It seemed innocent enough. Just a small change to the format of our weekly recovery meeting. What was that change? I simply projected the confession up on the screen and asked the group to recite it out loud with me. The confession is nothing new. It is read aloud in nearly every WELS traditional service. It goes like this:
Holy and merciful Father,
I confess that I am by nature sinful
and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions.
I have done what is evil
and failed to do what is good.
For this I deserve your punishment
both now and in eternity.
But I am truly sorry for my sins,
and trusting in my Savior Jesus Christ,
I pray: Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.
The words were stunning. They felt harsh and maybe a little mean: “I have done what is evil,” and, “I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.” Ouch!
Internally, I panicked a little and wondered if the confession would be offensive to our unchurched guests. I was not alone in my fear. Another long-time attendee and founder our group said she also felt a pang of discomfort when reading the confession out loud. Would it confirm our guests’ belief that church was an institution that heaps destructive shame and guilt upon its membership? I thought back to a comment made by a coworker a few years ago that reflects how many today feel about the church: “Church? Why would I want to go there and be ‘guilted’?” She pointed a finger to the back of her throat in a gesture meant to mimic a person inducing vomiting.
Yet as we looked at the confession, we found no fault in it. The words are true. True of me and true everyone we know. We are sinners. We do what is evil. We deserve punishment.
Why did these words feel so shocking?
The words of the confession have become shocking to a culture that worships at the altar of the self. And as someone who lives in this culture, it shocked me a little, too. Philosophers and sociologists have given our current culture the name “Expressive Individualism” and have suggested we live in an “Age of Authenticity.” The core beliefs of our culture are
1) The greatest evil we can commit is making someone feel bad about themselves by interfering with their self-definition and self-expression.
2) The greatest virtue we can uphold is to validate, support, and celebrate each person in their quest to indulge their unique set of desires, impulses, and preferences.
In our culture, no one wants to be accused of repressing or judging another human.
You can see Expressive individualism in numerous children’s books and television shows that encourage the youngest among us to “believe in yourself,” “be proud of who you are,” and “know that you can anything you set your mind to.”
And it is not just children who receive these self-magnifying messages. In the realm of business, leaders are encouraged to empower employees, recognize their positive contribution at every opportunity, and build upon the employee’s strengths. Job seekers are counseled to find their “ideal job,” not to become ideal employees. In the top ten most popular books on business, you will never find titles such as these:
How to be an Obedient Servant
Removing Greed and Envy from Your Heart
Putting to Death Your Sinful Desires: A 3 Part Plan to Becoming the Employee Your Boss Deserves.
Instead, business books focus on advancing one’s own career. The authors of books assure us they can teach us the skills and tools needed to do better than others in business and in life. If those skills and tools lift up an organization or serve the interest of the boss, the authors will make sure to explain how your individual interest is enhanced when those around you succeed.
Advertisers understand our culture’s central values and exploit them to make a buck. For example, an advertising campaign for a casino here in Phoenix proudly proclaims: “You do you!” The accompanying images are of individuals expressing their inner selves in defiance of societal stereotypes. There is a tough-as-nails cowboy drinking a pink cocktail and an elderly woman strutting through the casino with a handsome young man on each arm. The announcer reminds us that at their casino, “there are no guilty pleasures,” as slow-motion video rolls in the background displaying images of alcohol being poured into a glass and of men and women dancing to celebrate a gambling victory.
Considering our culture’s love affair with the self, it is no surprise that the words of the confession can feel shocking. They do not honor the individual. They do not promote healthy self-esteem. They do not validate and support individuals’ quest for self-expression.
The words of the confession simply tell the truth--the truth that human-beings’ biggest problem is selfishness and disobedience—and that there are plenty of things we do each day that hurt others and defy the wishes of our Creator.
How did the men in the group react to the confession?
Interestingly, the men in our recovery group last night did not balk at the confession. When we broke into small groups to discuss a Bible passage on divine comfort, they easily identified times in which they sinfully denied comfort to another person. Men shared examples in which they failed to be present for their families during major life events. Others shared instances of greed and envy—of stealing from, manipulating, and using others selfishly. One man shared his history of violence and how it continues to haunt him. They were not shy about sharing their failings. In fact, more than a few used the words “demonic” to describe their life-styles and actions while using drugs and alcohol.
The Failure of Expressive Individualism.
If our recovery group had attempted to use Expressive Individualism to encourage these men, we would have been dismissed as trite and superficial. These men, including myself, had practiced, “You do you,” and seen its logical conclusion: a life of wanton disregard for others that caused pain and hardship. They understood sin and its wages and they knew that the only appropriate response of any human being who has examined their own life in the mirror of God’s word is, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The night filled my heart with joy because I was surrounded by others who shared my belief that I am broken, sinful, and selfish. It was like we had escaped our culture’s shared delusion that humans are intrinsically good. We were granted a reprieve from our culture’s insistence that humans must receive constant encouragement and praise. It was reassuring to name our weaknesses and failures because we knew they existed, even if the culture denies that they exist.
Then came the best part.
Every night in Resilient there is a pronouncement of the gospel. It is a unique absolution of sin that is tailored to the sins and weakness that were confessed in group that night. A member of our group summed up the sins and shortcomings we expressed that night and then offered some gospel comfort by reading Titus 3
3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Men were nodding in agreement with verse 3 and you could feel the relaxing change in the room when verse 4 was read. One person asked to hear the chapter and verses again so he could he could find it later. Others just sighed a relieved sigh, knowing that the bible had spoken so truely about our condition. The verse seemed to meet a deep-seated need in us that night in a way that Expressive Individualism never could.
The verse validated our intuitive sense that we have done wrong and that we can not fix what we have done. It felt good to know that God did not belittle the sense of shame we have felt as a result of addiction. Instead, he is like the Doctor that finally gives us the diagnosis that explains what has been wrong with us. It may hurt to hear that we are wicked, but at least we know that God knows what He is talking about and that he is not going to give us any insincere flattery.
Expressive Individualism would urge us to pursue our bliss, believe in ourselves, or follow our hearts. Those of us there last night knew that Expressive Individualism’s messages are not comforting messages, they are dangerous ones. They are dangerous because they encourage exactly the kind of selfish impulses that led us to become, “enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.”
Thankfully, last night we were pointed to the One who did no wrong. We were encouraged to
· forsake our bliss and seek Jesus,
· distrust ourselves, and believe in Christ,
· fire ourselves as guides, and follow the Son of God
No philosophy of man can touch the depth and expanse of what we are offered in Biblical Christianity. Only Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are equal to the task of naming what is wrong with us and then providing the healing and restoration that we need.
Was it shocking to recite the confession last night? At first it was. But then it turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
All Praise to Him!!!