Written by Mary Paul
From her column Dwelling with God
There is a thick silence as the two rigidly sit next to each other, staring straight ahead. The silence gets larger and colder and bigger. One begins to shudder from the cold, the other takes a deep breath and says words truly and deeply: “I am sorry.” The silence collapses and two become one as they reach out for an embrace. After rupture, the work of repair begins.
Three people stand in a courtroom. One in the middle has her arm surrounding the shaking woman by her side. On the other side is this woman’s boyfriend frantically trying to pass a collection of letters expressing his love. These letters are filled with apologies, filled with pleas for second chances, filled with "never again" promises. He keeps leaning in, repeating those three words: “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.” But they have been here before and his use of those words is meaningless today. On this day she stands strong and says, “No.”
Sometimes the truth of a person’s confession is evident. Sometimes we need to ask for clarification: “Sorry for what?” And sometimes, hidden in an apology, are words that try to shift the locus of blame, where somehow the burden of response and demand for change is turned on its head.
What do you think God hears in our prayers?
We can pray, “God, I’m sorry,” and know in the core of our bones that we mean it. We are filled with genuine repentance; a turning back toward God that will linger long after our tears have dried. God’s grace meets us in this turning and there is often a renewed experience of union with God, a palpable feel of a holy embrace.
Other times we can say, “God, I’m sorry,” and, if we listen, God asks, “Sorry for what?” If we pause long enough, we might recognize that we are attempting to game God. We actually are saying, “Sorry, not sorry.” This worldly phrase is so common now that it has slipped into the vernacular of our culture. By it we acknowledge someone may not like what we are saying or doing—and we can even appreciate why—but they really should be cool enough to deal with it moving forward.
The true expression of sorrow is both a speaking of hard truth and a willingness to live out that sorrow with a commitment to change. Our tradition generally doesn’t speak about penance, because of its historic misuse and monetary connotations. But there is a place for proper penance that isn’t about earning grace but about putting into practice new ways of being and relating to God and others. An embrace of wholistic change includes both the crisis moments of verbal sorrow and the practice of new habits that build the capacity for long-term change.
At the most basic level, confession is standing in the light of Christ and speaking the truth about what is revealed. That’s hard because it takes time to invite the light of Christ to shine and to be still and honest. Sometimes we need the help of other soul-friends to help us discern what is being revealed. People familiar with 12-Step groups call this a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” None of us—on our own—is very good at this.
The challenge and the promise of true confession is found in 1 John:
- 5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
- 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us (NIV).
True confession calls us to something broader than only naming a place of willful rebellion. It is the recognition that certain actions, or lack of actions, have been destructive of relationships, destructive of community, and are lacking in love to God and others. It includes the acknowledgment of our need for God’s new mercies in times of weakening, weariness, and stress. It’s a deeper confession that realizes there is no way we can begin to live in the loving ways of Jesus without the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in us, through us, and between us.
Mary Rearick Paul, D.Min., is vice president for student life and formation at Point Loma Nazarene University.