It may be news to some that not all Christian traditions embrace a daily routine of confessing sin. Though Forgiveness is part and parcel of Christian teachings, for many, regular prayers of repentance would imply that one is indeed not Christian, or to use an old school nomenclature, that one has “back slid” or “fallen from grace.” Indeed, a quick google search will take you down some serious rabbit holes on this issue. If I had a nickel for every time I back slid as a kid, I would literally have hundreds of nickels, maybe thousands.
This doesn’t mean that these traditions believe people are immune to sin (though some parts of my home tradition would go as far to say that the depraved nature of humans could be “eradicated” by the work of the Holy Spirit. In case you’re wondering, that theology hasn’t aged so well). It is more the case that these traditions are so optimistic about humans (they might even say God’s grace to enable humans) that have been filled with the Holy Spirit that they believe Christians can, and should, live without sin through the power of God. Hence, regular prayers of repentance are eschewed because such would be an indication of a truly non-repentant heart. If one needs to pray for forgiveness daily, then one has a serious spiritual issue. This does not mean there is no room for “growth in grace,” but it does mean that some traditions believe Christians do not have to, and must not, sin daily or even frequently.
Of course, what is often at work in these sorts of distinctions are definitions. Not everyone in the household of Christian faith is working with the same definition of “sin.” For example, some hold to a strict definition of sin, sin proper being confined only to those activities that “violate a known law of God.” These are called sins of commission. While others view sin as a more expansive and systemic human reality that is not as narrow in orientation. Under this category are sins of omission and the tangled web of human depravity around the globe.
The former definition of sin is bequeathed to us from a truncated reading of John Wesley, and the biblical Book of James, if you’re keeping score. Of course, other biblical resources are marshaled as well, but these are notable. Hence, sin under this paradigm would be an outright rebellion, a deliberate act to discontinue following God. Anything not under that paradigm of action would be considered a mistake, a misstep, an opportunity to grow in grace but it would not be a sin because you didn’t know you were sinning. Humans are not perfect, but they don’t have to violate a “known law of God.” Sin, then, is something known and committed. If you do not know it, and did not do it on purpose, then you are living a life without sin.
The traditions that follow this line of reasoning are usually Wesleyan, American Holiness, or even Pentecostal in heritage. Perhaps there are also some non-denominational churches that follow suit. Furthermore, if we go way back into Christian history, say 4th and 5th century, we can even find this sort of sentiment in the teachings of one Pelagius who placed emphasis on human efforts regarding salvation. His contemporary, an early Church Father named Augustine, had some serious problems with his premodern humanism.
Regarding the latter definition, Latin Western Christian tradition has held that sin is more expansive and determinative of the human condition. Sin certainly includes violating a known law of God, but it also includes, to use the New Testament Greek word for sin (hamartia), any area in which we “miss the mark” in our service to God. Suddenly, the ante on sin has been upped. Humans will miss “the mark” daily, both as individuals and as communal wholes. As the Daily Confession of Sin suggests, sin is that which we have done, OR left undone, known and unknown, and includes any intimation or embodiment of not loving God with our whole heart or not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Well, if this is sin, seems we have a little more at stake than muting our resident Jimminy Crickets.
When sin is limited to simply not telling a lie or murdering someone, those boxes are easy to check. Many Christians can fill those requirements, as well as the Pauline lists of heavenly stipulations (though these Pauline Lists seem to leave few of us guiltless). However, when sin is looked at from a more expansive view of “missing the mark,” I would dare say there are precious few among us that would say they hit every target, every day, or even the known targets if we’re honest. Acknowledging this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a humbling thing, and it reminds us of the origin of our salvation as elsewhere than our participation as a day trader in spiritual equities with the God.
I have now been a practicing Episcopalian for a year. As an outsider to Anglican Tradition, and The Book of Common Prayer, this native Nazarene initially read and looked at these Daily Confessions of sin with not a little apprehension. Questions had always been present, such as the following:
What is true repentance if one must repent each day? Does this prayer mean anything if it must be repeated on the regular? Does this prayer drown itself in mundanity because it becomes familiar and spiritually boring, another thing we say because we are Christian but nothing that effectively changes us? Is the prayer written a heartfelt, efficacious one? The word repentance means to turn away from, to be sorrowful for, and then walk differently. If we in fact do that, then why seek forgiveness as a part of the Daily Office?
These were my questions. My premonitions, at first. (I will answer these rhetorical questions in Parts II and III of this series in a more theologically reflective style than I am rehearsing here).
Asking for forgiveness was not a good thing in my theological book, or anyone’s theological book that I knew, unless of course one was asking the forgiveness of another person that had been wronged by hurtful words, wrongful conduct, or some other form of moral lack unbecoming a follower of Jesus. Those “mistakes” deserved an apology, but they certainly did not amount to needing God’s saving and forgiving involvement all over again. Mature Christians knew how to seek the forgiveness of others, but mature Christians certainly shouldn’t seek God’s forgiveness on the daily. After-all, we’re only human and are born to make mistakes (by the way, the 1980’s called and The Human League wants its theology back.)
Then, I started praying them, these daily prayers of repentance. This happened as I integrated the Daily Office into my prayer practices. There is nothing like personal experience to expunge bias and provide understanding.
At first, the prayers were odd, tough to say, as the new words of old prayers had to be pressed from my lips. It’s hard to pray a theology that rubs against the humanism of a former theological sense of self. The only thing I knew to do, even with my years of study, a couple degrees, and pastoral experience of two decades in another tradition, was to trust the prayers of the Church and pray them. There is nothing like doing that changes our being. When we are unsure of our own faith, or what to do, it is not bad advice to lean into the faith of the Church for help. Sometimes we need others to pray and believe for us. If these daily utterances contained a truth that shaped saints of ages past, they are powerful enough to change us. As my grandmother was not wont to tell me as a child “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Touche grandma, touche.
Thus, I began to pray the prescribed prayers and internalize the language. I memorized them, much as I had memorized scripture as a child. The prayers became me, and I became my prayers. In praying them, I have learned a few things that I would like to share. So I welcome you back in the days ahead as I share my experience of seeking forgiveness again for the first time on the daily. Please see the schedule below.
*Part II of this series will be published Wednesday, February 19, and Part III will be published Sunday, February 23. Thank you for joining me in these reflections and following*