Psalm 19:12 (NIV)
12 But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Several ancient practices of the Christian Church have been largely forgotten in many churches since the Reformation began. They’re practices which the secular world have picked up on in the latter half of the 20th century and continue today in non-spiritual fashions.
One of the most obvious practices, the Church has largely forgone as a spiritual discipline, is fasting. The world has picked it up - and called it “dieting”. Many of the diet’s promoted in the women’s magazines since the middle of last century have also been far more radical than those practiced with fasting in earlier times.
It seems that people will do, for their physical health and beauty, what they would deny God or their neighbour. Many of us have seldom, if ever, fasted, while we have been keen to diet.
In a similar way modern humanity is keen to visit the “psychiatrist” or “analyst” and open their hearts to him or her while neglecting to confess their sins to God.
Amongst Protestant Christians the religious practice of one on one “Confession and Absolution” has largely been forgotten and seldom, if ever, practiced. I can count on two hands the number of people who have come to me as their pastor to confess their sins and receive the words of absolution (forgiveness) in my 27 years as a pastor.
While Confession and Absolution in the Church may not be commonly practiced, apart from the formal liturgical rite in the Divine Service, it seems that people are more than willing to open their hearts and uncover their deepest innermost thoughts and most secret desires to either a counsellor, psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. It is for some people a sign of having arrived socially that they have a “therapist”, mentor or counsellor.
There is obviously a need for people to un-burden themselves of all kinds of thoughts, desires and guilt. A whole industry has grown in the last 100 odd years since Sigmund Freud began psychoanalysing people.
The need for us to un-burden ourselves of guilt and sin is not new to the world as we find confession and absolution was practiced and encouraged in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Private or personal confession was commonly practiced by the Early Church until the Reformation when it was commonly reduced to the liturgical context of the Divine Service of Worship.
The Augsburg Confession states:
“Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. 2 For, according to the Psalm, it is impossible. “Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:12).” McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 35–37). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
The notes in the Concordia: Lutheran Confessions add some background to Article XI of the Augsburg Confession:
“By the time of the Reformation, the practice of confessing sins privately and confidentially to a pastor had been a well-accepted church practice for over a thousand years. Private Confession and Absolution was never something Lutherans wanted to get rid of. As time went on, the practice fell into disuse, but clearly Article XI assumes that private Confession and Absolution will take place in the Lutheran Church. The problem addressed by this article is that the Roman Church demanded every sin be recalled and confessed. Clearly, this is humanly impossible and makes our forgiveness dependent on our work. Such teaching is certainly dangerous to repentant consciences, which need firm assurance that Christ forgives all sin. (See also Ap XI; SA III VIII; Appendix B, An Exhortation to Confession.)”
Why is it, that private Confession and Absolution are so important that there is an article in the Augsburg Confession? Why is confession and Absolution necessary for the baptised child of God? The problem is that all people have a deep sense of guilt which stems from an awareness of God’s Law and the inability to live up to the demands of the Law.
To be able to lead full and satisfying lives people need something to help them come to terms with their experience of guilt – something to set them free from their experience of the prison of guilt which chains them to past events, actions and words which hurt both the perpetrator and the victim.
Confession and Absolution restores - where God fixes the troubled conscience, brings healing and new life to the individuals concerned by releasing them from the burden of guilt.
“This sense of guilt”, says George Forell “…, is not necessarily what we talk about when we use the word “sin” in church.” It may be that we don’t feel guilty about those things which God, our church and/or society condemn.
Forell says that, “…the universal guilt-producing experience is the tension between what we are and what we ought to be. What counts is not so much what other people think we ought to be but what we ourselves want to be according to our own standards.”
Our individual standards may vary considerably from person to person. This matters little. What really matters is that in the universal experience of guilt we should all have some standards – hopefully God’s standards.
We have to admit, if we are honest with ourselves, that we all fail to live up perfectly to our own standards let alone God’s. As St Paul said in Romans 7:15 (NIV) 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
There is always some area of our lives where we feel we have not achieved or overcome some obstacle we perceive for ourselves. The feelings of our own inadequacy are most commonly felt in the teenage years.
This may help explain the high rate of teenage suicide in society – especially where the idea of being inadequate is re-enforced in a teen by constant put downs from their peers and adults and their not being made aware that God loves them and offers them forgiveness through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
There is the story of the young teen who wanted to help Dad build a new fence. The teen would like to saw a piece of wood with a 90 degree cut - a line is drawn with the set square across the wood - confident the teen can do the job – yet when the teen cuts the wood with the saw, the cut goes away from the line drawn and the angle of cut is 95 degrees – so the teen feels terrible embarrassment and inadequacy.
Or the story of the young person who wants to bake a cake – but when it comes out of the oven it collapses, so the young person feels they have failed to live up to the standards they have set for themselves and experiences feelings of frustration and anger.
Forell says, “Our problem is not so much that there are certain things we cannot do which we would like to be able to do, but rather that we all have some awareness of our own abilities and also a profound sense that we are not living up to our own potential – however limited that may be.”
Our inability to live up to what we consider appropriate standards of right and wrong – or more specifically, our moral failure, is a part of our experience of our inadequacy to meet the standards we believe to be appropriate for ourselves. It may be that our standards are inappropriate or unrealistic.
What it means though, is that all of us feel inadequate and guilty because when we honestly look at ourselves we don’t like some aspect of what we see. It’s a bit like looking in the mirror or standing on the scales – what we see upsets us because it’s not the perfection we expect.
“Because the experience of failure is true and universal it is important to confront our feelings of guilt openly, and to seek the help of somebody who can interpret them to us in the light of our God-given destiny. …, there should be somebody to whom we can talk about the feelings which poison our relationships to God, to our fellowmen, and to ourselves.”
Someone who has not come to terms with their guilt may subconsciously (or in extreme cases) deliberately punish themselves. The punishment may be self-harm or as extreme as suicide.
It is of course far better to leave the judgement to God than for us to become our own executioners. We see so many people act as judge, jury and executioner for themselves, beating them-selves up and making life miserable for themselves and those around them. This is the tragedy of those who keep themselves isolated from God and don’t allow God to help them.
If we cannot say, “He who judges me is the Lord,” we consciously or unconsciously judge ourselves and do it poorly. We are by nature self-indulgent and inclined to be too hard on ourselves. We are far better off to allow God to judge us and so with the Psalmist we can pray, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
It is not necessary for us to enumerate all our failings and weaknesses as the Augsburg Confession reminds us: “…listing all sins is not necessary for Confession.”
We can easily become obsessed with our own sins and failures. Like Luther who is reputed to have spent hours in the confessional, before God revealed the Gospel to him, we can obsess with our sin - more interested in talking about ourselves than doing something “to serve God” and our neighbour.
We should not be paralysed by our failures and weaknesses, chewing them over like a cow chewing the cud. Confession of those sins which cause anxiety and guilt are better dealt with “one on one” with a fellow believer who can offer the consolation of the Gospel and benefits of Jesus Christ to the repentant sinner.
We are encouraged to confess our sins to each other as God reminds us in James 5:16 (NIV) 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
God reminds us in 1 John 1:8–9 (NIV) 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
We confess our sins and receive the words of absolution from a fellow believer, speaking on behalf of God, to free us from guilty consciences so that we may more effectively serve God and each other. We are “forgiven so that we are able to forgive and serve”.