Readings Psalm 32 and Genesis 33:1-11
Why do we pray the prayer of confession?
There are two prominent critiques of the collective prayers of confession one might happen to come across: 1) The first sees them as harmful – the church wielding and weaponizing sin and guilt, making us feel little taller than a worm before the unflinching standards and ever-present judgment of God. 2) The second sees them as perfunctory – carried out as a rote exercise that allows the Christian to not actually contemplate their sin or need for Jesus’ salvation.
Neither of these critiques are wholly without merit. The church has often dealt in guilt, has looked too lowly on the human, and has kowtowed to the trends of society in creating scales of sinfulness and wretchedness. And there are times when any corporate prayer can become a box to tick, a ‘thing we do’ rather than feel and express; where we can hear a corporate prayer and go ‘well, that’s not me… I didn’t do that this week.’
So why do we persist with this kind of prayer – placed in such a prominent and early point in the service? Let us consider our readings.
The psalmist testifies to the perhaps cynically put, therapeutic benefits of confession:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
The psalmist admits that their body was wasting away under the guilt of their offense, and so they confessed, and in finding forgiveness, felt relief. I said “cynically” before in calling this therapeutic, as a more generous reading might call it liberating – generally freeing to be dragged out of self-loathing and anxiety by speaking the truth over our own actions (of which we have all from time to time despised and disbelieved) and having received a word of forgiveness. Confession for the psalmist is fully in keeping with the proverb: the truth will set you free.
Let’s turn to our passage from Genesis, which might need a little backstory. Jacob has, at this point in the narrative, stolen the blessing intended for his brother (Esau) from his father (Isaac). He has since grown wealthy, expanded his family, and attained much livestock – though he now wishes to return to the land of his ancestors, which requires a confrontation with Esau. He sends gifts ahead to Esau after being filled with fear in hearing that Esau was approaching him with some 400 men. And then – in a most enigmatic and rich story – Jacob wrestles all night with a figure human and divine, refusing to relinquish them until they bless him with more life, bless him as he goes to what could in all likelihood be his death. What we heard picks up the story at this point.
The danger is high for Jacob and his kin, and he has no idea the kind of hostile greeting that awaits him… and yet, Esau ran to meet him, and embraced hum, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Esau greets the members of Jacob’s household with joy, and seeks to turn down the gifts Jacob sent ahead, deeming them unnecessary in order to secure peace between them. Jacob, however insists on this reparative act, and notes that in looking upon Esau’s face – full of love, and forgiveness, and generosity despite betrayal, in looking on Esau’s face, Jacob has seen the face of God.
Jacob enters this scene ready to lose… perhaps even ready to lose his life, he only hopes that his livestock offerings will be enough to satisfy Esau’s rightful grievance and allow him to pass unharmed into the land God has sent him. However, Esau defies expectations, and so instead of shame, truth is told, instead of fractured families we have restored relationships, and instead of death there is freedom to live again. The first great sin of the Bible is Cain’s murder of Abel. An act of fratricide. All our interpersonal sin is in some way an echo of this refusal to be in right relationship, a refusal to be responsible for how we act toward others, a refusal to be our brother’s keeper. Here, however, Jacob and Esau can be seen as a mending the sin of Cain and Abel. They claim one another, it is an act of confession and forgiveness and it is here that God’s face is found. Once again, the truth has set them free, free from fear, resentment, isolation.
Such a mending took both brothers. One to confess and seek repair for the sins of the past, and one to meet such a moment with a tremendous amount of grace; offering forgiveness, and opening their life again in trust to move toward restored relationship. What is most vital, however in the sequence of the story – is that before Jacob can utter a word, before he can explain why he sent livestock ahead, Esau has rushed ahead an embraced him (some might be reminded of a story Jesus told which echoes this one). Without even being aware of it, Jacob’s confession and repentance takes place within the arena of Esau’s love and forgiveness. A loving spirit has already been extended, even before he is able to utter his appeal… in this, Esau (who bears the face of God) embodies God’s pre-emptive and prodigal grace extended and embracing all we Jacobs who seek to speak the truth in confession and turn back to life together.
This story holds so much, but if we take two lessons, the first might be, that we confess in order to restore relationships fractured by our own sin; the second, that when we confess to God, our act is preceded by God’s own forgiving, loving, and reconciling act – we confess as those God has already run out to meet, already embraced, already determined in God’s own perfect freedom, to love.
Now even if after all of this, we have accepted that it is good to offer prayers of confession, this still doesn’t get at the heart of the opening critiques: which might still say, yes, that’s all well and good but we could do that alone and in the secret of our hearts… why pray the prayer of confession together?
If we take a look at society – and all the half-hearted, lip-service, self-protecting “apologies” we see meted out on a daily basis – we can see the truth of the song, sorry seems to be the hardest word. We pray it together then, in part, because of the difficulty of praying it alone. We pray it together because there are things that we are responsible for together. And we pray it together to remind ourselves of our collective identity as Christians.
Christians are those who follow after Jesus Christ – a man who declared himself to be truth incarnate. For this reason we never need to be fearful of the truth. We can confess and lament and seek repair and reconciliation in full voice because we do not believe that the truth told about ourselves, about the church, about our history will lead to anything other than freedom. This doesn’t mean the truth insulates us from change or discomfort – the process of confession, repentance, repair, restoration, and reconciliation certainly asks for us to give things up, to step out, to learn and change… but truth does not annihilate, or denigrate, it is not interesting in keeping us in spirals of shame and self-loathing, it is determined (as Christ himself is determined) to restore us into right relationship, to speak a word of tender grace, to draw us back into the way of God, marked by love, justice, and fellowship.
The good news of confession is that Christ’s love, Christ’s presence, makes it possible. Christ makes possible the very act of admitting how we have turned from Christ! For Christ has already redeemed us, already conquered Sin and Death, and so we make our confession not outside but within his word of forgiveness. Christ in his grace and power makes it possible for us to say sorry, to become accountable, and to bulldozer the dividing walls of hostility we have, in our pride, erected. Christ has made this possible, not by saying we won’t have to change, but in his promise that we will not be alone as we change. In telling the truth we are not abandoned but embraced, not excluded but accompanied back into the land of the living where we might see God’s face in the mending of broken trust, the repair of stolen blessings, the speaking of that which is true.
Image: Wang Pan-Youn, Prayer 祈禱, 1975
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 38 cm
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