According to Luke, the first generation Church had two emphases in its preaching: the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. “It is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47); and “By his own right hand God has now raised [Jesus] up to be leader and Saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins through him to Israel” (Acts 5:31).
There are so many other areas of Christian life and belief that are now preached that I wonder if somehow we have lost sight of the immensity of the declaration that sins can be forgiven. For Luke, it was the first, most amazing promise of Christian profession. (Of course, one has to have a sense of sin before the promise of forgiveness will have any appeal. That is difficult today, even in the Church, but still true.)
For a long time, like so many believers I thought that we need do no more than confess our sins and so be forgiven. “If we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil” (1 John 1:9). Simple. And, of course, true. But over the years, as my understanding of theology has grown and my experience as a sinner, spiritual director, and one who hears confessions has broadened, I have come to realize that this simple thing has layers to it. Reflecting on the layers provides a rich understanding of Luke’s great claim that “because Jesus is risen from the dead, sins may be forgiven.”
For most of my adult life I have done a moral self-examination each day and confessed my sins to God, and then several times a year made a more thorough inventory for confession to a priest. But in the past few years my daily prayer in this area has expanded. Now I begin each day by praying that when I sin you will protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me, and show me my sin, bring me to repentance and confession, have mercy on me, forgive me, restore me to you and grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended, help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, give me desire and grace for amendment of life, and let me live in joy.
Following are brief reflections on this prayer, line by line.
When I sin, protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me
This is the first part of the prayer, coming even before I pray that I will know what my sin is. I intend this to be an act of love for others, that they will be protected from the consequences of my sin even before I ask to know my sins and ask for forgiveness. “Protect others before setting me right,” is what I mean.
At the same time, I do realize that whenever I sin, others will be hurt regardless of my prayer. It is the network of human contact and relationships that we live in that makes this so, just as it makes love possible. No one sins alone, and no sin is solitary. By this prayer, then, I really mean to commit anyone who is affected by any sin of mine into the care of God so that the sin’s effects will become means of blessing, redemption, and growing in love.
It also asks that whoever I sin against will be loving toward me by showing me my sin and bring me into a deeper understanding of God’s love. Whenever I sin against someone, I put myself into their power, for they have the potential to show me the power of God and his love in a fashion I could not receive in any other way.
Show me my sin
Knowing for sure what one’s sin is may not be as easy as one might think. It’s more than just acknowledging that one had lost one’s temper, neglected to help someone in need, or whatever. We human beings have many ways of avoiding an unpleasant truth. Some want to grab all the blame if something goes sour, others become defensive, others rationalize, and still others look for someone else to blame—or a combination of these responses. All of them are ways in which people refuse to see what is true. Being set right with God after a sin requires first simply acknowledging not just facts, but truth—neither claiming blame wrongly (for that denies to others the opportunity to recognize their own sin, which is unloving to them), nor refusing to listen, nor defending oneself (and there is always some proper reason to do so), nor rationalizing, etc.
It can take real discernment to prise the truth out of a situation. In addition to hurt, there is shame, blame, defensiveness, fear of being thought poorly of by others, etc. John’s, “If we acknowledge our sins,” can be very difficult to do, even if we want to acknowledge them. Often it takes another who loves us who can and will show us the truth, as Nathan told King David: “You are the man!” And David responded properly and admirably, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7, 13). Until Nathan confronted him, David had intrigued to hide his sin, and by doing so became more and more embroiled in it.
A few years ago, for example, I became angry at someone at an important event in his life. Later he came to me, gently and humbly, and showed me how inappropriate my anger had been. We were quickly reconciled and I was greatly blessed by his love and truth-telling.
Bring me to repentance and confession
Recognizing one’s sin provides no guarantee of moving on to the next step. After recognition, one must come to repentance. Repentance means not only saying, “I have sinned,” but being sorry for it and wishing to fix it. There are times when someone may say, “Yes, okay, I did it, but...” And “but” is followed by rationalization, blaming someone else, pointing out someone else’s sin, or even an excuse for why the sin was really okay.
Repentance (which may include contrition or a feeling of sorrow and empathy with offended parties) must lead to confession. In confession, one frankly names one’s sins. Confession must be made to God, quite often to the offended parties, and sometimes to “the Church” in one form or another. If no sin is solitary, neither is any sin just against God alone. Just as love of God and love of neighbor must go together, sin is also against both God and neighbor. In the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent, at one point the penitent says, “I confess to Almighty God” and “to his Church...” It is at this point that the penitent begins to gain power over his sin; it is true that to name something gives one power over it.
Have mercy on me
The request for mercy must come before asking for forgiveness. Mercy acknowledges the debt that a sin has created, and that it is really unpayable. The penitent can never pay the debt, and must have a measure of understanding the debt before he can value and receive the forgiveness. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is a prayer that Jesus highly commended. (See Luke 18:13.)
The infinite indebtedness of sin is shown in the parable of the servant whose debt “ran into millions” (Matthew 18:24), whose master forgave him when he begged for patience. But the master rescinded the forgiveness when it became evident that the servant had no understanding of what had been done for him. We see it also in the simple but moving account of two debtors Jesus provided when he ate a meal in the home of a Pharisee: “Which of them will love him more?” asked Jesus. “The one who was let off more, I suppose,” Simon answered. “You are right,” said Jesus” (Luke 7:42b-43).
Having acknowledged that the debt is unpayable, then the penitent can request forgiveness by claiming the power of the sacrifice (and resurrection) of Jesus, which makes possible the removal of the sin. The incredible, powerful, mystical foundation to the truth that sins may be forgiven is explained in some detail in Hebrews, the Biblical letter that addresses the theme of the high priesthood of Jesus: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” “Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins,” and “by virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all who are sanctified” (Hebrews 9:22b; 10:12, 14).
The request for forgiveness is utterly dependent upon the love of the One to whom the request is made. We put ourselves completely in the power of the Other, making ourselves vulnerable as a loved person, plowing through and overcoming all the ways listed above by which we can resist knowing our sins. And this makes it possible for us to receive love in a robust way that cannot be known in any other fashion.
The rest of my reflections will appear in a few days.