CONFESSION: A DISCIPLINE OF INTIMACY
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,and sinners will return to you.14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Today I want to use this passage along with the passage in Genesis that describes the Fall of humankind to focus on what it is we need to confess as well as the function of confession.
David, King of the Jews, was a sinner several times over. He not only had an affair and a child with Bathsheba, he sought to cover up his actions by placing her husband, Uriah, at risk in battle—a ploy which led to Uriah’s death. He was guilty of infidelity, lying and murder in the same story. When prophet Nathan (II Samuel: 11 and 12) confronts David with his wrong doing, this psalm of contrition is the result. It is a classic model of repentance for both Judaism and Christianity.
But, as odd as it may sound, I want to consider “ What makes adultry, lying and murder sinful?” At one level, it is perfectly obvious. They all cause harm and they all break God’s rules for good conduct (also known as the ten commandments). But, biblically and in real life, that doesn’t go deep enough.
Over the years, I have had many couples come to me struggling with infidelity in their relationships. I ask the offending party, if, in their understanding of their marriage, it was permissable to go outside of the relationship for sex. There have been a few who say yes, but most say no. I then ask: “What was going on with you that you gave yourself permission to break your own rules?” Most people cannot answer that question but without being able to answer that question, the relationship will continue to be at risk no matter how contritely people promise “I’ll never do it again.” “It didn’t mean anything” or vastly more damaging “If you’d been a better husband or a better wife, I’d never have done such a thing.”
Sinfulness is so often linked with shame and indictment we lose the bigger picture. Everyone of us break our own ‘code of conduct’—never mind God’s. It is important we understand what is going on with us that we do so. Accountability for who we are (especially when it includes our shortcomings and limitations) is hard to come by. In ordinary relationships as well as with our God, we typically do not expect acceptance and forgiveness. We expect our sins to be used against us. We expect punishment, rejection and shame.
David is deeply aware of this bigger picture when he says “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me”. (He is addressing the pervasiveness of human sinfulness not the consequences of conception). As the Genesis creation story tells it, our sinfulness is embedded in creation. The moment humans became self aware, “their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked.” They were just as naked five minutes before. But now they knew they were vulnerable. They (we) did not want to live as vulnerable creatures.
In real life, those who do the best job protecting themselves and finding ways to get an edge, live longer. Biologists call this ‘survival of the fittest.’ Our species would not be alive without it but it also means our natural, hard wired reaction is self preservation. Every human being is born self centered. If we only rely on our biological imperatives, we will do whatever it takes to manage our safety—even at the expense of others. Our default will be looking for an edge, acquisitiveness, self justification and when all else fails, revealing only what we think is acceptable. We try to manage how people see us because we are afraid to be seen. But such a life assumes we cannot be loved as we are.
The religious faith claim is that such a life is too narrow. If that is our only criteria, we can never find a life that is beyond our biological imperatives. Life in spiritual terms is less about survival (all of us will eventually fail at that), it is about equity, mindfulness, and regard for the corporate good. When we choose to live such a life, we choose God. When we choose to live a life based primarily upon our self interest, we turn away from God.
David wanted what he wanted and he wanted it now. David’s sin was his pervasive self centeredness. He had to have more. He did not consider Bathsheeba, Uriah or the life of his child. He could not and did not consider others as important as himself. Their needs became unimportant when stacked against his. If we only focus upon his sins, we will be blind to his insistence upon his own way. That is his Sin, with a capital S. The other sins (infid elity, lying and even murder) are expressions of the capital S sin. When our needs and our personal survival is most important, we are in a treadmill existence to gain advantage, to have more.
We cannot fight the self centeredness that comes so naturally to us unless we have a ‘new and right spirit.’ David realized that making a list of his wrong doings was not sufficient. Offering sacrifices of atonement were not sufficient— because they did not address the core problem. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Only when we see that our natural way of living makes our own well being more important than all others do we realize the near impossibility of living in a world where everyone stands equally as a child of God.
The spiritual faith that claims that we are all children of God is not natural. It is supernatural. It is to be aimed at. It leads to life but it is not the life we naturally think of. It is hard to shift from relying only upon our ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality to intentional mindfulness of the corporate good. It is hard to realize that abundant life is more likely to come from our gratitude rather than from our acquisitiveness. It is hard to realize that regard, service and even sacrifice lead to a life that matters. These spiritual values always live in tension with the ways of the world. Keeping the tension between both sets of values is called faith.
David realized how hopelessly he was self absorbed in his deepest heart. His infidelity lies and his willingness to sacrifice Uriah to his desires exposed his self centeredness. In Psalm 51, he brings his failing before God and asks for help. Humbly confessing our limitations, our insistence on our own way as well as the ways we exploit others is in itself a vulnerable exercise. It will lead to a broken and contrite heart—not because we are bad but because of how difficult it is to live the lives we aspire to. We are always battling the primacy of our natural selves. Immediate gratification and self preservation all too often trump our most well intentioned desire to love.
We must know that about ourselves in order to share the struggle to live a life of regard. You cannot get any closer to another human being than to trust them with your whole heart. The same is true in our relationship with God. It is one thing to pronounce we all fall short of the glory of God and another to be specific about the ways that is so. And it is quite another to realize how often we fail—how often we turn from God and how often we hide from God. This is the way confession becomes a discipline that leads to life.
Find the courage to trust God with your whole self. Confess. Let it be so.