I know—nobody enjoys confessing their sins. But I tend to think it’s even worse for perfectionists like me.
I am often keenly aware of the ways I’ve messed up, fallen short, and disappointed others in a given day, not to mention the ways I’ve actually sinned against God. The idea of naming those things—and inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to me about additional sins I’ve committed and haven’t thought of yet—can suck the life out of my soul.
And then, once I’ve confessed, I still need to repent, which feels even harder. My thoughts and heart turn toward bitterness. I’m already trying as hard as I can.What’s the point of saying every day, “I’m sorry. I’ll try harder next time,” when my “trying harder” is never good enough?
Recently, I thought to pray about what might be going on inside my soul regarding confession and repentance. If Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, what was I missing?
The answer came to me as a sweet sense in my spirit, clearly from the Lord:
In that moment, I remembered that confession and repentance are not instituted by a God who delights in my failures and waits impatiently for me to come groveling to him and beg for another chance. Rather, confession and repentance are practices created by a God who wants me to understand and experience the riches of his grace. They are for my good as they remind me just how mind-blowingly compassionate and generous and loving God is. He’s the God who died for us “while we were still sinners,” Paul reminds us.
That’s grace in its most perfect form.
And God’s grace is what I need, because his grace brings freedom. Freedom to tell the truth about myself and the world without fear. In Jen Pollock Michel’s book Teach Us to Want, she writes, “Confession, as a spiritual practice, thrives in an atmosphere of grace. Without grace, there is fear. And where there is fear, confession will be muted. . . . However, when the gospel is the light that illuminates, we can betray the messy truth about ourselves.”
The grace I experience through confession and repentance frees me from my unrealistic expectations of myself, my fruitless pursuit of perfection, my striving to be “enough” in every area of my life. Grace frees me to accept that “trying harder” is not the answer to my sin. Grace frees me to believe that failure, though real, is not what defines me, nor how God sees me. And grace leads to joy, which enables me to keep pursuing holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit while resting in God’s unconditional love.
But confession and repentance are not just about receiving. They’re also about actively joining God’s work in the world. A friend recently shared her pastor’s perspective on confession and repentance. He explained that our remorse upon confession of sin, while appropriate, is for something we’ve already done. The moment of sin and separation from God is in the past. Confession is therefore the first step back toward God—and that’s cause for celebration. It’s a moment of agreement and renewed intimacy between me, a sinner, and a perfect holy God who sacrificed his only Son to make that intimacy possible. It’s an active claiming of the blood of Jesus that covers our sin and reconnects us to God. And it’s an act of participating in God’s work of setting things right.
Grace and Freedom for All
This weekend, we celebrate the hard-won freedom of our country, and it is worth celebrating and remembering. But we must be willing to tell the whole truth about the history of the U.S. The murders in Charleston and the ongoing burning of Black churches in the South are a reminder that America’s past is full of sin, including systemic injustice, oppression, and racism. They’re ugly sins. They’re hard to look at and name, especially for White people and the White evangelical church today who, by our action or inaction, have contributed to and benefit from the systems of power that keep Native Americans and African Americans, in particular, fighting for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But we don’t have to be afraid to personally and corporately confess and repent of the sins of the past. In fact, we can choose to see the focus on our country this weekend as an invitation. As Michel writes, “Our job [in confession] is to remain open to the role of admitting. The illuminations we receive do not come as accusations. Rather, they arrive as invitations—to live more fully into the abundant life Jesus has promised.” That abundant life includes grace, freedom, truth, intimacy with God, and the joy of participating with him in making things right.
There’s one more benefit to confession and repentance, though. Experiencing God’s grace frees us to extend it not just to ourselves but to others as well. The families of the Charleston victims demonstrated that powerfully in their choice to forgive Dylan Roof.
So let’s not just celebrate freedom this weekend. Let’s continue to pursue it, both personally and corporately, through confession and repentance. There is full freedom and grace for all of us sinners—enough, even, for the perfectionists among us—if we have the courage to receive it.