Confession

I made a mistake this week. It wasn’t a huge mistake, but it was a mistake that had consequences and I had definitely made it. It was defensible. I could’ve explained why it wasn’t really my fault, or turned it around. But in that sinking-stomach moment words inserted themselves into my mind:

L I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

C The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins. Amen.

C I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

L The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins.

The words that showed up, unbidden, were “by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault”. I owned my mistake, I said I was sorry, I asked for forgiveness, and I promised not to make it again.

And then I thought about the role that confession had played with me in that moment. For those of you who are not born and bred Presbyterian, we have a confession in every worship service. Unlike Catholic confession, this isn’t a 1:1 where we talk about what we’ve done (or not done) and get a penance to help us atone. It’s usually printed in our bulletin and we read it aloud. Then there’s a quiet moment for us to privately share our own personal failings with God. Then the leader reads the “Assurance of Pardon” – we’re forgiven.

Sometimes this corporate confession can feel weird. Periodically the imagination of the pastor writing the bulletin fails to describe where my feelings of guilt lie. Sometimes, they nail me to the wall with how right they are. My sons has asked what he should do when he doesn’t feel guilty of the particular thing we’re confessing.

But you know what? Admitting we’re wrong, that we made a mistake, this is a hard thing to do. It feels like it’s getting harder and harder. When’s the last time you heard someone say that they were wrong, and they made a mistake, and ask you for forgiveness? When’s the last time you heard a leader in politics or civics say that they were wrong, and that they made a mistake and we should do something different than they said before? I do not, however, think this is because people have stopped making mistakes.

Maybe what we’ve stopped doing is practicing and admitting we’re wrong. I don’t know of a secular spiritual practice of confession that practices being wrong. And my incredibly informal research has led me to understand confession is not a regular part of most evangelical Christian worship services. It turns out that it’s really hard to do things you don’t practice. Without that litany in my head, would I have been ready to admit my fault? How much harder would it have been? What is the cumulative price we pay for not being in practice admitting we made a mistake?

In one of those fun synergy moments, recently one of my friends at work started up a project designed to address this exact same phenomenon. He’s hosting a Fuck Up Night. The premise is that a group of people get together to hear a handful of entrepreneurs talking about their biggest mistakes – the times where they were wrong and did the wrong thing, “by their own most grievous fault”. The reason this is so valuable is because without understanding what we did wrong last time, we can’t learn and do it better next time. We have to get past pretending it wasn’t a mistake, or trying to shift blame, in order for that learning to happen. (The Failure Institute has a lot of research on that.)

Maybe the vaunted Protestant Work Ethic was less important for economic success than Protestant willingness to admit we’re wrong, in public, in front of everyone, and ask for forgiveness.

I make mistakes all the time. In thought word and deed. By my fault. By my own most grievous fault. By my own most grievous fault. I admit it to God and the whole company of heaven, and to you folks who are reading me right now. And I ask for mercy and forgiveness.

What about you? Do you have a regular practice of admitting you’re wrong? Is a confession a part of your past or present? When is the last time you said out loud that you were wrong and it was your fault? What would happen if you did – at work, in your civic life, or in your relationships?

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3 thoughts on “Confession

  1. I choose to see it as part of my responsibility as a manager to own up to mistakes I have made–or choices I have made that others believe to have been mistakes even if I do not–and apologize to those who were impacted by those decisions. I wonder sometimes if it is the “best” form of leadership to adopt this kind of persona as a manager as it exposes the flaws and vulnerabilities of our leaders when we have this kind of relationship with them. But I believe that this relationship, while more complicated, establishes a deeper bond and a more fundamental sense of trust among the recipients. None of us are perfect, but at least we can be honest with our team members about what we are doing, what we are trying to do, where we are hitting the mark, and where we have missed it.

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  2. Parenting provides many opportunities for making mistakes and being humble. As you said, it is my newer experience with the Christian practice of admitting making mistakes and asking for forgiveness that has given me the tools I needed to be comfortable with this process. My kids get to experience both the theory in church and very frequent demonstration of my admitting mistakes and asking for forgiveness, as well as practicing themselves (siblings have to forgive and be forgiven often as they both have sensitive feelings!) My oldest and I both tend towards the anxiety of perfectionism, it is challenging but freeing to be able to admit wrongdoing, intended or accidental, and continue on instead of retreating in shame. I hope we are giving the kids and ourselves permission to take risks, make mistakes, take responsibility, learn, and live fully. Empowered by forgiveness of ourselves and others.

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  3. In addition to the laudable practice of admission of our own mistakes, I think it’s important to tweak the other side of the equation as well: encouraging and supporting those who admit their own. This can be a challenge even with those we love — “Will their screw up make me look bad by association?” — but the real challenge is in offering forgiveness to our enemies. Public knowledge of one’s mistakes can be terrifying in a climate where any misstep will be seized upon as a convenient club with which to bludgeon a hated opponent. Forgo the opportunity for quick, cheap advantage in such cases. Demonstrating a common humanity when someone is most vulnerable can accomplish something far more profound. (I’m no Christian, but I dimly recall someone pretty famous had some good stuff to say on this topic a couple thousand years ago.) Your mistakes don’t define you, but a fear of them can imprison you. Don’t retreat into your own cell, and don’t lock someone else in theirs.

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