The psalms are a favorite prayer book for many of us, and the psalm appointed for this Sunday uses some of the most evocative imagery in the whole psalter to describe what it feels like when we refuse to acknowledge our shortcomings and ask for help and forgiveness:
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
I wish I could say that the last time I can remember that feeling of bottled up confession dated back to my youth – and it is certainly true that as a young person I hated to admit that I was wrong – but the truth is, I still struggle to confess my shortcomings. Or, I struggle to confess the ones that matter the most. I can readily acknowledge my participation in vast networks of systemic oppression. I can admit that I fall short of the mark when it comes to my personal stewardship of time or money. But when I fail another human being, one on one, my defenses and rationalizations spring into place and I hide behind them for fear of accusation.
The irony is, it is only through confession that we can experience the freedom of forgiveness. If salvation, in the broadest theological sense – or the more immediate, personal sense – were something I could engineer on my own, I would have no need of church, community or God’s own self. But I cannot, and neither can you.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
One of the deepest struggles that faces all disciples of Jesus is acknowledging that we need him. If only we could just say that we admire him, or that we respect him, or that we love him – then our dignity could remain intact. But that falls short of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Our full testimony as individuals and as a people is that we fall short, we mess up, we hurt each other, we oppress the stranger, we neglect the vulnerable, we exploit the poor. We need forgiveness that we do not deserve – and God stands ready to forgive.
Before we can experience that forgiveness, we have to bring ourselves to be able to confess – not for God’s sake, but for our own.