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Prayers and Liturgies of Confession and Assurance
By Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReflections on Sin: Why Do We Need to Confess?
Sin as Pride
Sin has been defined as the inner condition that exists when we are not who God wants us to be. Sin as an inner condition is a prominent theme in Scripture (e.g., Psalm 51 and Romans 7). This inner condition leads to external behaviors that are visible and tangible, but sin is the inner condition. It is relational. If there is no God, there is no sin.
Sin is prevalent, occasional, and predictable in human experience, and Christians have attempted to analyze it in a number of ways. Christians have talked about seven deadly sins for about sixteen hundred years. Seekers who wanted a closer relationship with Jesus would go out into the desert regions of Egypt and Syria, and would there examine themselves. These seven sins—pride, envy, anger, boredom, greed, gluttony, lust—were the ones with which many individuals struggled. They shape our struggles as well. These are the sins that destroy people. These are the sins that end relationships. These are the sins that damage families and friendships. These are the sins that corrupt businesses and communities. These are the sins that wreak havoc among the nations.
The first and most basic of these sins is pride. C. S. Lewis wrote of one vice of which no one in the world is free, which we all despise when we see it in other people, and which hardly any people—except Christians—ever imagine that they are guilty of. This is the sin of pride. Pride leads to every other sin. Lewis says, "It was through Pride that the devil became the devil" and that pride is "spiritual cancer" (Mere Christianity [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001], 122, 125). That should get our attention. Pride is the core sin; Lewis calls it the "great sin." I want to reflect on the sin of pride in very simple and straightforward ways.
"I thank you, God, that I'm not like them."
We confront pride when we hear or say the words "I'm better than other people." The religious man in the parable in Luke goes up to the temple to pray and says, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people.... I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income" (Luke 18:11-12).
There is something to be said for this Pharisee. His relationship with God is shaping his life and his values to the extent that he has disciplined his spending of money to give one tenth (a tithe) to God. In addition he has disciplined his eating so that he doesn't just miss a meal or fast for a day; he fasts two days a week. He is obedient to God. He is righteous. But the sin of pride has entered his life. "I'm better than other people," he thinks. He even puts it in the form of a prayer: "I thank you, God, that I'm not like these other people."
One of my favorite spiritual guides is the author Flannery O'Connor. She was a native of Milledgeville, Georgia, and she died of lupus in the middle of life. O'Connor was a person of deep Christian faith. In one of her stories, "Revelation," a woman is sitting in a doctor's office talking about people (when we are at our worst, we sometimes talk about other people). This woman says to herself and to anyone who will listen, "I thank you God that you didn't make me and my husband Claude black. But if the choice was between making me black and making me white trash, God, I would rather you make me black. I couldn't bear to be white trash." And at about that time a young woman also in the waiting room whacks her over the head with a book. As a result of the impact she becomes dizzy and is carried off to the hospital. At the end of the story she has a dream, a revelation, that there is a great band of folk dancing their way up the ladder to heaven—prostitutes and thieves and blacks and white trash and there, at the end, are she and her husband Claude. (Read the full story in The Complete Stories [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972], 405-24.)
Jesus said, to the religious leaders of his day, "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31). When pride gets the best of us we think, "I'm better than other people."
I Don't Need God
In its ultimate form, pride can also mean "I don't need God." And when we have no God, we make a God of ourselves. When Christ is not at the center, we place ourselves at the center. Think about the life of a professional athlete. From childhood he (this pattern is most prevalent for males) is a star. People tell him that he is a star. He excels in high school and college, and before he ever plays a game in the pros he has made more money than all of his relatives and neighbors will make in their lifetimes.
His job as a professional athlete comes with many benefits, among them an instant group of "close" friends. A few years ago I spent the night in a hotel in a big city, and two professional sports teams were staying there. Because I'm tall, some might have mistaken me for one the team members, but I am no longer the age of pro athletes. Time passes by!
