No Health?

Even before I read Matthew Lundberg’s
essay “Tripping over Adverbs” in the
February edition of Perspectives, I
had planned to write this little reflection
for the Lenten Season. What follows may
be something of a counter-weight to Lundberg’s
reflections on how some of our Lord’s
Supper liturgies seem to require more of
a pumped-up faith than we may feel able
to accomplish. Making sure you are “truly
sorry” for your sins and that you “sincerely
believe” in Jesus before taking communion
may focus too much on our faith instead
of on the sacrament that forgives precisely
the weaknesses of our faith and the failures
we experience as we walk with God along
paths of discipleship. Lundberg made a
compelling point.

But I want to think about some prayers
of confession that may tilt us too far in the
opposite direction. In particular I am reminded
of the line from a very old, very
classic prayer of confession in which, after
listing a series of moral failures, the
prayer then asserts, “There is no health
in us.” For Christians who now live “in
Christ” and who have been renewed by
the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism,
claiming that there is “no health” in us
seems theologically and spiritually dicey.
I believe that I have Christ and all his
benefits
in me. That sounds reasonably
healthy. That is probably why many contemporary
versions of this prayer delete
that “no health” line. But there are any
number of other prayers of confession that
can sound equally dire on the face of them.
If Mr. Lundberg is correct that sometimes
our Lord’s Supper liturgies need fewer adverbs,
perhaps our prayers of confession
need more.

After all, what do we do with statements
in a prayer of confession that say, in blanket
terms, “We have not loved our neighbors”
or “You call, but we do not follow” or
“We are a disobedient church” or “We abuse
your gifts.” Whenever I encounter prayers
that lack any qualifying words, I internally
pine for an adverb or two. Instead of wanting
to shout, “Somebody say ‘Amen,'” I want
to shout, “Somebody say ‘Occasionally’ or
‘Often’ or ‘Sometimes.'” Sometimes God
calls and I do not follow, but at other times
he calls, and I do follow. Often we are a
disobedient church, but on any given week
there are, blessedly enough, millions of
instances of ecclesiastical faithfulness all
over the place. Occasionally I fail to love my
neighbors, but in any given week I manage
to love a good number of them after all.

It was my wife who made me more
thoughtful about this. One week in the
church where I was pastor, we used a
prayer of confession that lacked adverbial
nuance. That prompted my wife to wonder
why it was that during that particular part
of worship, we feel the need to portray ourselves
in such sinister ways. Why can’t we
acknowledge, even during a penitential moment,
that in the week gone by we have so
very many things for which to be thankful?
Specifically, why not acknowledge all those
gracious promptings of the Holy Spirit that
we did follow? If we do not nuance this
part of the service, we may inadvertently
send the message that a pre-requisite for
true confession is to make ourselves out
to be worse people than we actually are,
dismissing even the good things we did accomplish
as being of no account.

As Peter DeVries reminded readers
many years ago in his novel The Blood of the
Lamb
, such a denigrating of good works in
favor of portraying ourselves as filthy sinners
is something of a Calvinist hallmark.
In one scene, DeVries recounts a living room conversation in which the church’s
pastor, a couple of elders, and a few other
men repeatedly try to out-do one another
in chalking up even their good works to
the category of “filthy rags” that stink to
high heaven. (And as DeVries wryly noted,
“This being what we thought of virtue, you
can imagine what we made of vice.”)

But it is simply false for baptized
Christian believers to be required to view
themselves as having “no health” in them
in order to muster a true confession of sin.
Sins can be confessed in utter sincerity and
with utter seriousness even when we do so
with a full awareness that we have so much
to be thankful for in our lives of discipleship,
too. No, we do not always do it right.
We never pass through a week so spiritually
pristine that we may exempt ourselves
from the Confession and Assurance part of
the service on the next Sunday. But if it
is wrong to conclude we lived so peerlessly
that we have nothing to confess on any given
Sunday, it is equally wrong to force through
a litany or prayer of confession that goes to
the opposite extreme of claiming that we are
nothing but faithless, irreverent, unloving,
and spiritually sick unto death.

Some of the greatest truths of Christian
theology require us to embrace paradoxical
tensions: God is both one and three;
Christ is both human and divine. So also
in Luther’s famous phrase, we are simul
iustus et peccator
, simultaneously justified
and sinful. Both. Neither washes out
the other. And taken together, only that
combination allows us to dare to confess
our sins in the first place: the holiness to
which our justification makes us aspire
convicts us of also those times when we
failed. But the fact of our being justified
by grace–and so now living “in Christ”
as a result–lets us know that when we
confess our failings to God, forgiveness
will most assuredly follow.

Those of us who write prayers and litanies
of confession–and those of us who
borrow such prayers from other liturgical
resources–do well to reach for adverbs
in case the prayers or litanies in front of
us lack such honest qualifiers. After all,
if we are baptized believers, claiming that
there is no health in us constitutes a form
of bearing false witness against our very
selves. But we should not be asked to sin
in order to confess our sins.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in
Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand
Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.