The Confession We Seem Reluctant to Make
David R. Weiss, July 14, 2010
I am impatient with confession. That’s putting it too politely, but the moment I try to state the matter more clearly it just gets messy: I do not enjoy starting my worship experience by reminding myself (and everyone else) that I am sinful. Well, doesn’t that sound a little suspicious? Isn’t the whole point of confession that we ought to come before God by first acknowledging—confessing—the deepest and most vulnerable truth about ourselves? And doesn’t my discomfort with that merely prove its importance … and reveal my own rebellious nature?
My brothers and sisters who have written Liberation, Feminist, Womanist, Black, and Queer Theology have made a strong case that our God-language has often been pressed into the service of power dynamics that are appalling to the God thus named. And I am persuaded that the same is true of how the Confession functions in our worship.
While I don’t know the whole history of confession in spiritual life, I have a suspicion that it has almost always served the interests of the powerful more than it has served the needs of the poor. That its place in the liturgy, however it has been theologically justified, has worked foremost to insure that the haves continue to have, and the have-nots continue to have not.
Indeed I am convinced that at present the Confession serves primarily to quietly disempower us and to alienate us from our bodies, from the goodness in which and for which God created us—and from the Spirit who longs to take on our flesh in transforming service to the world. In this sense, while claiming to position us honestly us before God, the Confession instead betrays us into a place where grace is merely a salve for broken hearts but hardly the power of God to change the world.
I grew up in the 1960’s. At my German Lutheran church in northwest Indiana we used the red Service Book and Hymnal. As a precocious child in a family that was in church (and near the front) every Sunday, I was eager to share in the liturgy as soon as I could read. So, sometime before I had even celebrated my sixth birthday, I began rehearsing my own utter sinfulness every Sunday. With fervor that probably went well beyond my parents and fellow parishioners (isn’t that why Jesus blessed the children?) I named myself a “poor sinner”; I invoked Sunday after Sunday after Sunday over my own dawning self-awareness the phrase “by nature sinful and unclean.” I was certain these words held some great power, and I wanted to inhabit them. Sadly, I succeeded all too well.
In the years since we Lutherans have chosen somewhat more merciful language, confessing that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” but we have remained largely steadfast that the first word we need to speak in worship names our sinfulness, our bondage, our weakness, our nothingness. (In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, released by the ELCA in 2006, the Confession can be replaced with a Thanksgiving for Baptism, an improvement of sorts, but one that still assumes everything in the unsaid confession as the context for our thanksgiving.) And while the words have softened, many of us 40 and older have the imprint of that confession of our childhood written well into our hearts quite beyond any updating of the language.
We can’t afford this anymore. We never could, as far as I’m concerned, but the evidence is fast reaching a breaking point. We have confessed ourselves into alienation from our own bodies and from the earth and we have confessed ourselves into a sense of powerlessness that leaves us unable to imagine that we have the power to challenge the systems that threaten the planet and create suffering for so many.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. We are sinners. Mostly broken in our wills as well as in our dreams. Prone to mean-spiritedness in our hurt and selfishness in our wants. Entangled in our temptations. And even more entangled in the distorted systems—the mass media, the consumer economy, the political forces, the church structures, and the dysfunctional families in which, from our birth onward, we find ourselves embedded.
I am not claiming that sin has no power over us. And I fully agree that it is a dangerous thing—a very dangerous thing even—to belittle the forces of death that are at play in the world. Although I would suggest that these forces are far more social and systemic than they are individual—and that their social and systemic reach only lengthens the more we frame them as individual choices we make.
But here is the thing: we fail to confess the ongoing resilience and the super-abundant goodness of God as Creator when we believe the Tempter’s lie that we have somehow been clean cut off from the words spoken timelessly by God over us, from the first mythic moment in the Garden to the present multiple moments of our lives today, “And God saw everything that had been made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
And in this failing, we choose to be too little to hold within our lungs the breath of God—although God is striving still to breathe into us. We choose to be too little to lift within our fingertips the touch of God—although God is striving still to reach out in tenderness to others through us. We choose to be too little to know within our own bodies the full joy of God—although God is longing still to feel the sheer goodness of creation in us. And we choose to be too little in our imaginations to dare the dream of a world made fresh by justice—although God is longing still to catch fire in the very synapses of our minds.
Of course, in the rest of our worship, we say that we desire all these things, but we unwittingly use the Confession at the start of worship to inoculate ourselves against the indwelling presence of God. We insist that unworthiness is the first truth to be spoken, and that only in the midst of our complete unworthiness is grace really grace. But in so doing we presume that God needs a scarcity of goodness to be God. And we feign ignorance of the power these words have to misshape us—though if we heard a parent trying to instill such a message as this in his or her children we would rightly cringe.
Well, let us talk about the perniciousness of sin during our worship services, for we need to resist it in ourselves and in our society. And let us be far more attentive in naming its social and systemic character than we have been in the past, for only so is the injustice of the world challenged and changed.
But let us begin by confessing—by naming with humble vulnerability—the grace that frames our lives from first to last, from Alpha to Omega, from long before our salvation to well into our sanctification. To do so is not to deny sin, but to acknowledge in each and every moment that the goodness of God infects us always and even now—and is just waiting to burst into flame. This is what I confess:
I confess that each one of us is a shimmering echo of God’s love. I confess that we are powerful—beyond measure. Powerful both in our individual uniqueness and creativity, and especially in our united diversity. I confess that we are good—beyond measure. Gifted with an unlimited—and often untapped—potential for justice, mercy, and compassion. I confess that each of us is also twisted and distorted by forces within and without. And that these forces often thwart our power and undercut our goodness. And yet, these forces are not ultimate, not even in this life. So I confess that our challenge is less to avoid evil than to embrace good. Less to confess sin than to confess the truth of our power and our goodness—and to unleash that truth in our lives. Amen.
Confession that fails to name our potential for being imago Dei not only betrays the truth of who we are; it equally betrays the sheer, abundant, and gracious goodness of God.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.