I did not know him but he haunts me. He was an evangelical atheist. He disbelieved in God, loud and long. He never made a cogent statement about the reality of God that I can find. He mostly looked at people who did claim to believe and attacked God for the shoddy living of believers. I cannot excuse his behavior. He was wrong, dead wrong; very British, mostly drunken and far too self-assured. Yet, every time I read his work or watch him on-line, he haunts me. Christopher almost believed. He got very close and that haunts me most of all.
He never confessed sin or professed faith. He had a close family member (brother) who came out of atheism to what seems a very real faith. He made friends and allies with various evangelical preachers who loved him. The atheist community, particularly the young, hated him because he so lacked content for them.
“He never came to any point,” so many of the younger atheists have said, “let alone the point.”
And, yet, because he came so close he haunts me. If I could speak to him (I never did) I would have to tell him to look to his soul; know you are a soul, to begin with and then know a soul requires even more care than one gives his body or mind. Do the things that are good for your soul.
Confession, the old truism goes, is good for the soul. I believe it is good for a soul, for every poor fellow with a distant father and a dead mother, like Christopher Hitchens. He was at best anhedonic, an odd word coined to describe persons who cannot take pleasure in, well, anything, and so must infect anyone around them with melancholy. Why, indeed, so glum? I think a sick soul makes an unhappy man. Confession makes for a happy soul, for it at once acknowledges one’s own need and at the same time reaches out to the classic higher power, imagining that power to be both present and benevolent.
Confession, to be confession, must be what that Higher Power deems it to be. I am dutifully instructed when I read the (often misused) NT verse on confession, I John 1:9, which reads, simply, “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just to forgiver us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is all well and good, a great promise, indeed, and one well claimed, but look at the word translated “confession.” Therein lies the rub. The word is “homo-lego,” which literally means “to say the same.” Since the central matter therein is sin, in its greater and lesser strains, the meaning of confession is this; we must the same about it as God says. If we are going to take our petty acts to our Higher Power, we must dump them before God with our head turned to see sin as God sees it. Ultimately, as guilt inducing as this may appear, we must agree with God on our sin.
And we must turn to God for grace. The antidote for sin is not quinine, as for malaria, or penicillin, as it is for infection. The antidote for sin is grace, the divine antibody for sin, for wherever sin abounds, grace superabounds, as Paul tells the Roman Christians. What makes a confession hum along to God’s tune, then, refute one’s sin and refresh one’s soul? What does God say about sin that we are so much in need of knowing?
One cure for sin (and, so, an element of confession) is this; a truly remorseful heart. Sin’s result is sorry, so the sinful heart should feel remorse in confession. Most of us do not easily feel deep remorse, or long hold to it. Intolerance is an emotion we usually hold for those who upset us, not for the upset we cause ourselves. I am the way I am and only change when actually forced to do so by circumstances I can neither control, ignore nor force to go away. Remorse is a party-spoiler. I want it not.
Jesus,who never sinned Himself, cautioned others to feel remorse for their sin. He told His closest followers to watch out for people who used religion to burden others and shield themselves, cf. Matthew 9:35f. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, it was for their corporate lack of remorse, which would finally lead to their destruction.
Jesus knew how to bring it on the subject of remorse for sin.
Jesus knew what we ought to know; sin entrenches itself in the human heart, hides there for a life time and does all manner of evil and deformity to man. Sin does not leave just because we wish it would. Sin has to be expelled, actively, and tears are the best solution to wash it out.
During WW II the French Army (yes, I know, French Army is an oxymoron) tried repeatedly to turn away the Germans from the province of Alsace. They expended all their artillery shells in one fusillade, sent ten thousand men to their deaths and gained not one objective. The Germans left graffiti all over Alsace reading thus, “Elsass bleibt Deutsch,” or “Alsace remains German,” to taunt the valiant Frenchmen.
Do you feel the Enemy taunts you about your sin, your failures of morality, the collapse of your faith, the frailty of your hope? Do you want to be kind but lack the energy? What is wrong with your heart, you wonder? Bathe it in tears of remorse, feel the hurt sin hides in your heart, and wash it out with tears of remorse. Then, with sin loosed and no longer just loose in the system, you can make your confession.
God encourages restitution to make confession. Zacchaeus was up in a sycamore tree, the song says, so he could get a better look at Jesus as he came by in a crowd. Apparently, the truth is that Jesus was in a group made up largely of people Zacchaeus had cheated. Jesus recognized the little man and affirmed him. This was all well and good, but, before Zacchaeus came down to meet Jesus, he made sure to loudly pronounce his intention to make restitution times four for all he had stolen from anyone.
Restitution is a requirement of confession for God. For all human sin God paid the sin price. All that is owed, God pays. There is no need for another Savior, for there remains nothing left to be paid.
Yet, when we sin, as sin we do, there remains a very real need to pay up for what we do to harm ourselves and others. There are very real consequences for the sin we sin. No easy believism actually brings relief. God favors restitution.
But, how can we pay-back the one(s) from whom we have stolen only reputation or character? Zacchaeus could dip into a large treasury, apparently, to restore lost riches to his victims, but how do you get the paste back into the tube of reputation?
The Church has long offered this process:
- Esteem the other higher than yourself.
- Build up one another in love.
- Where you have done evil, restore what is lost on the very level you took it.
- Feel the hurt of others as if you had suffered it yourself.
This from an ancient Anglican, Bishop Butler. Wesley would have known of him and read his teachings. Resolve to make restitution of every penny stolen, or of reputation impugned. Then, you can make your confession.
Repentance is a sermon Jesus preached. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus announces His Vision Statement for All Christians. “Repent,” our Lord says, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is here.”
The very presence of Jesus, the Christ, ought to inspire our repentance from sin. Think of it this way, in regards to true confession. Remorse is something we do in the present with an eye on the past, while restitution is more in the present. Repentance is the sole element of confession that looks to the future. Repentance, if it is true, is our resolution to leave our sin and never return to it again.
This is true repentance. In it, I am not just sorry I got caught in my sin. Anyone can express remorse when they get caught. The lid of the cookie jar slams down on fingers found guilty on contact but that is not repentance.
One of the great rabbis of the Jewish faith says we have not repented just because we have lost the ability to sin a certain sin. Repentance comes when the game is afoot, as passions flare and lust abounds. Anything else is meaningless.
What do you intend about your sin? A casual attitude about sin renders an event like the Cross incomprehensible. If we are all OK and everything is good, the Cross seems a bit extreme.
On the other hand, if humankind is needy and sin is burdensome, then the Cross seems very generous, as, on the Cross, God does for us what we could neither do for ourselves, nor even knew to ask. Is this not prevenient grace? God sees our need before we see it and moves to meet our need before we know to ask.
Yet, God still insists on our repentance. Jesus never ceases to preach repentance. His presence insists on repentance. He never promises to make us just healthy, just wealthy or even merely wise. Our Lord does promise, over and again, to make us forgiven. He insists He can lift the burden of our sin and give our soul real rest and peace.
In the Penitential Psalm 51, the Psalmist announces his sin and names his victim; God. He is in that most precarious of positions, wherein he must ask his victim for both forgiveness and cleansing. This is a neat trick and one we face each day, usually unknowingly. God is both our victim and Savior, the source of our guilt and our intimate partner in transformation. And the active ingredient of soul change is this one thing, repentance.
Repent, and then bring your confession. You will find what the Psalmist found, that God is ready, even eager, to forgive and cleanse the repentant heart.