I had a friend once who had learned to apologize for his lateness and to minimize his error at the same time. I was fascinated. I had no idea you could do that. He would say, “Hi guys. I’m so sorry that I am just a little bit late.” The “so sorry” part recognized the error and apologized for it; the “just a little bit late” part minimized the error and made the apology seem unnecessary.
I was reminded of that recently when I heard an invitation to a period of common confession at church. The need to confess our sins before God is fundamental to Presbyterians and the sins we confess are horrible without mitigation. That is the whole point that is made when we emphasize God’s grace in refusing to hold these horrible sins against us and blotting them out completely.
The “sins” we commit against each other are mere peccadillos by comparison. We sin against each other as we sin against God—in thought word, and deed—but we are sinning against people who have also sinned against us. This calls for a kind of “adjustment” which may have, as Paul’s admonitions often did, the unity of the congregation in mind. That is why he implored the sophisticates of the church in Corinth not to casually dismiss the most conscientious among them and why he implored the conscientious not to condemn the sophisticates. These are matters for forgiveness, certainly, but mutual forgiveness. [Nothing here, you notice, calls our attention to whether the arrow has gone “far enough,” which is the presupposition of “fallen short.”]
That’s not how it is with God. God is holy and our sins are glaring violations of the relationship He offers, enables, and demands. Here, for instance, in one we have used from time to time in our church.
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.
Our sins, in this confession, are “heavy, real, and deep.” They have become for us “a consuming fire of judgment.” And we cannot change what we have done; we can only hope to “be changed” by God’s intervention in our lives. There is no softening our our faults here; not a hint of what I called, in the title, “maladjustment.”
Forgiveness as therapy
There is a slow drift, it seems to me, away from the notion that sins are really bad and that we are really guilty because we keep committing them. A friend who is a therapist once told me that it is a good practice in counseling the assume that the client is doing as well as he or she can. That gives you a chance to focus on how the client can look at the problem in a different way, how to learn new skills, and how to create some non-judgmental space for learning those skills. That sounds really good to me. It is therapy, however. It is not how the Christian faith has been understood.
Therapy does not provide us with a model for faith. There is no God against whom we have offended. There is no God to whom we can confess and to whom we can appeal for forgiveness. And the closer we come to adopting the understandings that work perfectly well in therapy, the worse will be our understanding of what faith in God entails.
All this was brought on by a “call” to “confession” I heard recently.
“We confess ways in which we have not yet quite made the mark.”
Three things concern me here. One is mere pedantry, so I’ll deal with that first. As I understand it, “falling short of the mark,” the traditional way of phrasing it, is a term from ancient archery. A line is drawn and all the archers are to shoot their arrows beyond it if they can. If you can’t shoot it that far, your arrow falls short of the mark. Literally. It’s more like the modern competition in javelin. You don’t really “make” marks in archery.
In the context of the prayer of confession, the mark is the life to which God calls us. It is a life with respect to Him and with respect to each other. The line is at a challenging distance and we fall short. In the expression above, we have the picture of “making the mark.” That may be a version of an accomplishment, as in “she made her mark in popular music.” Or maybe it is just a rephrasing of “not falling short;” we “made” the mark that is set for us. Neither calls the familiar “falling short of the mark” to mind.
The second matter is not mere pedantry.. This formulation has us “not quite” making the mark. The emphasis there is not on missing it, but on how close we came. That is what “not quite” contributes to this formulation. It is not the language of confession. It is apologizing profusely for “being just a little bit late.” In confession, the emphasis is on our failure. This language doesn’t do that.
The third matter is also serious. It is that we have “not yet…made the mark.” That achievement is, by this phrasing, just a matter of time. We are coming closer and closer. We have not achieved the goal, but we are about to. That is what “yet” contributes to this picture. But the Christian view is not that we are coming closer and closer and that God, if He were willing to wait. It is, rather, that we are fundamentally flawed and that the guilt of our lives will be dealt with by God’s unmerited mercy or not at all. “Not yet” doesn’t say that.
If this was a public misstatement, no more than a slip of the tongue, it really doesn’t matter. I know what it is like to have a microphone stuck in your face and later on, you can scarcely imagine that you could have said such a thing. If this was one of those, I have spent way too much time on it already.
But I don’t think it was. To me, this is part of a much larger pattern—the slow drift of real religion into therapy is a real thing. It is actually occurring. Studies that take no position on this change show it to be occurring and I can see why it is attractive. We, after all, control the outcomes in therapy.
We don’t control the life of faith. In our service of God, we can see a future in which we may “be changed,” as it says in the confession above. That’s a passive verb. We are not doing the changing; it is us who are being changed. The Agent of this change is elsewhere and we receive the action and respond to it as we are able.
I like therapy. I have benefitted greatly from my experience of it. But I don’t want it instead of worship.