For many of us, the prospect of admitting our misdeeds stirs feelings of fear and shame. In this world we expect punishment and rejection for wrongs committed. We do not anticipate forgiveness and reconciliation if we confess sins, but instead retribution and being declared worthless. We are accustomed to conditional love. Our good standing, or so we have learned, is contingent on worthiness, being good enough, and measuring up to some standard.
Seldom have we been truly loved and accepted just as we are, no matter our successes or failures. Such belonging is the gift of grace and gives us a sense of safety and security. We do not have to fear losing everything because of some oversight, poor judgment, or disobedience. Consequently, when a relationship is unconditioned, the admission of failures cannot threaten our belonging.
Because we have experienced much more performance-based acceptance than uncommon grace, we easily import these expectations into how we think of ourselves and God. We fear that God’s displeasure will displace his love if we sin. We recoil from admitting sin because we think God will be angry with us, as if there is no mercy and grace, and are scared that we can no longer be God’s children.
And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Luke 15:21
Jesus put these words into the mouth of the prodigal son because he understood our fear of punishment, rejection, and being counted as worthless. The son believes that the punishment for his actions will be permanent estrangement. However, Jesus is revealing to us that this fear is completely unfounded. The son is neither punished nor disowned, but forgiven and received with joy.
Surely it is not an overstatement to say a central dynamic of the Gospel is grace. Well before the of coming of God into the world as Jesus, Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. Moses makes it abundantly clear that this was an act of grace dependent only on the love of God.
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Deuteronomy 7:7-8
The Exodus was Israel’s introduction into grace, and so it becomes a metaphor for our own salvation, from slavery and death, through the waters, and on a journey to the promised land. Grace must not be viewed as some gift only appearing late in the story of God’s working.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:16-17
John is not saying there was no grace and truth until Jesus. The giving of the law to Moses was a grace, and it certainly contained truth. However, Christ is grace upon grace, and actually the fulfillment and the essential meaning of the law itself. All God’s merciful actions through Israel’s journey were grace upon grace, culminating in the Word made flesh.
When we can hear and marvel at the central dynamic of grace, that the love and saving acts of God are merciful and not in nay manner conditioned on our worthiness, confession can be something we do eagerly. We fear no punishment, being only disappointed with ourselves for having fallen into ungodly attitudes or behavior. Being forgiven is pure joy. There is no question about whether we will be forgiven or punished and rejected. God is just and faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Having the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God reaffirmed no matter what we have gives us hope. What is more encouraging and motivates us to renewed efforts at faithfulness than grace?
A grace-infused understanding of how we stand before God, forever within his forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love, is essential to any regular practice of confession that is life-giving. We should have joy and relief in confession. This is why the church has called this the sacrament of reconciliation. Once we know that reconciliation is always the outcome, confession relieves our burdens and grants us peace.