Teaching catechism last evening, we pondered the difference between confessing that we are disobedient and confessing specific acts of disobedience. In order to see how they understood the difference, I asked first, "which is worse?" At first they thought that being disobedient was worse since it might include more actual acts of disobedience. Then they decided specific acts of disobedience were worse since this was not about an attitude or an inclination but actual events. It was an interesting discussion from the minds of 12-13 year old youth. Perhaps they are more perceptive than adults are.
When we make confession, we tend to speak in generalities. We are a disobedient people. The problem with confessing that we are disobedient is that it is kind of like confessing that we are like everybody else, since every one is disobedient at one time or another. It is a somewhat lame confession. Yeah, I am disobedient... but no better or worse than most folks. Aren't we all disobedient?
We tend to confess more of what we lack than what we have actually said or thought or done wrong. We have not been as good as should... The problem with confessing the lack of goodness is that it effectively allows us to continue to hide the actual sins we have committed. It is also very easy to confess something that we are all prone to and, therefore, a relatively safe and easy confession to make.
Confession is less about generalities than it is specifics... less about lack than about evil we have thought, spoken, and done. The kids picked up on this right away. When we confess simply that we could have done better, we have not really confessed much at all. We are merely admitting that we are part of the great race of fallen human creatures who have not fully lived up to our potential. Blah. Blah. Blah. The kids got that this was a cop out confession and that what God seeks for us to admit are the specific things that we know about, that cause us guilt, and that stand between us and God and between us and our neighbors. Who feels much guilt about generalities prone to us all? But who among us does not carry around the guilt for things that continue to haunt us, follow us wherever we go, and poison us still?
If there is one marked difference between the private confession before the Pastor and the public confession that prepares us for the Divine Service, it is the distinction between specific events we confess and the generalities confessed as one voice among the many. It is amazing how perceptive a group of kids can be on seeing the difference and understanding how that difference plays out in the life of the Christian. God wants us to be specific -- not because He is attracted to the lurid details of our transgressions but because the sin that troubles us and afflicts our souls are those specific thoughts, words, and deeds that stand out so vividly in our minds that we know their every detail. Hiding them cannot disarm them. Running away from them cannot make them go away. Generalizing upon them cannot minimize their damage and their power to wreck even more trouble and trials upon us. Only confession can bring them out into the open where God can deal with them.
I was rather impressed with these 15 or so youth as they worked their way through the sacramental gift of confession and absolution. They got it without much prompting on my part. Pretty good class...