The congregation knelt in silence for the prayer of confession . . .
“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; and there is no health in us. . .”
No health! Well nobody’s perfect ‑‑ right? There is not one of us who has not: from time to time, done something inappropriate or neglected to do that which is good. To be a mortal human being is to live with the inescapable reality of one’s personal ethical imperfections and the imperfections of others. So, nobody’s perfect ‑‑ not me, not you, not them; we are collaborators, and all too frequently co‑conspirators in ethical misdeeds and inaction.
I feel a whole lot better now, knowing that I am not alone and that my guilt is just a small patch in a vast wasteland of human guilt. We are all in this together and my patch of guilt doesn’t have nearly the debris or tangled undergrowth of the patches surrounding it. In fact, if the truth be known, my patch would be in pretty good shape were it not for the choking vines and unsightly weeds that have encroached from surrounding patches.
Come to think of it, there are also some very compelling reasons behind most of the things I’ve done (but shouldn’t have done) and the things I’ve left undone (but should have done). Of course knowing what I know now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, those reasons don’t seem quite as justifiable as they did at the time ‑‑ but still you need to understand the facts. My patch of guilt is not at all unsightly compared to most others and, given the proper explanation and understanding behind the scattered ethical debris, it is actually rather good. I’m sure we can live with it, and so I simply confess that I’m a not‑too‑ fallen human being just like anybody else ‑ and not quite as bad.
Does this sound familiar? Almost all of us, in the face of accusation or guilt go through a process of self-justification, rationalization, and often ‘scapegoating’ in order to protect our sense of well being. The prisons of the world echo with stories of men and women who are convinced of their innocence as victims of circumstance and inequity. I used to think this strange and almost laughable ‑‑ if they could only hear themselves. Their stories sound so much alike. But recently I’ve grown to realize that I have a powerful tendency to the same thing by justifying myself in the course of my relationship with people and with God.
No, we are not perfect ‑‑ we are guilty ‑‑ I am guilty and, whatever the measure of defense I offer, nothing can undo what has been done or do what has been left undone. Now that I look at it again my patch of guilt is really quite unsightly, and I am no better than the man in prison, in fact he looks a lot like me.
… But thou, 0 Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O’ God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that 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.” – Anglican General Confession
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us: but if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:8,9
“I will arise and go to my Father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” – Luke 15: 18,19
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.