Have you ever encountered a person who leaves hurt and destruction in their wake but refuses to acknowledge any need for change because they simply ask God for forgiveness? Have you ever been tempted to confess difficult issues in your life as a way to overcome the guilt and regret you feel without needing to actually do anything?
Confession and its partner, repentance, can be powerful practices for transformation and growth. But too often they are separated from each other and confession is used as a way to avoid any need for change. And that’s why, in an evolutionary approach to prayer, the practice of confession needs to shift from simply acknowledging our faults and asking for forgiveness to a process of real, practical, healing change.
This podcast explores the problems of passive confession and invites us to embrace change so that we can grow toward our best, most sacred selves.
When you spend a lot of time in religious circles, as I have through most of my adult life, you come to realise that, for many people, prayer is viewed as an end in itself. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in a church meeting trying to navigate some struggle or challenge in the community, when someone has suggested, in those measured tones that tell you they are being spiritual in a way that no one else seems to be, that all we need to do is pray.
For too many people of faith, prayer is a one-size-fits-all, no-other-solution needed fix for every problem, situation, or struggle we could ever face. No thinking is required. No wrestling with realities, no seeking helpful strategies, no research into causes and possible ways forward are needed. No matter the situation or the people involved, all we have to do is pray. And to suggest anything else is to reveal yourself as lacking in faith, not truly committed to God, and…well, unqualified really to call yourself a Christian.
This attitude to prayer is not just unhelpful. It can actually be destructive. It breeds passivity. The benefit is that we get the feeling that we are actually doing something significant when we don’t have to actually do anything at all. We simply call a prayer meeting and spend an hour or two passionately speaking out our hopes and desires for the situation, and then we can go on our way, confident that we have contributed to the solution that God now must bring about.
And, of all the prayers we may pray, the one in which this passivity causes, perhaps, the most damage and requires the least effort from us, is the prayer of confession. This, of course, is the ‘C” in the prayer acronym ACTS—standing for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication—that we spoke about in last week’s episode. And it’s a prayer practice that is often used—either formally, like in the Roman Catholic Church, or informally in personal devotions—to find complete freedom from guilt with no requirement to actually do anything at all.
I’ll never forget, a few years ago, watching an episode of the reality television show Survivor. One of the contestants, a woman who made much of her faith in Christ throughout the season, had decided that the time had come for her to stab her allies in the back in order to further her progress in the game. As she related her plan to the camera, she concluded by saying, “I know it’s wrong. But it’s ok. I’ll just ask God to forgive me.”
How many movies have you seen in which drug lords or organised crime bosses go to confession regularly—as regularly as anyone—but continue their violent and fraudulent business practices without a second thought, only to confess them again the following week?
The first big problem with confession is that it is offered to a distant, uninvolved God who is seen as a judge who must be placated through the “sacrifice” of confession. But because of Jesus “taking our punishment” we no longer need to fear God’s judgement as long we stay up to date with our confession. You see the problem in our lives, in this view, is not sin, not brokenness, not doing harm. The problem is unconfessed sin.
The second big problem with confession is that it requires no change. On the contrary, it’s designed to relieve us of the need to change. It’s meant to keep us in the life we actually have now. There is no need to be transformed, or grow, or develop in any way. It’s perfectly acceptable—sometimes even preferable—to remain complacently in the stage of life and health in which we feel most comfortable. And anything within that stage that is unhealthy or unhelpful or destructive is dealt with not by overcoming it, but by paying our dues in the transactional ritual of confession in which nothing but a costless verbal admission is needed.
But an evolutionary God doesn’t really care about confession. Certainly not in this sense. By definition, to be in relationship with the evolutionary process, the evolutionary life, the evolutionary God, is to be in a constant state of evolution. And if we are mindful and intentional about our spirituality, then our evolution will be conscious, purposeful, and thoughtful.
This is where that awkward term repentance—which is supposed to be inseparably linked with confession—comes into its own. And repentance is the centre of Jesus’ message. At the start of Mark’s Gospel, the writer describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and offers a short, two-sentence summary of Jesus’ message. This is meant to give the reader a quick grasp on what Jesus’ life and ministry were all about. This is what we read in Mark 1:14-15:
Later on, after John (and that means John the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”
Notice that, as Jesus announces the appearance of God’s reign, he includes the practice of repentance as a necessary ingredient of experiencing God’s new reality. Repentance simply means to acknowledge or confess what needs to change and then to make the necessary change. Preachers often note that the Greek word here is metanoia which means to change one’s mind, or to make a u-turn, to stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction from the one you were going in.
In relation to an Evolutionary God—a God who is Being and Consciousness, not just A conscious being; and who is Life and not just the source of life—embracing transformation is what confession is all about. It’s being willing to do the work of evaluating our impact on the world and on the people around us, seeing where we can do better, and then learning how to practically and intentionally grow so that doing better becomes natural and automatic. It’s to embrace the lifelong process of ‘positive disintegration’ as Kazimierz Dąbrowski called it—constantly discarding old, less healthy versions of ourselves in favour of embracing newer, healthier, more life-giving ones. It is to join with the entire cosmos in the process of evolving into ever more complex, creative, and connected beings. As my sister said to me recently, “Repentance is the opposite of self-righteousness and narcissism.”
Confession is not about judgement, but liberation. It’s not about being negative about ourselves, or seeing humanity and ourselves as totally depraved. It is to reject the idea of original sin—that there is nothing good in us unless we are “saved from our sin by Jesus’ death on the cross.” It is instead to live into the truth of original blessing—that we are created in the very good image and likeness of God. It is to acknowledge and own our capacity for goodness, truth, and beauty. And to acknowledge that, for all sorts of reasons—some of our own making and some because of others—we often don’t live up to our innate goodness. We aren’t born perfect. And we probably never become perfect. But we can grow better—more compassionate, loving, generous, playful, creative, and kind—if we so choose. And when we make this quest a constant aspect of our lives, then we are truly praying—confessing, repenting, and changing—without ceasing.
When we practice evolutionary prayer, the ‘C’ in ACTS is less about confession and more about change. Confession is simply acknowledging where change is required if we are to grow toward our best selves and our best lives. Repentance is the process by which we turn away from harmful habits, addictions and attitudes, and do the work of developing new, healthier, ways of being. The prayer to change is not a passive prayer at all. It is prayer in transforming, healing, life-giving action. And it leads us and our world to a place of greater wholeness, peace, connectedness, and joy.
In the next episode, we will explore what seems to be the easiest of the four letters in the ACTS acronym—the ’T’ for thanksgiving. But, as we will see, an evolutionary approach to prayer will shift even how and why we give thanks. You’re going to want to make sure you don’t miss that one!
And that’s it for this week. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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