Monday, March 11, 2013

Clearing the Slate

Clearing the Slate
Psalm 32[1]
I would venture to say that one of the last things someone in our day and time might expect to hear as a means of deepening our trust in God is by confessing our sin.  Many of us these days are uncomfortable admitting that we have sinned, and even more so that we are sinners.  But from the biblical perspective, both are fundamentally true:  we have sinned--that relates to our actions.  And we are sinners--that relates to who we are.[2]  But that’s not always an easy thing to do.  In the evangelical world, Christian people can tend toward the thinking that “I’m saved, I asked Jesus into my heart and confessed my sin on such-and-such a date.”  They may feel the need to confess really bad actions here and there, but they tend to think that they’ve already confessed to being a sinner.  They’ve already got that part covered.  In our branch of the Christian world, Christian people can tend toward the thinking that “I’m a good person, I go to church, I try to help people and be kind to them, I volunteer my time.”  They may feel like the demand to confess they are sinners is offensive given all their efforts at living the Christian life.[3]
And yet, the Psalmist insists that acknowledging our sin is something that remains an important part of an ongoing relationship of faith in God.  In fact, he warns that when we refuse to acknowledge our sin, it tends to fester inside us and comes out in all kinds of ways that aren’t so pleasant.  Pride, anger, bitterness, and perhaps even behaviors that are attributed to a more “psychological” origin may relate to repressed guilt.[4]  From the Psalmist’s perspective, refusing to clear the slate made him feel like God’s hand was “heavy” upon him (Ps. 32:4).  I think we can all relate to the sense of foreboding when we know we’ve messed up, and there are going to be consequences to pay, but it hasn’t happened yet.  That’s one more clue that we all need the relief and release the Psalmist says comes as a “blessing” when we confess our sin (Ps. 32:1-2).
And that is precisely what the Psalmist promises in response to the heartfelt, genuine confession that “I have sinned, and I am a sinner”: relief from the burden and release from the sense of guilt.  That’s why the confession of sin is such an important part of learning to trust in God.  As long as we hold back, as long as we refuse to acknowledge who we really are and what we’ve done, there must be some doubt in our minds about whether God really accepts us.  But when we stop fooling ourselves and let go the burden, we find God’s love embracing us, God’s grace abounding, God’s mercy healing us.[5]  When we make ourselves vulnerable by approaching God with the confession, “I am a sinner,” and experience not condemnation or rejection but acceptance and love and forgiveness, we walk away from that experience with a stronger sense of trust in the one who has embraced us.[6] 
Unfortunately, for most of us, “confession” is only something we do at the beginning of  a worship service.  And even then, because we do it every Sunday, in the same way, and at the same time, it can begin to feel like something routine.  But for confession to be genuine, it has to be more than a routine.  It has to be something that is heartfelt.  It cannot be relegated to a few words we mumble on Sunday morning.  Ongoing confession is an integral part of the life of faith.  If we need to be reminded why it is so important to confess our sin, all we have to do is remember that it is God’s love that exposes our sin. [7] There is something about sin so damaging to the human condition that God felt it necessary to die for us all in order to set us free.  If our sin is that serious to God, maybe we should take it more seriously.
This particular perspective on developing a deeper heart of trust in God is one that is not easy to swallow.  The very words, “I am a sinner” get caught in our throats as we say them.  Yet, they are so very important for us to say.  Our confession of sin, our clearing of the slate before God, is a necessary step for us to experience the unconditional love and acceptance God offers us all. [8]  And when we take the risk, when we make ourselves vulnerable, then we know the release and joy of the restoration that God holds out to all of us as a free gift.  When we clear the slate by confessing our sin we can learn to trust God enough to know the joy of God’s embrace.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/10/2013.
[2] cf. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:50, where he defines sin as “hubris” or pride and says, “It is sin in its total form, namely, the other side of unbelief or man’s turning away from the divine center to which he belongs. It is turning toward one’s self as the center of one’s self and one’s world.”
[3] cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:807.  Cf. also Katharine Grieb, “The Real Prodigal,” The Christian Century (Mar 9, 2004):21: “It is said that there are two kinds of sinners in the world: those who know they're sinners and those who don't.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 147: when we refuse to acknowledge our sin, “the wrong retained and sheltered begins to become part of one’s identity.  It harms and hardens and diminishes. ... In the silence, every affliction and problem takes the form of judgment of God” Cf. also Karl Menninger, What Ever Became of Sin?, 178: “I believe that all the evildoing in which we become involved to any degree tends to evoke guilt feelings and depression.  These may or may not be clearly perceived, but they affect us.  They may be reacted to and covered up by all kinds of escapism, rationalization, and reaction or symptom formation.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:578: in his silence the one who refused to acknowledge sin “could only be broken on God.”
[5] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1.576: “The divine pardon does not burst into man’s willingness but his unwillingness.”
[6] Cf. Mays, 147: “Confession is the knocking to which the door opens, the seeking that finds, the asking that receives.  Confession of sin to God is confession of faith in God. ... faith understands that we are sinners and God is gracious.”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 148: “the practice of repentance can become so routine, inconsequential, shallow, lacking in real seriousness, ... that it is a presumption on the mercy of God and a belief in cheap grace.  For the Christian, the cure for [this]deceit  comes by keeping the crucified Christ in view as God’s judgment on and pardon for our sin.” Cf. also The Confession of 1967, inclusive language version, 9.12, which puts it this way: “The reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ exposes our sin in the sight of God.”
[8] Mays, Psalms, 146: “God’s way is to forgive sinners, and we do not acknowledge his grace unless we present ourselves to him as sinners.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:579.

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