We Become What We Pray: Final Thoughts On Confession

In this concluding post discussing gleanings through the practice of daily confession, I will note four areas of focus:

  1. We become what we pray
  2. Prayer sanctifies us
  3. The epiphany of grace that happens within confession
  4. Confession creates awareness that leads to proper witness.

Firstly, the practice of daily Confession gives fresh meaning to the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith/belief.  In other words, we become our prayers. We become what we pray and our prayers shape our orientation to the world.

When I was a child, around the age of 9-17, there was a well-known traveling evangelist that had a profound impact on my life. His revival was one my local church routinely scheduled. During one of his sermons, he said something that has stuck with me all these years. Back then, it had a much different impact on me than it does today, but the words continue to resonate. He proclaimed with divine authority, “to live right, you have to believe right,” words that were followed with a string of loud “amens” back then.

As I repeat that statement, I cringe with all that is wrong with it, not to mention its deep sense of pride. While that statement can be parsed multiple ways, the crux of the matter is that he presumed that right belief produced a rightly formed life. That conception is really, and quite profoundly, a very modern way to construe Christian faith. The irony is it’s quite a liberal theology to ground faith in our right belief, epistemology preceding all else (liberalism is something he would have adamantly denied). So much for revelation. I digress.

Notably, he left out one crucial thing that leads to right living: prayer. In order to live right, one must not simply believe right, since the category of “right belief” is largely subjective. Rather, to believe right one must first pray right. Right prayer leads to right belief, which then leads to right action. Prayer precedes all else in the life of the church because the church prays its theology well before the church commends its doctrines. Long before there was Christian theology, there was prayer. Prayer informed theology and, in turn, theology would then shape prayer. Quite simply, prayer shapes belief.

When we use prayers given to us by the church, the church and its prayers shape us. When our intellect, convictions, or even personal concerns are all that shape our prayers (because they will shape our prayers to an extent), it is not the church that shapes us but our “right belief” and our faith surprisingly looks a lot like us. No wonder so many people live narcissistic or stunted lives of faith.

If you want to know what a church values, listen to its prayers. If you want to know what a church believes, pray its prayers. And unless you personally want to be changed, then never ever pray the prayers of the church. It’s dangerous to your current state of being and threatens to turn you into something you could never make yourself.

In other words, lex orandi, lex credendi: we become what we pray, the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. It is a dialectic held in perfect tension within the practices of the church. The daily Confession of Sin teaches us to live into a life of repentance and penance. For the first time in my life, in all my sordid interactions and decisions, the prayer of Confession comes to mind throughout my day, reminding me of the confession and the One to whom my actions testify. My daily journey is thus constantly integrated with a biblical one.

Secondly, in addition to direct prayers of Confession, the Daily Office itself saturates my comings and goings as I am constantly reminded that my life is one sanctified through daily prayer and confessions, which are made perpetually present in my interactions because they are made perpetual in my sayings.

In a way never comprehended, I have begun to understand the importance of praying the hours in the ancient church or what the Apostle Paul may have meant by “praying without ceasing”: when we keep holy time through constant prayer we are constantly acknowledging that time is holy and our lives are sanctified by God. Indeed, we are bought with a price and we are not our own.

I am here reminded of a quote by the 4th century hymnist and saint, Ephraim of Syria, who wrote on prayer, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

In other words, confessional prayer sanctifies us, ridding us of vices, and creating a new heart within us shaped by the church and the resurrected Christ.

Thirdly, while bringing to the fore my own ineptitude and incapacity for anything good, Confession also reminds me of the gracious act of God that is meritoriously extended to me without my having earned any of it. I would that I was a good person. Alas, I am not. I am here reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “We have all become like the one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6).

Because Confession makes me mindful of my daily shortcomings, my past indiscretions, and my future failings, I am more concertedly aware that God’s grace is far deeper and greater than anything I can imagine. The boundlessness of God’s love and concern for me, for you, for creation, is unfathomable. I stand at the altar completely speechless in my attempts to understand a grace so deep and wide. I stare at the portraiture of Christ, in stained glass, above the altar, in absolute awe of a love that evades every word, every symbol, every definition.

We come to the moment in the Great Thanksgiving that reminds us He “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Book of Common Prayer, 368). This love and unmerited grace bends down in the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, and forgives us because he has always already forgiven us on Calvary. Hence, what the Daily Confession of Sin allows is a deep awareness, and rest, in God’s grace.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered to have said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29). In daily confessing our sins, we do not stand as people condemned and burdened with guilt; rather, we kneel as ones who are honest and resting fully in the necessity of God’s grace to be whatever we are only through the grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. I confess my sins, how I have missed the mark, not in an attempt to avoid hell, but as an awareness that I need Christ even more, the Christ who desires that no one will be lost but that all will be saved (II Peter 3. 8-10).

