Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O Lord.St. Augustine of Hippo
As part of our worship every Sunday, we take a few moments to lay our sins before the cross, admit them to God, and receive forgiveness. Confession is a central aspect of Christian prayer. As the first letter of John tells us, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Why is confession important? There are sometimes misunderstandings about what we are confessing. We are of course confessing where we have fallen short and not been obedient to God’s commands. But we often fail to appreciate that God’s commandments are a form of shorthand for a much bigger project.
Working for a Bigger Project
A helpful analogy would be to see it like trying to get in shape. Once you make the decision to start, you need to decide how you are going to go about it. Usually, this is a combination of eating well and being physically active.
Let’s say you decide to walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and ride your bicycle on Tuesday and Thursday. The activities are important because they are the daily activities that get you closer to your goal. But they are only a part of the bigger project: getting in shape. They are the means to get there.
If you fail to do one or two days, you can recover and still keep improving your health. But if you miss more and more, it becomes harder and harder to get in shape. When you stop altogether, it means you have given up the whole project. Saying that you are walking and biking is a shorthand description for your much bigger project: growing in health.
One Step at a Time
The commandments of God function sort of like the actions of walking and biking in this analogy. They are the day to day activities and moral decisions that we make. They are informed by the ten commandments, the promises of the baptismal covenant, and the great commandments of Jesus. We don’t follow them for their own sakes, but because they move us further along a bigger project.
The theological name for this bigger project is Sanctification. It means to be more like Jesus, or to be holy, or to be purified. Another way to think of it is becoming the person God created you to be. God wants your soul to be whole and well: centered, in rich relationship with others and God, loving, courageous, marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. This list from Galatians 5:22-23 describes the fruit of the process of sanctification.
Wrestling with Our Restless Hearts
Just as health is bigger than the individual bike rides that get us there, sin is more than just a list of things we have done wrong. It is better to describe it as self-sabotage. We are made to be in life-giving relationship with ourselves, each other, and God. Sin is the truth that we have a constant and often subtle tendency to ‘miss the mark.’ St. Augustine tells us that this is because ‘our hearts are restless.’ Away from God, our hearts are not often marked by the fruits of the Spirit. More often, our hearts are marked by loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, anger, feeling rushed, unappreciated, and on and on.
We try to cover the restlessness of our hearts through distraction and diversion. St. Augustine says we are ‘turned in on ourselves.’ This means that our desires are taken out of their God-given context for wholeness and relationship and are distorted to become focused on our own self-fulfillment, something which never fully happens. Out of this dynamic arises gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. These are all attempts to still the ‘restlessness’ and arise from a spiritual battle for your heart. This means that confession is one of our greatest tools for healing and growth.
God Answers Confession with Mercy
I hope you can see now that confession is not just a legalistic exercise. It is the way in which we lay before God all the choices we have made that keep us from deeper life in Christ. The cross is the place where we find the mercy of God. Confession needs to be a regular part of our praying routine. Every time we repent and confess our sins, our souls are growing more and more into wholeness and true life.
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