The importance of naming and owning our sin
When our friends’ son Sam was young, he was attached to a stuffed animal named Lamblamb.
Two things made Lamblamb unique.
First, Lamblamb was a hybrid species. Flowing from his blue lamb head was a matching fleece blanket, making him a versatile companion.
Second, Lamblamb had a propensity for crime.
Our friends had a gas fireplace which became extremely hot to the touch. For his safety Sam’s parents forbade him from flipping the switch that activated the fireplace whenever they weren’t in the room. But, time and again, they found the fireplace activated. Sam, confronted with the evidence of a blazing fire, always offered the same defence.
"Lamblamb did it."
The more exasperated Sam’s parents grew, the more emphatic he became. "It’s not me. It’s Lamblamb."
Finally one evening, Sam’s dad was washing dishes in the kitchen and noticed a blur of movement toward the living room. Recognizing his chance to catch Sam in the act, he tip-toed to the living room door.
Sure enough, Sam’s hand was extended toward the fireplace switch. But his arm was swathed in a blanket, and extending past his hand was Lamblamb’s nubby head. Sam’s dad watched, amazed, as Lamblamb flipped the switch.
I guess we can thank Adam and Eve for the human genius for deflection. "The woman made me do it," was Adam’s defence (Genesis 3:12). "It was the serpent who deceived me," Eve replied (Genesis 3:13).
Technically neither Adam nor Eve – nor Sam for that matter – were lying. But the ability we each possess to rationalize our actions by blaming them on other people or forces inevitably leads to harm.
That’s why Sam’s parents had to stifle their laughter and have a stern talk with their son. Sam needed to comprehend his own culpability to grow in his capacity to deal with temptation.
I’ve been thinking about Sam and Lamblamb – and Adam and Eve – in the context of confession. It began when I was asked to help lead A Day of Confession and Lament for the staff of a global NGO.
My job was to lead a reflection. In planning for the day, I realized there hadn’t been much guidance on confessing sin in my church background. I borrowed from my Anglican friends and made use of the General Confession in The Book of Common Prayer.
"Most merciful God," the prayer begins. Thank God it starts there! It’s only because of His great mercy we can have the courage to name our sins before Him. And it’s only because of His great mercy that He cares for the state of our souls.
"We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed." It’s one thing to confess our behaviours. But our words too? And our thoughts? This prayer allows for that level of specificity.
It’s only because of God’s great mercy we can have the courage to name our sins before Him.
The "sin inventory" of the prayer continues: " … by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." Here we are reminded that we sin not only when we act for harm, but also when we fail to act for good.
And then the prayer reminds us that the point of confession is not to become morally superior, but to deal with anything that holds us back from loving well. "We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves."
With economy and power the liturgy then moves us through repentance and into forgiveness, and the real possibility of a new way of living. But those first lines, and the room they create for specificity, are critical. The business world tells us that only that which is measured can be improved. Doctors remind us that the first step to any healing is the diagnosis.
"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed," counsels James (5:16).
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness," John assures us (1 John 1:9).
"For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us," says the liturgy. It reminds us that the whole point of owning and naming our sin is so that we can lay it at the cross of Jesus.
In that sense young Sam was on to something. Once we own how desperately we need to be forgiven, it’s the Lamb, thanks be to God, who can do it.