Confession of Sin: Things Left Undone
There is something in the Anglican service that really makes me uncomfortable. It is not something I encountered often before I experienced the classic Christian liturgy. At the Confession of Sin, we pray:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
But if I’m being honest, its the next line that rattles my bones:
and by what we have left undone.
What I have left undone? I remember the first time I prayed this confession, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pray that part. Even things left undone? Where is the wiggle room in that?
I mean, lets be honest, us churchgoing folks, we work hard to stay away from the sins of commission. These are the things we actively do to harm ourselves or others. We really focus on those. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. Its not that we succeed in putting those sins away, its just that we learn either to hide them, or we work hard to stay away from them. They are the object usually, when sin is the subject.
Holiness, our churchy version of it, is learning to avoid the really obvious things we do to harm others. Holiness, in our minds, is more about the “don’ts” than it is about the “do’s”
What we religious insiders don’t want to face is the reality that our fallen nature goes deeper than just what we don’t do. We are also sinners because we leave undone the things we ought to do. We are not just to avoid harming others, to stay in our houses, to mind our own business.
Unfortunately, according to Jesus, it is a sin to “mind my own business.” At least, if minding my own business means ignoring the pains and sorrows of others.
Do Unto Others
Jesus was the one who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He didn’t merely say don’t do anything harmful (that too). But he goes beyond that to give us the positive command to actively treat others with love. To serve others. To heal others. To carry the burdens of others.
If we aren’t doing that, we are missing the mark, we have sinned against God, others, and ourselves. And that is what makes me uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure I deeply believe that I’m doing pretty good as long as I don’t harm anyone. I don’t want to face the reality that I’m sinning just by ignoring another person’s suffering.
But discomfort is a good thing for a recovering Pharisee like me to encounter. I need to see the truth, the truth that I need salvation and healing from the inside, out.
The Sermon on the Mount makes this point, although we often misunderstand it. We hear Jesus say that if we have hate in our heart, we have murdered our brother in our heart. We read that, and think Jesus is challenging us to try really hard. We are to try to avoid both inside murder (hatred) and outside murder (killing someone).
Jesus is giving us, we think, the ultimate challenge.
But instead, Jesus is giving us a doctor’s diagnosis in the Sermon on the Mount. He is the Great Physician, not the Great Fitness Trainer. He is showing us that we need to be healed from the inside out.
To Be Holy is to Love
And so the Confession of Sin reminds me that holiness is love. To be holy as God is holy is to actively love others. Love is never passive, it is active. And it reminds me that since I fail to actively love others, I am failing to be holy. That realization is the moment of crisis. Will I hide away from God because I’ve seen my own sin?
But thankfully, I get to hear these words next:
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.
Repentance is about radical honestly in the face of a holy God, but a holy God who has issued absolution and removed condemnation. It is about no longer hiding away from him, as if he doesn’t already know my heart. Its about speaking the truth out loud.
And that is one thing I love about the Anglican Confession of Sin. It helps me face the truth, it calls me to a deeper level of honesty, while also covering me in the absolute grace of Almighty God, through the Incarnate Son, in the Spirit’s power. I don’t love others actively as I should, and I’m forgiven for that, and then strengthened in all goodness, kept by the power of the Holy Spirit.
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