Monday, July 12, 2010

Meditations on the General Confession, Part II

"Almighty and most merciful Father" begins the General Confession. Like so many Anglican collects, the prayer starts by addressing God, and, specifically, by addressing God with some truth about God. This isn't just so much Monty Python-esque pious flattery or grovelling, nor (worse) an attempt on our part to get from God the gold sticker on the theology exam. When we speak with anyone, it is good to begin by reminding ourselves with whom we are speaking. If we do not, the chances of our saying something clear or just or edifying drop precipitously. What is true of conversation in general is equally true of prayers addressed to God.

The author of the General Confession addresses God as "Almighty" first. Surprising, perhaps, considering that when coming to God confessing the deep stains of sin on our hands and in our hearts, his power probably is not the first attribute of his to which we would instinctively look for comfort. But there it is, first. Why?

I can think of two reasons: first, unless God is almighty, he may not be the proper person to hear our confession; second, if God is not almighty, his mercy may prove ineffectual.

The first issue is a question of jurisdiction: If we are going to confess our crimes, why should God be the one to hear the confession and decide how to treat it? For years I asked this question whenever I read David's prayer in Psalm 51: "Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." David was repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Did he overlook the fact that he had taken Uriah's wife? Did he forget his deceit to Uriah, his craftiness in sending Uriah to his death?

No. This is clarity, the sign that David has finally risen again after long tossing and turning in the sleep of death. His offenses, lethal to Uriah, injurious to Bathsheba and to David himself, were first and foremost sins against God, the God who created Uriah, Bathsheba, and David, the God who made Uriah and Bathsheba one flesh in marriage, the God whose image Uriah bore when David struck him down by trickery. David ungratefully forgot who it was that made him king in Jerusalem, who had promised that his throne would endure forever. And he scoffed at the greatness of the giver of the Sixth and Seventh commandments, as he would not have done, had he not first forgotten the First: "I am the LORD your God; have no other gods before me."

So God -- who made heaven and earth, and mankind in his own image, who graciously enters into covenant with his people and gives them the law -- is the party chiefly offended by any transgression. As such he is the proper person to whom we make our confession and appeal for mercy.

But even if God is the proper person to whom sins ought to be confessed, has he power to carry out his judgments? The answer can be a blanket "yes" only if God is almighty.

Job, who suffered horribly and took a long, unsentimental look at his sufferings, concluded by saying to God, "I know that you can do all things. No purpose of yours can be thwarted." Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, said to them many years later, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." Hannah, after long years of torment and barrenness, prayed thus after bearing Samuel:

The LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

* * *
The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's;
upon them he has set the world.
Especially pertinent when considering confession is the fact that God's might to effect his decrees in the world extends even to the ability to silence the potentially endless self-recriminations of a restless conscience. John says, "Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything." So whenever we reproach ourselves -- for our unkindness, our short temper, our foolishness and cowardliness and laziness, for not being better parents, better spouses, better friends, better at our jobs, for not making more progress in our arts, hobbies and fields of study, for not being richer or fitter or more powerful or better-looking -- John tells us that God sees all this far more clearly and extensively than we do. And that when our misfiring conscience just won't shut up, God, who is greater than our conscience, can silence it. The question "can I forgive myself?" can be an agonizing one. But its importance, so overblown when we install ourselves as judges in a cramped hell of our own making, vanishes like mist before the rising sun if we step out into the real world, which is bigger than our provincial concerns, and where it is utterly plain that we lack ultimate authority to judge ourselves.

So much for the power of God to hear confessions and effect his decrees. What of the mercy of the one who we Anglicans address as, and all our Christian brethren know as, our "most merciful Father"?

God's mercy, in the abstract, is a more popular attribute than his power. I say "in the abstract" because any warm affection for his mercy quickly turns cold when God forgives people we don't like much, or mows us down because we are oppressing recipients of his mercy. In that way, his extravagant generosity often reveals to us our own stinginess -- but reveals it as something which is also forgivable, and something we can, by his grace, grow out of. In this way, as in others,

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.

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