“Confession Is Good for the Soul”

Lent 1

March 5, 2017


Text:  Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7


    Many of us have undoubtedly heard the saying, “Confession is good for the soul.”  That, in a nutshell, is the message of Psalm 32.  But why is this true?  Let’s consider this.

    The psalmist sings about it this way, “When I kept quiet, my bones wore out; I was groaning all day long--every day, every night!--because your hand was heavy upon me.  My energy was sapped as if in a summer drought.”  What is it like when you know you’ve done wrong, but don’t want to admit it?  I find that when I am in this position, guilt starts eating at me.  Because I feel embarrassed and ashamed about what I did, I expend a lot of energy trying to keep it all hidden, and the effort is wearisome.  This is the experience the psalmist is describing.

    The story of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden tells a similar story.  God had instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die.  Along came the snake with “alternative facts”.  The snake told Eve that they would not die for eating the forbidden fruit, but instead they would be made wise like God, knowing good and evil.  So they took, they ate, and suddenly realized they were naked, ashamed, and afraid.  Did they confess their sin to God?  No.  Instead they tried to hide their nakedness with makeshift clothing made out of fig leaves.  Then they tried to hide from God, and discovered they could not.  When God confronted them with their disobedience, they still did not confess they had sinned or accept responsibility for what they had done--instead they passed the buck.  Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  

    When we do what is displeasing to God, we often do the same things Adam and Eve did.  We try to hide what we have done.  We avoid accepting responsibility.  We pass the buck and blame others.  We make excuses to try to justify our behavior.

    I sometimes find it difficult to confess my sin to God or to others.  Sometimes I resist confessing my sin because I believe I have fouled things up so badly that I can’t believe anyone would possibly be willing to forgive me, even God.  The prominent 20th century spiritual writer Henri Nouwen described this reality this way:  “There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation.”  That’s what happened to Adam and Eve.  They became preoccupied with themselves and the fact that they were naked.  

Nouwen continues, “Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord.”

    This idol of guilt is broken down through confession.  The psalmist continues:  “So I admitted my sin to you; I didn’t conceal my guilt. ‘I’ll confess my sins to the Lord,’ is what I said.  Then you removed the guilt of my sin.”  God is greater than our sin and guilt.  When we confess our sins, God forgives us and dethrones the guilt.  The burden of our sin, guilt, and shame is lifted.  We are released from these things for a life of joy.  As the psalmist reminds us, “The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven, whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!  The one the Lord does not consider guilty--in whose spirit there is no dishonesty--that one is truly happy!”  Confession done well requires a brutal honesty with ourselves and with God--no excuses, no refusal to accept responsibility, no attempts to justify our wrongdoing, no blaming of others or trying to justify what we have done by using the bad behavior of others.  Confession is good for the soul.

    God teaches us that he is a forgiving God.  God guides us and directs us in the right ways, helping us to stay out of trouble.  But I don’t always listen.  I try to do things my way.  I have a hard time forgiving myself.  I cling to my guilt and shame, letting them continue to chew away at my despairing spirit even while I try to avoid accepting responsibility for what I have done.  When I do this, I am being stubborn, like the horse or mule written about in our psalm.  I cannot receive relief or release until I confess my sins to God.  Confession is good for the soul.

    We have entered into the season of Lent.  During the Ash Wednesday service this past week, those present heard these words spoken as part of the statement of purpose:  “We enter the Lenten season to prepare ourselves to welcome the risen Christ with lives renewed by the breath of his spirit.  We assume a discipline of self-examination, confession, and penitence.  We dedicate ourselves to meditate upon the scriptures and to converse with God in prayer.  We seek to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ whose lives are shaped by the one whom we confess to be Lord and Savior of the world.”  These words serve to remind us that the reason for honest self-examination and confession of our sins to God is not only to make us feel better about ourselves, although that is part of the story.  The most important reason we are invited to confess our sins and be freed of the burden of our guilt is so that we may also be freed to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  He is the one whose life and teachings are the guide for how we do that.  His Spirit guides, encourages, and empowers us in doing so.

    Confession is good for the soul.  Let us honestly confess our sins before God, that we may know the burden of our shame and guilt lifted, the joy of being released therefrom, and be guided and strengthened to do God’s work in the world in the name of Jesus.  Let us pray:

O God most wise, most great, most holy, in wisdom and power and tender mercy you created us in your image.  You have given us this life to live, you have appointed our lot and determined the bounds of our habitation, you have surrounded us with gracious and good influences, you have written your law within our hearts.  And in the most secret chamber of our hearts you are now waiting to speak with each of us, freely offering us your fellowship in spite of all our sinning.  Help us now to avail ourselves of this open road to peace of mind.  Help us to approach your presence humbly and reverently.  May we carry with us the spirit of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.  Help us to leave behind all fretfulness, all unworthy desires, all thoughts of malice towards others, all hesitancy in surrendering our wills to yours.  Hear our prayer for Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.

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