in the end, I made a good enough theological argument that we should have a prayer of confession every week, so we did.
I don’t know: maybe I just sin more than the rest of you, but I think it is really important that we confess our sin together every week, exactly so that we can hear words of forgiveness every week. I suppose we could just jump directly to the words of forgiveness, but all theology aside, that just doesn’t ring true to my experience in life. You can’t really receive that wonderful gift of forgiveness without acknowledging what you did wrong.
If you walk into your house and your spouse or other family member greets you with the words “I forgive you,” you are not immediately overcome with gratitude at their kindness. No, you think, “Oh crap, what have I done now.” If you had a big fight before you left, and you said some things you now regret, then the forgiveness feels great. But forgiveness without acknowledgement of sin doesn’t really have the same effect.
But, there you go, I made it to the 254thword of this sermon before I used that crazy, disturbing, abused, weaponized word, “sin.” If we are going to talk about prayers of confession, and words of forgiveness, then we have to talk about sin. But let’s try to talk about it helpfully. I mean, not that I am trying to help you sin – but I know we all do, and it is better if we can talk about.
So, sin. There are some of you who have been hurt by this word. If you grew up in a fundamentalist household, there is a good chance you still recoil when you hear the word sin. It was quite possibly used in your childhood to refer to all the things that make God angry, like drinking, sexual desire outside marriage between a man and woman, swearing, girls not being ladylike, boys being too ladylike, and other matters of what was considered to be proper white American middle-class conformity. As unhelpful as that narrow understanding of sin is, the deeper scar probably comes from the simple notion of sin making God angry – as if God is an intolerant, impatient, easily offended old man, with two emotional settings, placated, or angry. The Bible of course says over and over again that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, and that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but that is not the part of the Bible some of you grew up with. Indeed, maybe you here, in a church like this, because you were hurt by such a view of sin and God’s anger. If so, we are very glad you are here, and bravo for not giving up on God altogether.
Maybe you have been hurt by the word “sin” in a different way. Now I deeply respect the Catholic Church, and believe there is a whole lot in there to admire both in theology and in practice. But the truth is that time and time again people who grew up in the Catholic Church have talked to me about the sense of guilt they learned from their church and family. What people actually learned about sin isn’t the main thing, but the issue is that God’s overwhelming reaction to sin is disappointment. God is just always disappointed with you, which leads to this terrible emotional distance from God. And even after confession and forgiveness, done routinely if done right, that emotional distance from God is still there – you still feel guilty –which is not a real healthy place to be. In fact, we have a whole lot of people at Union Church who grew up with that sense of guilt and God’s disappointment, but were emotionally healthy enough to feel it wasn’t right, and have come here for a different view of God. If that’s you, we are very glad you are here, and bravo for not giving up on God altogether.
But what happens when we look in the mirror here? How has our tradition hurt people with word “sin?” Well, mostly by avoiding it I suppose, lest we damage someone’s self-esteem. In all the churches I have served I have had resistance to including prayers of confession in the worship order. The most common criticism has been “Why do we have to focus on the negative?” I have never really understood how 30-45 seconds of a one-hour service qualifies as a focus, but it is obviously a matter of perception. Someone raised in this congregation said to me a couple years ago, “We shouldn’t have that prayer every week. I don’t sin, and I don’t see why I should have to say I do.” I don’t think many people in the churches I have served would claim they don’t sin, but that comment does reflect a different type of discomfort with the word. It’s like if we talk about it, we might hurt someone’s feelings, and somehow stunt them emotionally.
I’m pretty sure though, that that is losing battle. Avoiding the troublesome word “sin” for now, don’t we all know, at least in our heart of hearts, that we wander off the path God would have us follow? Forget narrow morality, forget the breaking of God’s so-called rules, forget white middle class social conformity – beyond all the mental blocks and emotional walls, beyond the self we try to portray to others, we can’t help but know in our gut that we are not always the people God wants us to be. I don’t think this is the exclusive realm of saints or spiritual giants. I think this is common, everyday experience. I think the truth is that none of our blocks, walls, defenses, or distractions really work, because the honest truth is always still there. We are not always the people God wants us to be.
“If we say we don’t wander off the path, we deceive ourselves, and are not being truthful.”
I don’t think this Biblical writer named John was super spiritually enlightened. I just think he was honest, and he wanted us to be honest too.
I think I have settled on that as just about the best way to define sin: we are not always the people God wants us to be. It’s not simply about breaking Biblical rules. Indeed, the Bible is clear that you can keep all the rules and still be stuck in sin. It’s not about doing this bad thing, or failing to do that good thing. It’s about the complexity of our selves, our character. We are honest and generous and courageous and patient and compassionate, but we are complex creatures, and the shadows are also there, complacence, callousness that comes from fear, self-centeredness – in other words, as we often pray, we do not love God with our whole heart, nor our neighbor as ourselves. Love God with part of our heart? Absolutely. Much of our heart? Maybe. But our whole heart? No.
And so, we pray and confess our sin and our sins. We confess, as best we are able, how it is we do not love God with our whole heart. Because when we can name the ways we get off the path of loving God with our whole heart, then we are much more likely veer closer to the path again. As 1 John says it, “if we confess our waywardness, God is true to his own character and does what is right, so God forgives us our waywardness and sets us right.”
This is really simply a matter of being honest with God. And there is no reason not to be. In any case, God knows us as we truly are. God knows our complexity, our reality, our divided heart, our soul. Not being honest with God can’t make us look any better to God, it just shows God we are not being honest with ourselves.
And here is the great gift, the beautiful message we can hear each Sunday, and whenever we confess: God’s response to our sin and our confession of it is not anger or disappointment. God is love. God desires nothing other than that we should get to experience communion with God, friendship with God, and the joy of human connection. God’s response to our sin and our confession of it is to reach out and embrace us again, welcoming us back to the path of loving God and our neighbor. We can be gut level honest with God, because God is love.
“If we confess our waywardness, God is true to his own character and does what is right, so God forgives us our waywardness and sets us right.”
I close with a prayer of confession from Thomas Merton, that I think well captures what confession is all about:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, know that you are a forgiven people and go in peace.