“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” (Luke 15:18)
In previous posts I’ve talked about praise and thanksgiving as important aspects of prayer. This week, and for the next two weeks, I’m addressing the topic of confession, which is also a form of prayer.
The word confess means the following: to agree, to admit, to acknowledge. So when we confess to God, we are admitting the truth about ourselves – and the truth about God. Most often, confession is thought of as owning up to our sins before God. This is the aspect of confession I am addressing in this and next week’s post. Two weeks from now I will write about owning up to our standing before God.
Admitting the truth about our sins is not meant to be an exercise in humiliation. Rest assured, God is a generous, patient and forgiving Father, whose Son, Jesus Christ, suffered the full penalty and shame for our sins. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (1:1) But the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice, on our behalf, will only make a difference in our life when can admit our sinfulness. In other words, we’ve got to own up to the truth about ourselves (and God) in order for the truth to set us free.
The best way for me to illustrate my point is to re-tell a story Jesus told. It is found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel and is commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. The two characters in this parable who are most important to this discussion are the father and the younger son. (I’ll address the older son’s behavior in next week’s post.)
The story begins with the younger of two sons asking for his share of the family estate, immediately. Those hearing Jesus tell this story would know that such a request is totally outrageous. A father in first century Palestine might divide his estate before he dies, but he would hold on to the income until his death. He would never give it away while alive. But this father is not your average father.
The younger son takes the money and heads to a far country (you can just as easily replace the three words in italics with just two words: Las Vegas). There he squanders his money in what Jesus refers to as “loose living” (probably something like gambling, prostitution and binge drinking). And just when his resources dry up – and his friends move on – a famine strikes the country and this younger son is left destitute. So he looks for a job and takes the only one he can get – feeding pigs. This is definitely not something first century Jewish boys from good families should be doing for a living. We are to understand he has sunk as low as he can get.
This is the turning point in the story for the son. When he comes to terms with his degradation he makes a discovery: he has sinned. Jesus narrates this self-discovery by saying the boy “came to his senses” (v. 17). When we “come to our senses” we, too, are ready to confess – to admit the truth about ourselves and about God. In the story the son says to himself, “…I have sinned against heaven and against [my father]” (v.18). Finally he is talking truth.
Up to this point the younger son did not examine the moral consequences of his actions. He just did what he wanted to do. Even if he thought he was doing something wrong, he didn’t show any remorse. He believed the lie that says he can do what he wants when he wants and it doesn’t matter. He is right now when he says to himself, “I am no longer worthy to be called [my father’s] son.” (v.19) His statement is not an example of self-denigration, it is simply the truth about himself — and his father.
All of us sin against God, because all of us are, to some degree or another, self-willed (just another term for “prideful”) and fixated on what we want (a.k.a idolatrous); wanting more and more (which really means “lustful”) at someone’s expense (just plain greedy). No one is capable of refraining from sin for long. Everyone eventually strays “into a far country” like the prodigal son. And the only way back is first to “come to our senses” about our sin.
But notice that the father runs to embrace the boy and welcome him home even before the son has uttered his apology. What this tells me is that our sins haven’t altered God’s love for us. I can imagine the father in the story forgiving the son even as he was handing over the money on which he needed to live. In a similar way God handed over his Son while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8) So confession is not about getting God to change his mind. Instead, confession is about setting our mind straight so that we can grasp the truth about Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf.
In the parable, the father just wants his son back; he is not angry or vindictive. He truly loves this prodigal child. He’s longed for him to return home. In fact, Jesus says, “But while [the boy] was still a long way off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (v.20) This is a father who searches the horizon night and day for some sign of his son’s return. And the day the wayward boy finally does return home, the father throws him a party and declares for all to hear and see that this boy is restored to his rightful position in the family, no questions asked.
When we confess, we are acknowledging that God is God (and we are not) by admitting the ways in which we’ve acted as if we are God. Confession clears away the clutter of lies and distortions we’ve hid behind and allows us to turn back and reclaim our rightful inheritance as our Father’s beloved sons and daughters.
Therefore, we have nothing to fear from admitting the truth – and so much to gain.
Next week: Making a habit of confession