Finally, the concluding prayer of the Daily Office is rehearsed with the full awareness that we have confessed ours sins and stand as people enshrouded by the robe of God’s grace.  This final prayer gives thanks to God for his mercies and gifts. One line especially stands out to me that directs us back to the Confession of Sin, “And, we pray, gives us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise.” BCP, 101.

This phrase is a concluding portion of a final office prayer called “The General Thanksgiving.” It is preceded by reference to God’s creation, redemption, and preservation. It’s tone and tenor are one of thanksgiving for all the things God has done. However, during the giving of thanks, the above phrase in this final prayer is one more reminder of our dependence on the meritorious grace of God. The verb in the phrase is passive in tense, “give us such an awareness of your mercies.” Only God can make us fully aware of the mercies, chances, opportunities, and gifts we have received. It is our default setting to forget those things throughout the busyness of life. Unless God shake from out of us the narcissism of our culture and ego-centricity of our worldviews, there is no other means whereby we can be made aware of gifts given to us.

One of the reasons we can, possibly, possess a fully repentant heart yet be stuck between the dialectical tension of what we should and should not do, is because we neglect this portion of prayer.

Our voices and lives must echo repentance because in so doing that vehicle of confession is the vehicle whereby God can continually “make us aware” of those said mercies.

In fact, perhaps more so than moving God to forgive anything in particular, our confessions of sins committed, or omitted, actually serve to bring those mercies top of mind so that we might attain thankful hearts and show forth the praise of God in our lives. We need not always imagine that we confess our sins out of some fear that anything left unconfessed make the trek to heaven harder. Just as we are fallible humans in our doing, we are also fallible in our memory or recollection. The act of confession, rather, binds us to the action of forgiveness given and brings those mercies front and center, God’s very means of providing the awareness we need when we encounter the others that could benefit from pulling up a chair to the table of Christ.

For when we are aware, we a less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. We are less like to be filled with fear, and more likely to be filled with hope. When we are aware, we are less likely to consider our own holy walk with God and more likely to consider the eternally present act of God in Christ that makes even walking itself possible. Just as the Daily Office early on directs us toward our contrite hearts, it redirects us back to that reception of mercy prior to sending us into the world, thereby bookending our beginning and endings of holy time with Confession.

Only as we first realize we are the ones who are forgiven, are we humble enough to go into the world and be symbols of forgiveness to others, ambassadors of reconciliation. Thus, Daily Confession of Sin precedes our ability to be faithful ministers of Christ, for only those who have taken up their own Cross, and spoken their sins into its wood, can heed the call to go into the world, follow Him, and make disciples.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part 2: Being Mindful

When I mention engaging in a Daily Confession of Sin, I do not mean repeating daily the popularized version of the “sinners prayer,” in which one confesses they are a sinner before God in need of forgiveness, and then “accepts Jesus into their heart.” I am assuming that Daily Confession of Sin precludes that one is already Christian, i.e., baptized and one’s “sins” submerged into the watery grave with Christ and resurrected into newness of life. Confession is a daily part of Christian piety, not strictly something one does one time in order to begin to follow Jesus and then never revisited. Thus, I am not speaking about re-initiating a new walk with God daily. It is assumed that the one praying daily prayers of confession are doing so precisely because Jesus is already “in their heart” and directing their life.

That little bit being cleared up, I’d like to begin this second post by reciting the Confession from Morning Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, 79.

“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 neighbor 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 way, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is not the only Confession found in The Book of Common Prayer. There are several forms of confessional prayer in the BCP itself, as well as in extant Episcopalian and broader catholic tradition.

While I was initially concerned about the efficacy of saying a Confession of Sin daily, what I found in the experience was quite different. Herein lies my first of two takeaways that provide the content for Part 2 of this brief series.

Far from being empty prayers reciting written words, the practice of confession is life giving because it is life minding.

A regular confession of sin brought forth a mindfulness about life that I had heretofore never experienced. It pulled me into a state of attentiveness. It brought a new awareness of my human actions, even seemingly insignificant ones. Any previous premonition that such regular praying was for folks that wanted to indulge in cheap grace was completely abolished. The last thing folks in search of cheap grace want to do is spend 20-30 minutes praying the Daily Office or utilizing prayer beads or any other means/context within which confessional prayer takes place. Confession is part of a larger story, not an isolated event. More on that in a bit.

Contrary to my bias, I discovered that the experience of daily confession would most likely not be the daily confession of those seeking cheap grace. Assumptions of cheap grace are likely to be followed by a cheapening of prayer life as well. In fact, I discovered that daily confession of sin led to a more profound understanding of grace, a deeper appreciation of the act of God’s forgiveness (because it is engaged/acknowledged more frequently), and my requisite need of it. These were not prayers said in the shadow of deliberative sin, their utterance being a holy check mark, a spiritual firewall against an untimely mortal demise. Instead, they were prayers I said even as I sought to be as faithful as possible, yet still being more keenly aware of my shortcomings. Confessional prayers helped me bring my life to mind, and thereby, to more regularly life mending.

