Columnists > Soul Food

Don't knock yourself out

We sinners don't need self-esteem; we need to esteem Christ

Issue: "Army's new MP's?," May 31, 1997

OK, so I'm a firstborn, pre-1950 Baby Boomer, perfectionist. Guilt is a bigger problem for me than it is for some with a higher number in the birth order, a more recent birth date, and lower expectations. Still, I'm intrigued by the advertisement I received for a new "worship resource," offering "prayers of confession that admit shortcomings without exaggerated self-flagellation."

Actually, I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised to find prayers of confession offered at all in a modern aid to public worship. For an increasing number of evangelicals confession is out, acceptance is in. I've seen publicity for one congregation of a conservative evangelical denomination that invites me to "a new kind of church ... no ritual, no boredom, no guilt trips." I doubt corporate confession of sin would have any place there.

But, as I consider this opportunity to admit my shortcomings without exaggerated self-flagellation, I think of some of the traditional congregational confessions: "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable."

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Or, "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But, thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders."

I think, too, of some of the historic hymns of repentance and faith in which we sing: "Ah! mine iniquity, crimson has been,/infinite, infinite, sin upon sin"; or "I need thee, precious Jesus, for I am full of sin; /my soul is dark and guilty, my heart is dead within." And again, "Just and holy is thy name, I am all unrighteousness,/ false and full of sin I am, thou art full of truth and grace."

Hymns of Christ's death lead us to say: "Guilty, vile, and helpless we;/ spotless Lamb of God was he"; or "Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose its evil great/ here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate."

Something in those prayers and songs sounds very wrong to the modern ear. It's not just the high, semi-archaic English. It's that we have been taught it's not healthy to feel that way about ourselves and not wise to cause others to feel that way if we want to attract them to our churches. Robert Schuller has convinced many evangelicals that our great problem is that we don't feel good enough about ourselves.

I have begun to think of some biblical confessions that probably will need to be toned down: David in Psalm 51: "Lord, I messed up with that Bathsheba-Uriah thing." Isaiah in chapter 6: "I'm having a sensory overload from all this shaking, smoke, that throne and big robe, and those seraphs flying around. I feel faint." Daniel in chapter 9: "Our parents made mistakes; we've made mistakes, but could you lighten up?" Peter in Luke 5:8: "Lord, could you give me some space? You're making me feel bad about myself." Paul in Romans 7: "I'm internally conflicted, but these feelings of desperation are, I'm sure, excessive."

blame it on my birth order and birth date if you will, but I blame it on my nature. I'm with John Donne who, after asking God if he will forgive various forms of sin, must still confess: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/ For I have more."

I don't think that admitting my shortcomings will satisfy my soul. I'm one of those "miserable offenders" whose sins are so serious that nothing less than "bewailing" will do. And I'm doubtful that any church that minimizes guilt can minister the maximum gospel I require. But, perhaps, this is just another of my shortcomings. If so, please point out my mistakes in your letters to the editor, without tempting me to engage in exaggerated self-flagellation.

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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