There were a lot of folks at that hotel who were only too ready to be friends with these athletes. The women were attractive; the men had connections or gifts. These hangers-on wanted a piece of the star athletes. In these cases, what the athlete gets in return is someone who will run errands, agree with almost anything he says, and get him anything he desires.
These relationships are all maintained at the discretion of the star. If he tires of the men, he ends the relationship—they do not. If he tires of a woman, he ends the relationship—she does not. It is a warped universe in which the star athlete is the center. Everything revolves around him. This is the sin of pride. It is as easy to follow as the evening news or the morning paper.
"Pride," Proverbs 16:18 says, "goes before destruction." Sometimes pride is obvious, but sometimes pride is subtle. The danger for us is to say, "I thank you, God, that I am not like a person who would act that way." Sometimes pride is obvious, but sometimes pride is more subtle.
I grew up in a medium-sized church in the Deep South. In that church I was taught the Bible, I was baptized, I was given opportunities to serve, and I sang in the choir. I was loved. In that church I answered a call to full-time ministry and went off to seminary.
A year into seminary, I was invited back to preach. Recently I came across that printed sermon in some old papers. It was truly awful. The spirit of the sermon was that I had come back from on high to share my wisdom with these people. I had been to seminary for a year and studied the New Testament in the original Greek for a whole year, and so now I knew everything and they knew nothing. I didn't say the words, but it was there, written between the lines—pride. On that Sunday long ago, I did not come to share the gospel. I came to display my pride. Even in the guise of preaching the gospel, pride entered into my life, and I swallowed it like a trout going for a fly in a mountain stream.
How do we overcome this core sin of pride, which is sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle? We discover a change in attitude; a shift in perspective; a repentance of heart—humility. We overcome pride through humility. The Bible links these two words: pride and humility. "God opposes the proud," James 4:6 reminds us, "but gives grace to the humble."
In Luke's telling of the encounter between the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14), we see both pride and humility. In the first century, Jews listening to a rabbi would do one of two things if something was said with which they disagreed: (1) if they were outside, they would throw sand into the air; (2) if they were inside, they would throw up their arms. Can you imagine what people would have done as they listened to the teaching of Jesus?
In this parable, Jesus says that two men are in the temple to pray, a religious leader and a tax collector. The fact that the tax collector was there is pretty amazing and would have been disturbing to anyone who heard this teaching. As we have already seen, the religious man has done everything right, all that is acceptable in the sight of God, but he is eaten up with pride. Jesus says that only one of the two men is in a right relationship with God: the tax collector. People would have waved their hands and objected.
Tax collectors may not be popular today, but in first-century Israel they were truly despised. The tax collector prays, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." I call this prayer of seven words "the humility prayer." The humility prayer helps us overcome pride:
As we say these seven words, we confess our need. We need help; we are sinners. As we say these seven words, we do not compare ourselves with other people. It is not about other people or how we measure up to them. It is about God and us. We stand alone before God. As we say these seven words, we acknowledge that God is the source of our help.
Whenever we pray the humility prayer—God, be merciful to me, a sinner—we give our lives to Christ. An evangelical friend once asked me in a very impassioned way, "Why don't you ask people to give their lives to Christ?" I was caught off guard in the moment, but here is my discernment about giving our lives to Christ. That phrase, "giving our lives to Christ," has been shaped in our time by television and popular media. "Giving our lives to Christ" in a television culture is something we have to do before the next commercial and the next sales pitch. And once we "give our lives to Christ," it is all over and done with. There is nothing more for us to do because the transaction has been completed.
According to the teachings of the New Testament, "giving our lives to Christ" is something that we need to do every single day, every single moment of our lives. Here's why. When we stop, when we think we have reached the pinnacle of our spiritual lives, we are in the greatest spiritual danger. When we think we have "arrived" in the spiritual life, we are tempted to think, "I'm better than other people. I don't need God." And in that moment we are lost; we are in danger; we are in trouble. If we are going to make our way in this life we will need to remember the seven words of the humility prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
If we are going to give our lives to and for Christ—every day, every moment—we are going to need continually to pray these words, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
In honest, straightforward language, compose your own "humility prayer."