For example, considering my former self, so long as I did not break a “known” law of God, I would keep it moving. No need for an apology or admission of my own shortcomings. I fully acknowledge that maybe I was a bad Nazarene and not in tune with a proper sense of spirituality. It’s totally possible. My story is my own and I cannot project this on the entirety of the tradition. Yet, as I began to trust the catholic Church, and trust it’s prayers, the Book of Common Prayer became a part of my life. I began to be mindful of all my interactions throughout the day. The literal confession of “known and unknown, done and left undone” made me mindful of my actions in a way I had never imagined possible. Suddenly, the ordinary interactions of my day became animated with a confessional prayer seeking God’s grace, and not only my need of it, but of its necessity for daily sustainability in a life that tempts us to forget our state as forgiven and loved people.

I recalled daily communications with my kids, my wife, my employees, and my reactions to folks in public. I recall impure thoughts or times I was filled with anger or pride, or when I expressed values that did not always value what Christ valued. Confessing my sin daily, my known (commission) and unknown sin (omission), made me deeply aware of how much I really do need God’s grace because I am not nearly as sinless as I once thought, which was a bummer by the way.

To be human is to miss the mark, to commit the sort of missing the mark sin described in the New Testament. There is so much I am leaving undone and so much I do that I wish I could undo, or do better, daily. And if such were not the case, I believe I would need forgiveness for the spiritual pride that would accompany such a holy life that knew how sanctified it really was. There is something of a holy humility that characterizes those that bathe themselves in the prayers of the church long enough.

Pelagianism is good in theory, but when I search my heart, mind, and soul, I find I am far from what Christ wants me to be even as my daily prayers make me mindful of the Christ that is within me. Confession allows us to resonate with Paul’s use of Psalms 14 in Romans chapter 3, when he writes that everyone is under the power of sin and there is “no one who does good, no not one.” Yet, before you accuse me of a spiritual masochism, recall that even Jesus said, “why do you call me good? There is no one Good but God.” (Luke 18.19 & Mark 10.18)

It is ironic that my home tradition relies so much on John Wesley for its understanding of sin, yet John Wesley is recalled as an Anglican Divine that prayed these prayers daily even as he spoke of a sanctification that takes place through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, an indwelling that is the presence of the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

For the record, Wesley never confessed to be a sinless human.

Secondly, within the context of the Daily Office, I found that my confessional prayer life was a theological testimony to God’s saving actions in history, in Christ. To pray confessionally is to rehearse the story of God with Israel and of Christ with us, daily. Prayer gives way to theology as we become counterparts with the many biblical characters that also sought forgiveness not infrequently. The prayer of Confession is an admission of one’s need for forgiveness as a part of the larger story of God. Thus, a prayer of confession is a prayer of witness, first to self, and then in order to be a witness to others.

It’s not that we were forgiven once. Rather, God acted definitively in Christ in the past. Then, we were forgiven, and that forgiving action extends into the present. We are forgiven and are being forgiven. Forgiveness is present perfect in tense, being an action that happened in the past with implications upon the present.

Therefore, this Confession of Sin does not have to be accompanied with a profound sadness or guilt. Perhaps traditions with a narrower sense of sin also have a narrower sense of sorrow that must accompany prayers. Often, our knowledge of missing the mark is simply that, knowledge, and such knowledge can precede new actions apart from a daily crisis experience with God. These daily confessions are not accompanied by tears of oblation as if my trust in God, and God’s trust in me, had been broken and mangled irreparably by evil. It is more that the prayer of confession seeks to acknowledge to God that I am not God, I am not always doing what I should, and that the task before me is larger than my humanity can reasonably perform. The confession places me within the biblical story. I become Israel, one chosen yet also lapsed, and my adoption by God makes me more aware of the mercies extended to me. The confession, thusly, becomes an entrance into active witness and re-enactment of God’s story with us, rather than a means whereby we enter a morally pristine state prepared for heaven, as if Aristotle’s Ethics were the entire goal of the death of Jesus.

Such an acknowledgement is predicated on God’s always already present forgiveness; God’s forgiving all people everywhere, all the time, in the very being of God as God acted to forgive definitively on the Cross.

In Confession, we desire to accept that already given forgiveness, not wrench it from God’s hands if only we are sorry enough. Daily Confession of sin is not a spiritually present means of begging a vengeful God to forgive me. It doesn’t beget some daily spiritual PTSD that hits me as soon as I awake and send me into panic until I have appeased God’s sorrow police (I have suffered spiritual PTSD as a teen and have felt what it is like to be Jonathan Edwards’ sinner in the hands of an angry God).

Instead, Confession is a daily act of acknowledging my incompleteness and then giving thanks for God’s eternally forgiving completed act, given to us, from the Father, through the Son, and manifesting itself in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28)

Confessional prayers are the literal resting of our hearts, souls, body, and mind in the embrace of Jesus, who carried the heaviest burden of all so that we wouldn’t have to. The Risen Christ knows what we need prior to asking, yet it is in the asking, confessing, and rehearsing that we become one with Christ, and he becomes one with us.