Why Confession: Shame and Repentance in Ordinary Time

Why Confession: Shame and Repentance in Ordinary Time August 4, 2018

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Shame is sneaky.

Shame creeps into the passenger seat of the car at a stop light, and whispers you’re a pretty bad father, you know that, right? Shame crawls into bed with us at 3AM, pokes us in the back, and hisses wow, remember that time in college you really hurt your roommate? Shame slithers in and tells us that we are too bad, too mean, too sensitive, too needy, too anxious, too much, not enough. Shame keeps a ledger of everything terrible we’ve ever done, and shame is always adding to that list.

We spend a lot of time running from shame.

Sometimes it feels like we can’t run fast enough.

“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.” Psalm 51

This week, we’ll start unpacking liturgical elements that are common across denominations – Methodist to Lutheran to Episcopalian, and even ones that occasionally sneak into a Baptist or Pentecostal service. (For why I love the liturgical year, check out my piece “Why, Liturgy”). Low-church people can struggle with the “programed” nature of liturgy, but these ancient liturgical pathways can be a blessed relief. We don’t have to work to invent words – we are free to listen to the old words speaking to us. The Creeds, confessions, and prayers gently keep us from avoiding pieces of ourselves that we’d rather shove away.

Which brings us to one of the most ubiquitous element of liturgy – the confession of sin.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.” Psalm 51

Our lectionary Psalms for the next few weeks are penitential – Psalm 51 and 130. I haven’t been eager to dive into these two Psalms. On the one hand, I’m anxious about how confession can be a wearying self-hatred, lobbed as a weapon against the weakest members of the congregation. My shame doesn’t need that.

And on the other hand, I am not keen on Psalm 51 this year. It’s traditionally David’s psalm, the king who used his position of power to rape a woman and murder her husband. And this year, I’m tired of hearing the confessions of powerful people who don’t make amends, who don’t listen to their victims, who monetize their sin with a book deal about how hard their personal journey was.

This week, I want to skip “confession” and move straight to “repentance.”

Wait, Confession Isn’t The Same As Repentance?

Confession and repentance are more different from each other than we assume. Confession is spoken – it is acknowledging our own sin to ourselves, others, and God. Repentance, conversely, is action – “turning around,” getting off the old path for a new path. Repentance is the movement of prioritizing the needs of the people that we’ve hurt.

Repentance is a turning away, not just from our sin, but from prioritizing ourselves.

We’ve all seen repentance done terribly. “I’m sorry if what I did hurt you…”, the if hanging in the air as an eternal excuse. We’ve all watched people say they’re sorry, and then go and do it all again. We’ve all watched people apologize, then pile on reasons for why really anyone in their position would have done it.

That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, that’s not a big deal.
And if it is, that’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did…
You deserved it.
– The Narcissist’s Prayer, unknown.

There are so many ways to “repent” without actually repenting. Most of that false repentance, though, has its root in a gut-level fear. It’s the fear that we don’t just do bad things, but that we are bad people. It is a fear of what will happen if we acknowledge that we messed up.

And out of that fear, we defend ourselves. Our fear demands that we prioritize ourselves instead of the Other. Admitting we were wrong feels like a tremendous risk to our sense of self. In this fight-or-flight panic, we act defensively to protect ourselves from other people seeing us. We act defensively to avoid seeing ourselves.

“You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Psalm 51

Because we’re scared of ourselves, and scared to follow our shame to its root, our fear drives our repentance and keeps it defensive and self-centered.

The only way to escape from that terrifying fear is to look our shame and guilt right in the eyes, and not run away. 

In church, we call this confession.

The Healing Power of Confession in Community

When we finally stop running from our shame, and look it dead in the eyes, it starts to lose its power to control us.

When we meet our shame head-on in the presence of others, we discover that it isn’t as scary as we thought.

More than that, we discover that we can survive it.

All that time running from shame, because we thought it could inflict a fatal wound on us  – and it turns out that shame isn’t lethal. Just running from it is.

When we stop running from our shame and ourselves, and speak words of confession in community, we discover that we are surrounded by a community that doesn’t run away from us, either.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you. – Psalm 130

Until we speak out loud our darkest fears about ourselves, we will always be haunted by them. Our repentance will be self-serving, and our efforts to heal the world will always have an anxious panic behind them – the fear that one day, we will be found out.

When we confess our sins in community, though, we are found out.

And we are still loved.

We have done terrible things, but we are not terrible.

We are broken, and we can survive our brokenness.

We are ashamed, and shame will not kill us.

We can look at our shame, and breathe through it, and survive it.

My loves, it might hurt, but looking at shame directly hurts a hell of a lot less than living every day with the sinking fear in your gut that you are unlovable, broken, and bad. And looking at shame directly is the only way we can heal.

Come into the light. Bring all of yourself into the light, where your community – made up of people who, in the end, are just folks with shadow selves, just like you – is waiting to hold you.

There’s no way out but through.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.


– The Book of Common Prayer

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