Monday, December 05, 2022

Anonymous Asks (226)

“How detailed should prayers of confession be?”

John famously wrote, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He didn’t add a lot of detail about the confession process, but perhaps this is because the Greek word he used for “confess” carried linguistic freight the English translation does not.

Most people get their ideas about confession either from the Roman Catholic practice or from police procedurals, so the concept of biblical confession requires a bit of unpacking.

The Interrogation Room and the Confessional

In police dramas, the suspect is locked in a little room with one or more hopefully less-corrupt officers of the law who mercilessly grill him, telling him permissible lies and half-truths about his situation until he spills his guts. Afterwards, they require him to write down everything he did in excruciating detail and sign it so they can use it against him in court and make his life even more miserable.

In Catholicism, confession to God takes place through a slightly more merciful and (usually) less-devious human intermediary, also in a very small room, but somewhat more discreetly. Thankfully, nothing gets written down.

In both cases, confession is most often an act of desperation or duty, rather than restoration of fellowship and transformation.

Biblical confession is only like these first two forms of confession in that it cannot change the inevitable outcomes of certain kinds of behavior. Even when confession is genuine and entirely accepted by God, fellowship between Father and child fully restored, there may still be wrongs that need righting, recompense to be made, fines or penalties to be paid, awkward conversations to be had with those we have injured, and so on.

Biblical Confession

Other than its inability to erase the consequences of sin in this world, biblical confession has little in common with either the interrogation room or the Roman confessional. It involves no grilling and no intermediary. It is voluntary, not coerced. Its aim is not judgment but restoration of agreement and harmony between the parties. Though the one to whom we confess does not pronounce us forgiven afterward, his word has already guaranteed it, and declared him “faithful and just” in so doing.

The Greek word translated “confess” in 1 John is homologeō, a compound of homo (“same”) and logos (“word”). It means literally to “say the same”, or agree. To confess sin, then, is to agree with God about our guilt before him. It is to give up rationalizing, defending or excusing ourselves and admit we are wrong and God is right. The act is really more profession than confession, and that is how homologeō is sometimes translated in the New Testament. It is more about God and the rightness of his ways than it is about us, and the wretchedness of ours.

Beyond that, scripture gives us little to go on as to the “How To” of confession. All we can do is look to the examples it provides for a little direction. Most of these are in the Old Testament, regrettably blurted out in the absence of the full assurance of forgiveness and total reconciliation that the inseverable family relationship between God and his child confers on the Church Age believer. Nevertheless, we may get something out of them.

Joshua and Achan

Joshua said to Achan, “Tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” Achan confessed, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

Achan made his confession to man, not God, so it can hardly serve as a model prayer of confession for Christians. Nevertheless, we can observe two things about it: (1) it listed everything that was on his conscience, including motive and action; (2) it takes about ten seconds to recite.

A good Christian confession is probably much like it in that it is honest, clear, brief and unvarnished with self-interest.

Ezra and the Men Who Had Married Foreign Wives

The book of Ezra tells the story of a large number of Israelite men returned from exile who promptly married foreign women in defiance of the Law of Moses. Ezra called them out on their wickedness, and most of the men repented. In chapter 10, he says to them, “Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”

While this is still a little far afield for the Christian, it is closer to what we are looking for than the Joshua/Achan story because it involves direct confession to God. That is what Ezra commanded. Moreover, he first confessed to God on behalf of the men who had sinned (see chapter 9), which is probably where his obvious authority in giving direction to his fellow Israelites came from. Chapter 9 is worth reading because although Ezra was not personally guilty of anything, he quoted the scriptures Israel had violated and agreed with God about their appropriateness. He was also exceedingly grateful for God’s mercy to the nation given their sinful condition.

But the biggest takeaway from the story is probably this: If you are going into the presence of God to make confession for sin, you had better be prepared to do whatever God requires. “Make confession” and “Separate yourselves” are flipsides of the same coin. The Israelite who “confessed” and kept his foreign wife in his household would not be doing anything useful either for himself or for his nation.

That does not help us with the level of detail a Christian prayer of confession should contain, but it does remind us of an important precondition consistent with the idea of New Testament homologeō confession: if you are not interested in changing your ways, you are not actually “agreeing” with God at all.

Nehemiah’s Prayer

Nehemiah 1 contains a prayer of confession for the sins of Israel that can be read at a dignified pace in just over a minute. He spends a significant portion of the prayer praising God (“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments”) and a significant portion quoting scripture, both to indict his nation and to claim the promises of God to a repentant people.

As for the level of detail in his confession, there is only this: “We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” That’s not terribly specific and contains almost no detail at all, but Nehemiah is agreeing with God about the accumulated debt of guilt carried by his nation. Perhaps the prophets had made the sins of Israel so clear that no detailed acknowledgment was necessary.

Daniel’s Prayer

Daniel 9 contains a prayer of confession for the sins of Israel that clocks in about the two-minute mark. Like Nehemiah’s prayer, it contains little specificity about the nature of the sins of Israel, but agrees with God’s judgment in every respect. Also like Nehemiah, Daniel first acknowledges the character of God before asking him for anything at all: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” Then he closes with “We do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.”

That’s probably not a bad thing to emphasize in prayer.


What can we conclude from all this? Even under the Old Testament economy, the prophets and servants of the Lord did not take the Levitical command to “confess all the iniquities” as an invitation to endless groveling or to a recitation of their evils in granular detail. They concentrated on the words of scripture and the character of God, and they expressed humble agreement with his wisdom and judgments. Apparently that was good enough for them, and, more importantly, good enough for God. Both Daniel’s and Nehemiah’s prayers got immediate, favorable responses from Heaven.

On that basis, I would suggest we are wise to follow their lead.

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