Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love…. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before more (Psalm 51:1-2)

A member of our congregation said not long ago that, much as he likes the church, he thinks we don’t do enough with confession. He’s right. We need to focus more on the practice of confession, and the first day of Lent is an ideal time to begin.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to share confession meaningfully in corporate worship, especially in a large church. Confession ought to involve contrition, a heartfelt sorrow for sin, which is an intensely personal thing. Printed prayers of confession have a hard time evoking genuine contrition, especially when they claim to confess things that not everyone feels convicted about. What we try to do in worship is to pray together a kind of prologue to confession, followed by a time of silent confession that may be more meaningful because it is more personal.

Confession in public worship is mostly a reminder of how much we need it in our daily lives. The Great Commandment is to love God with all that is in us, and love our neighbors as ourselves; and anyone who takes the commandment at all seriously knows immediately how widely we miss the mark—which, by the way, is the literal meaning of the Greek New Testament word for sin.

Far from being a morbid preoccupation with our shortcomings, though, confession in a Christian context is actually a liberating experience and an occasion for gratitude, and even joy. The reason is that our confession is met, not with judgment and condemnation, but with the mercy of a loving and gracious God. The psalmist knows this when he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” God delights in making all things new, especially a heart that longs to be healed.

The purpose of confession is to restore relationships, with God and one another. It takes a lot of work to maintain conflict, to rationalize and repress our faults and live with the consequences of estrangement from others, and even from ourselves. Confession cuts through all of that, and releases us from a great burden. On the other side of confession there is peace and contentment. So the psalmist opens his heart in expectation: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

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