Tuesday, January 18, 2022

We do not pretend. . .

Private Confession is not a common practice among Lutherans, even though it is a common topic of discussion in our Symbols!  Yet it is a blessed and profound exercise of piety to seek out the pastor and confess sin and receive absolution.  Often the first time is the worst time -- fraught with nerves and fears that disappear through the rite.  In fact, the whole thing is designed to deal exactly with what causes our nerves to be on edge and to fear God (his punishment or anger, anyway).  Yet in this rite there is an opportunity for pastoral conversation with those who come with burdened consciences.

On one such occasion the question came back at me.  How am I supposed to forgive and forget?  The forgive part is straight forward enough but the forget part seems an impossible task.  So it has seemed to me at times and to many Christians who actually do wrestle with the call of the Lord to forgive as we have been forgiven.  To be sure, forgiving is not the same as forgetting.  While it is dangerous to suggest that the two are conditioned (forgiveness without forgetting is not forgiveness), it is not a bad thing that these two are paired together.  The Lord has not only forgiven our sins but removed them so that they are no longer between us -- as far as the East is from the West!  What is left is only the righteousness of Christ that is our baptismal clothing.  We are not the Lord but we are to forgive as He has forgiven us.  And this also involves that pesky word forget.

First of all, it is good to remember that we do not pretend.  We do not pretend that our sins do not matter and we do not pretend that the sins did not take place.  Absolution is not about pretending -- God is not pretending and He has not called us to imagine it had never taken place.  A forgiven monetary debt does not make believe the debt did not occur in the first place.  Instead, it affirms that the debt is no longer owed and its obligation completed and its duty finished even though it has not been repaid.  God does not play games with sin.  We are forgiven because the debt has been paid though we did not pay it and we are afforded its grace through faith.  So forgetting the sin does NOT mean pretending it never happened.  What does it mean?

God is always aware of the cost of forgiveness.  The cross stands in time and eternity as the price love was willing to pay.  God does not pretend a sin away but forgives it for the sake of Christ, whose suffering and death paid sin's debt fully and completely.  It is because He has focused on the redemption that the sin fades away.  And so it is for you and for me.  Because our focus is on the forgiveness (the redemption), the sin fades away.  Its power is broken by forgiveness and the sin is no longer what stands between us -- the grace of forgiveness and the mercy willing to forgive the sin fills its place.  We forget not by concentrating on the sin but by concentrating on the forgiveness.  It is not that the sin disappears from our memories but that it no longer has power to shape what and how we remember.  It has been disarmed and disarmed it is no longer a threat to how we stand before God and how we stand before each other.

Pretending away the sin is cheap and dishonors everyone.  But confronting the sin with a power greater than the sin is costly and honors the relationship above all.  We love not because we no longer recall the wrong but we love in spite of the wrong and because the wrong has been overcome with a greater power.  If you go to confession and find yourself still doting on the sin you confessed or struggling to forgive another, you do not make any headway by pretending anything.  Instead, you focus on the forgiveness.  Where I customarily hear confession there is a kneeler before a large crucifix.  The penitent kneels to face that cross.  I am by the side until the absolution.  The visual focus is the same as the mental one -- we focus on Christ, on His suffering and death, and on the blood that cleanses us from all our sins.  When this begins to consume us, the memory of the sin or the wound we carry because of that sin fades.  The exercise is not to wish the sin away but to turn your attention to that which forgives the sin -- our sin before God and the sins of others against us and our sins against others.

That is what we think about as confess individually and privately with the pastor before God and that is what we think about as we live this out in the consolation of the brethren, God's people forgiving one another in Christ's name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the early church, public confession of mortal sins such as idolatry, murder, or adultery was required along with a “probationary” penitential period for reconciliation with the church. During the early medieval period, this was transformed into a private confession with immediate declared absolution. Aquinas used the formula “I absolve you by the power of Christ’s passion,” to emphasize the ministerial role of the priest in dispensing the grace of forgiveness.

The formula for absolution post-Vatican II is remarkably similar to Lutheran theology: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The difference of course is that in Catholicism this absolution releases the penitent from guilt but not the purgatorial temporal punishment for sin. Both Lutherans and Catholics presuppose a contrite heart and resolve to sin no more as part of a valid absolution.