On Spiritual Honesty

I’ve been neglecting the blog somewhat severely of late… It’s not for lack of ideas. I have several posts bouncing around in my head; it’s purely a lack of time to translate them from brainwaves into electrons.

However, one of the items on my plate did get checked off today. Fr. Allen and the good folks at St. Mary’s, Abingdon invited me speak at their Lenten Luncheon. I had a great time, and had some delicious clam chowder in the bargain!

Here’s what I said…


 

Today, I’d like us to spend a little bit of time fussing around with one of the hardest of the Lenten disciplines. Honesty. I know—fasting, almsgiving, and prayer always get top billing and that’s fine, but what our Mother Church calls us to when we receive the exhortation to a holy Lent is so hard precisely because it’s so simple: The call to a Holy Lent is a call to spiritual honesty.

Ash Wednesday confronts us with two uncomfortable realities. First, that we are mortal. You and I are going to die. And we have all Lent to consider what that means as we watch Jesus’ own movement towards the cross and his death. First, we are mortal. Second, we are sinners. And this is where I want to focus today—I want to think about what this means, and how our prayer book helps us wrestle with this.

For me, there’s one Bible passage that is inextricably bound up with the act of Confession and that’s the fault of the Lutheran Book of Worship. I grew up Lutheran and the Lutheran book steals the Penitential order at the start of the service directly out of our Book of Common Prayer and the Scripture sentence that it always uses before confession is this one from First John: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

They say that the first step in wrestling with an addiction is recognizing that you need help. And that’s one of the models that we can use to think about our complicated relationship with sin—that it’s an addiction that compels us into certain patterns and behaviors. St. John is gently calling us back to reality. If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves. We are not being honest about ourselves and about our condition.

And there’s a lot fighting against this; one thing we can certainly say about humans is this: we are masters of the fine art of self-deception. We have crafted all kinds of ways to deceive ourselves about all kinds of things! Me, I’m a master Procrastinator. I like to convince myself that if I just forget about something or avoid it long enough and it’ll just go away. That’s one strategy… Then there’s Justification, “Well, that’s not really a sin, I mean it could be for some people, but this is what I just have to do and I have a very good reason for doing it…” Or, another good one is Comparison: “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do that—but it’s not like I’m an axe murderer! Those people are way worse than me!”

And yet—to all of these excuses St. John has one very simple response: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” We don’t fool God. We don’t fool those people against whom we are sinning. And, let’s face it, some of the time we can’t even fool ourselves. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

The first step, then, to getting honest about ourselves and about our sin is to begin with the simple fact of acknowledgement. Simply the act of confessing sin names it. It gets it out there. It puts a stick in the spokes of our great engine of self-deception. It doesn’t solve the problem, of course, but it does make us sit up and take notice.

Now, when it comes to prayers of confession, our prayer book gives us several options. The classic is, of course, the one that we inherited from our earlier prayer books at the Eucharist where “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.” It’s a great prayer and I love it—but I’m not going to talk about it today. Instead, since we’re talking about honesty, I want to focus on another prayer of confession—the one that we find before the Daily Offices. Here is the prayer of confession at the start of the Rite I, traditional language Morning and Evening Prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
we have offended against thy holy laws,
we have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
spare thou those who confess their faults,
restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord;
and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

Honesty. That’s where we start out. This prayer names for us five examples by which our sinfulness expresses itself.

  1. we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
  2. we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
  3. we have offended against thy holy laws,
  4. we have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
  5. and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

I really like this list. The reason why I like it, is because it focuses less on thou-shalt-nots and from talking about sin in the form of specific discrete bad actions and speaks more of sin as a fundamental misorientation of life. For me it’s that metaphor of the straying sheep that really hits home. We are wandering in the wilderness, following our own inclinations, heedless of the well-marked path of the Shepherd. The opening psalms of Morning Prayer, Psalms 95 and 100 riff on this image of the Shepherd and the sheep. I’d love to go into this more—there’s this really neat interplay between the language in the confession and the language of sheep and Shepherd in the psalms, but we don’t have time to get into it all now—just notice that it’s there for now and ponder it at your leisure.

Another piece of wisdom in this list is the ordering of the last two items. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” The point the prayer book is making here is that we sin far more by omission than by commission. We sin more in what we don’t do, what we leave off, what we pass by, than what we do do.

Classically, this whole list of five things was gathered together in a summary statement: “and there is no health in us.” This is a good and important summary provided that we understand it correctly. Remember—the translators and editors of the 1552 prayer book where this first appears still had the Latin ringing in their ears; salus can be rendered either as “health” or “salvation.” I read this less as a statement of Calvinistic depravity and more akin to a Lutheran sentiment that we are unable to save ourselves through our own efforts. It’s just like the opening of our collect for this week: “Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…”

Ok—so, we begin by acknowledging our situation honestly. Yes, we sin. Yes, our lives—like sheep—have wandered off the path of virtue that God has laid down for us. And, as we said, owning this is our first step. Furthermore, we can’t fix this on our own. And so we acknowledge our need for God’s help. “Spare thou those…Restore thou those…and grant that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life to the glory of the holy Name. If the confession opened with the metaphor of the lost sheep and with the image of misorientation, the end of the confession is about reorientation.

Note how it happens, though. The sheep doesn’t get unlost through its own effort. Just so, we can’t work our way out of this no matter how good our intentions. Remember? There is no health in us; we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. To my mind this is where it gets serious again. I at least want to have the illusion of control here! I at least want to think that there’s something I can do to fix this problem! But no—hear again where the prayer goes:

But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
spare thou those who confess their faults,
restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord;
and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

It’s all God. It’s all grace. We can’t fix ourselves, but instead have to turn ourselves over to the God who promised to spare us, to restore us, and to guide us in right paths for his name’s sake. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not the ones in control of our direction and our destiny. We follow the Shepherd who leads us. And there’s the why of it as well. Why do we seek to live this way? Why do we seek this reorientation? For God’s glory—not ours. “That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name.”

This is the honesty we drive towards in Lent: a realistic assessment of our situation, a realistic assessment from where our help comes, and a clear direction of how—and why—to reorder our steps.

If you pray the one or both of the Offices this Lent, I’d encourage you to be attentive to the words of this daily confession. Ponder it. As its words slip through your mouth, capture them in your heart and consider the discipline of honesty. Consider the reality of your situation, your state. And open your heart to the converting, reforming, refreshing grace of God. Even as we confess, even as we ask for this healing grace, may expect it, and look for signs of its flourishing in our lives.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou
hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are
penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that
we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our
wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

3 Replies to “On Spiritual Honesty”

  1. Now Derek, tell us about actual confssion before God and another person (priest?) the specifics of those things done or not done. AA has a guideline in the 4th step, and Orthodox and Catholics have the sacrament of confession. Does anglicanism equivocate on this? I think not, based on the 1979 BCP, but it certainly isn’t made central to preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in communion. could you expand on your thought in a way that might lead people to a more holy state of life? I think Martin Thornton had some things to say about this.

  2. Actually, this came up in the questions afterward and we had quite a good discussion on sacramental Confession. What I pointed to was the incarnate aspect: in confessing verbally there’s no way to deceive yourself about the sin and its admission. By the same token, you have an embodied voice (with power behind it) speaking Christ’s absolution. No, sacramental Confession isn’t required in the ’79 BCP nor in any stream of Anglican practice, but its more regular use would certainly be beneficial.

    As mentioned in other comments, though, many—if not most—of our priests haven’t been nurtured in a culture that confesses and takes confession and its confidentiality with the deadly seriousness required for most lay people to trust it fully…

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