At the beginning of most services, we have a time of confession. It’s different than the cultural image would lead you to believe. We don’t have wooden booths where people list out their specific sins to a priest. Together, we all admit simply that we didn’t live up to everything we were supposed to be in the week past. We speak this truth before God and each other, then we hear words that create hope for the week to come: God still loves you, God delights in mercy, you are forgiven.
The traditional, cultural image of confession puts the focus in ineffective places. First, people are expected to remember and enumerate all their sins. This not only assumes that they can recall correctly, but that they can identify correctly! Some of the things we think are fine actually end up hurting other people or bring harm into the world in subtle ways. Sometimes we’re slow to realize these things. Confessing every sin we admit and remember is not the same as confessing all our sin.
This manner of confession also gives power to the sin itself, making wrongdoing central. We come together because of the sin. We speak about the sin. We almost take a weird kind of pride in it. That power then translates to the priest or pastor, who hears our confession, then doles out penance. If we spend time in the cosmic penalty box, doing good things, our sin gets erased.
The entire process focuses on us. The people we harmed are largely left out of the process. God becomes the great vending machine of forgiveness, dispensing it in response to our penance coins. Since the entire root of sin is placing ourselves in the center of the universe, devaluing God, this seems an odd way to go about erasing sin.
In our confession together during worship, we do not name the personal sins we remember. We are always free to do that with a pastor individually if we wish, but that’s not the central point of the worship confession. Sin doesn’t get to hold center stage. Instead we admit we have neglected and hurt others in ways we know about and ways we don’t. We confess that we don’t know how to do things right, that we always fall short in some way, that we cannot save ourselves. Then we speak the great truth: God, if this is going to come out right, it depends on you.
After we say these things, we hear the pastor speak absolution. We hear that sin, though real, will not be the most powerful element of our relationship with God or our neighbors. We hear God assuring us that even though we are imperfect, we are beloved bearers of God’s Spirit. Nobody’s shortcomings are big enough to overturn the work and power of God. God chooses to love us, to inspire us, and to send us into the world to do good, no matter what.
The action here is not on us. The power does not lie with the things we do wrong. Instead the power and action are God’s. In response to God’s action, we go out into the world sharing the same hope: we are more than our shortcomings, more than our mistakes. Sin will not reign; love is more powerful.