Every Sunday, immediately after the first hymn, I invite a group of people to join me in a prayer to confess our brokenness. I invite them to publicly pray for forgiveness (more on this in a second) and to publicly call themselves sinners.
Every Sunday we read a bit of a psalm together, sing a song together, and then get sad about how terrible we are — publicly and together.
I have heard this criticism of Christian worship before, and I think it bears responding to honestly. I have sat in worship services where the liturgy has called me to confession, a thing I find important and healing, and found the Prayer of Confession had less to do with my actual sin and more to do my audacity to live and believe differently than the pastor or congregation or wider church. I know my LGBTQ+ beloveds have experienced this 100-fold in most of the worship services that happen every Sunday.
The confession in many churches serves a cruel purpose of making you feel shame for existing in a way that contrasts with the specific church and specific pastor — and that contrast does not even need to conflict with the beliefs and teachings of the church for condemnation to rain down.
If your experience of Christian worship matches this description, you find yourself in good company. Many wise, loving, and thoughtful people have validly risen this concern, and I cannot just pretend they do not have a point.
Why, then, do I still lead a confession every Sunday? And why do I suggest my parishioners spend the next 46 days focusing inwardly on their brokenness and sin? Why do any of us spend all this time making ourselves feel bad about ourselves?
To answer this, we first need to agree on a rough definition of sin. The legalists and the “It makes me uncomfortable, and I’m a good Christian, so it must be bad because whatever makes me uncomfortable must be bad, right?” folks tend to have lists and rules to define sin. “This is sin!” “That is sin!” “I don’t like that, so it must be sin!”
But if we define sin not by action but by intent of action, which I think we can easily and correctly do, then it becomes more convicting but also more welcoming.
If we take the greatest commandments — “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.’…‘You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” (Matthew 23:37, 39 CEB) — and invert them them, we get a fairly robust definition of sin: anything that denies complete love to God or your neighbor (which is everyone, according to The Good Samaritan).
Love to God is a sticky wicket I will not try to parse out here, but everyone should quickly agree and understand love of neighbor. We can get into questions about the minutia or ethics and morals (i.e. the Trolley Problem or how much inaction is an action), but ultimately we pretty universally can agree in philosophy with this.
And, we can look honestly at ourselves, we know when we withhold love and chose our own selfish desires over the needs of others.
So, sin is withholding complete love. Our confession has an obvious goal — forgiveness, which again, I will address in a minute — but also has an equally important goal: repentance.
To repent is to confess and to turn away. You confess so you can stop committing the sin, stop withholding love. You acknowledge where you have fallen short — sometimes with gentle and not-so-gentle suggestions from the person who wrote the corporate prayer — so you know how to turn away from withholding love and toward using your time, talents, and treasure to promote love, your ballot to demand love from our elected leaders, and your heart and voice for compassionately showing love.
Repentance is good and necessary. I stand up and preach a convicting message so the people who hear will turn away from their sin and do better. Prophets, modern and Biblical, preach so everyone can see their sin and learn to turn away from it.
But what about forgiveness? I struggle to even include forgiveness in my confessions because, as a good Presbyterian, I believe forgiveness happened at the cross and our prayers have no influence on if God forgives us or not.
But why confess if we do not get some sort of punch on our heaven admittance card? Why make ourselves feel bad and focus on the “bad” in us?
For this, instead of leaning on scripture, I will quote Augustine:
“Confess. Let all the pus come out and flow away in your confession; then dance for joy and be glad.”Augustine of Hippo, Enarrationes in Psalmos 66.7
Basically, confession lets you get rid of the infection of sin. It lets you release it, stop letting it weigh you down and poison you.
You confess for healing. You confess for forgiveness of self. Neither really takes if you do not also repent in response to your confession, but holding onto past sins, allowing them to weigh you down and make you sick, helps no one — including those whom you wronged.
We all need healing and to let go of shame. I will not speak of justice and consequence here — much wiser folks have and will continue to work the limits and boundaries of that out — but we, in our hearts, need to let our confession excise our sin from our hearts and stop allowing it to poison us, both through shame and continuing to sin.
Confess for healing and forgiveness, not in some future after death but here and now. That is why we confess.
P.S.: Side note I may expound upon later: love is not affection (physical or otherwise), and complete love does not require nor demand continued relationship.