Sin as Violation of Boundaries
If there is a prevailing stereotype about religion, it is that religion is a system of rules, regulations, and procedures. It has been said, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics" (most often attributed to Charles Péguy). Laws and boundaries govern our lives. Gates, fences, and credentials restrain human activity. We all live by some system of rules, regulations, and procedures. Some are external: pay your taxes, recycle, educate your children, and maintain your property. Some are internal: eat balanced meals, keep away from danger, and smile politely at acquaintances in safe places. Some are both, such as: slow down when you come to a speed bump. If you don't, you are disobeying the external visual message, but you and your car may also suffer internal consequences.
A Culture of Conformity
All of us live with rules, regulations, and procedures. And we know that the way to get along in this world is to conform. We fit in. We keep most of the laws, more or less, right? We drive the speed limit, right? We stop at red lights, right? We conform, because if we don't there will be punishment, consequences.
Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly a matter of avoiding punishment and consequences. Religion was heavy on conformity. I served briefly, right out of school, in a mill village about forty-five minutes from my current home. One of the members of the church told me that he could recall a time when, if he missed Sunday school twice in a row, the foreman in his mill (who was not a member of his church) would call him into the office to ask if there was a problem!
Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly about doing the right things. When we did the right things there were good consequences—most of the time. And so, we conformed. We conformed to avoid the bad stuff, and we conformed to get more of the good stuff.
There is a powerful urge within us to conform. When we live in a culture of conformity something about our human nature wants to know the specific rules. What exactly am I supposed to do? What are the good things you want me to do? What are the bad things you want me to avoid?
The Ten Commandments
We bring these ingrained questions to our reading of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; also see Deuteronomy 5:6-21). The commandments, however, are about something different altogether. They are not our usual code of rules, regulations, and procedures. The commandments are a way that leads to life! They are not about getting the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff. They are more complex than that. They are not about conformity to laws. They are about formation of character. They are not old words that should be pushed aside in our "enlightened" world. They are new and living words, as relevant as this morning's newspaper or last night's television news. We ignore them at our peril.
The commandments begin with a statement, not about what we are supposed to do, but about who is in charge, about who God is: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). Imagine that you are a parent trying to get a point across to your children, and at some point you say, "I am your mother [I am your father]; I gave you life. Look at everything I have done for you."
God rescued Israel from slavery, freed it from oppression. "Remember me," God says, "Remember the burning bush and the Nile turned to blood and the cloud and fire and Pharaoh's army sinking in the sea and the manna every morning? Do you remember? Have you forgotten already?" Of course, we sometimes do forget. We need to be reminded. And we need to know the context of the commandments, because the One who is about to speak to us has a right to say whatever the Lord is going to say.
As you prepare to make your confession to God, what is your image of God? What is God like? What is God's character? What is your history with God?
The First Tablet of the Law
The first four commandments are called the first tablet of the law, and they have to do with our relationship with God (Exodus 20:1-11).
I Am the Lord Your God ... You Shall Have No Other Gods before Me.
There are ten commandments, and this is the first—no other gods—not the gods of Pharaoh's Egypt; not the gods of Canaanite pleasure; not the gods of Babylonian pleasure: No Other Gods.
This is the first commandment, and some of the rabbis argue that all of the other commandments are a commentary on this one. Whether you are speaking with first graders about to receive their Bibles, or with middle-school students in confirmation classes, or with high-school students on a retreat or in a small group setting, each of them is going to grow up and encounter other gods along the way. Someone—a professor, a friend, a coworker—will tell them, "You know, that's just one explanation; there are others. That's just one truth; there are others. That's just one God; there are others."
Do Not Make Idols
And there are other gods. There is a god of the marketplace. There is a god of sexuality. There is a god of warfare. There is a god of pleasure. There is a god of youth. We are commanded to have no other gods because there are other loyalties; other authorities—other gods—call to us. And we are tempted to build temples for these other gods, to make idols of them, and to bow down to them.
Excerpted from Prayers and Liturgies of Confession and Assurance by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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