My Christian upbringing taught me the gravity of sin. I knew I was a sinner. Knowing the joy of forgiveness, not so much.
My parents herded me and my four siblings to church every Sunday, usually twice. I attended Sunday school where my aunt lined up her pupils against the wall and instructed us to sing “get thee behind me Satan,” complete with actions. I went to youth group throughout my teenage years with the aim, it seemed, to teach me that I should not participate in the sins of the world.
My faith journey during those years was not always solemn. The home and Christian community I grew up in was happy, kind, and safe. Yet, much of the emphasis seemed to be on what one should not do as a Christian. Unfortunately, this perspective gave me a perception of God as one who took note of my rights and wrongs, who looked down from heaven and tsked at my often exuberant behavior. I never felt good enough and my choices only met with his disapproval not approval, with no chance of acceptance. Never would I sense him smiling on his beloved child.
It took me many years to work out that God does not want us to beat ourselves up, for this is not what he does to us. God’s message is one of freedom. As Carol Kent writes in He Holds my Hand, “you no longer have to carry the burden of your sin around like unnecessary baggage.” Instead, the central message, I believe, of the Christian faith is not on what we have done wrong but on what Jesus has made right.
Jesus’ first words, as he began his ministry, were one of good news as he proclaimed God’s favor had arrived —release, sight, and freedom. Or as The Passion Translation puts Luke 4:19: “the time of God’s great acceptance has begun.” Now, that’s something to get excited about and brings relief to a poor sinner’s soul.
Today we live in a victim culture, where we believe we have been wronged more than having done wrong. We have moved away from a sense of guilt and being a violator. Sin is no longer at the forefront of our minds as a society. And, consequently, our need for or habit of confession has lessened.
Alongside this, the topic of sin is not prevalent in our churches—well, certainly not in the churches I have attended in the last 20 years or so. I can barely recall the word sin being used from the pulpit. Maybe the reason for this is because it’s become awkward to talk about a subject many people cannot relate to in today’s culture. Or it could be a shift in emphasis because we need to hear good news and hope for our hopelessness. The church I go to today centers on what we can do with the new life Jesus offers us.
One could say my preference to focus on the favor we receive from God through Jesus rather than the disfavor of God who sees our sins is a knee-jerk reaction to my upbringing. But I believe it to be a result of much soul-searching, which took me to seminary, and to finding peace and joy in the good news Jesus proclaims to a broken world and our post-Christian society.
So, how do we face our sin in a healthy way? When we focus on the cross and Jesus’ death it should bring us to our knees before him, and this is a good thing. But if we stay at the foot of the cross, we can get stuck in our failings. Jesus is no longer on the cross and we should not remain there either.
We should not even be at the tomb. As the angel said “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Instead, we need to be joining Jesus’ disciples, commissioned to go into our streets, cities, and the world to share how Jesus came to save us, not condemn us.
It’s not just confession that gives us life, it is a living Lord. Jesus said “I have come that they might have life.” Let’s live like we are alive.
The life God has given me is at the forefront of my mind when I come before him. It makes me bow my head. It puts me on my knees. But I always sense God saying to me, Get up, daughter. This is not where I want you to stay. Stand tall, and wear your crown.
The prodigal son, when deciding to return home, had his confession prepared and ready: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” Yet, even when he was at a distance, his father ran out to meet and embrace him. No words of confession had passed the son’s lips. We have a God who knows the intent of our hearts. We only need to begin turning toward him and we are already enveloped in his love. Hard to believe.
The son only got part way through his planned confession when his father interrupted him, no longer listening but giving instructions for the party to begin. How long, I wonder, had his father had the day of “great acceptance” planned for his son? The father did not dwell on his son’s sins but celebrated his return.
The thing is, we don’t know how the son responded to this welcome and acceptance. We only know how the older brother reacted. But, the son—did he have a hard time forgetting what he had done? Did he keep approaching his father saying he was sorry, wanting to get the confession out so he could feel better about himself? I can imagine how his father would have responded, wanting his son to fully embrace his position as a cherished child. So, perhaps he laughed, ate, drank, and was dizzy with joy while not forgetting, with sheer amazement, the forgiveness and acceptance he had received. This, I believe, is how his father would have wanted him to respond. It’s the same for us.
We have an opportunity to spend each day celebrating because God is full of love; “his mercies begin afresh each morning.” Let’s keep our confession in perspective and instead enjoy the delights our heavenly Father has laid on for us each day.