Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Worthily Lamenting Our Sins

I hadn't intended to work my way through the Collect for Lent in this blog, but it seems that I am - so carry on I shall. 

I was trying to explain to two Year 4 classes why Christians 'do' Lent. I told them about reflecting on the events that follow on from Lent, that by giving things up we give ourselves space to think about God. I said that some Christians like to take on new things like helping other people, doing some good deeds maybe. They coped with all that very well.

Then I said that Lent was a good time for us to think how we have sinned and how we might like to change and be a little better. A lad asked if it was my job to tell people that they have been naughty. I said no. He asked if someone else told Christians that they had been naughty. I said no, no really. He then asked why Christians thought they had been naughty when no-one had told them. I said that because we know we are not perfect that we kinda just know. He then asked if that is why Christians are always sad-looking. Game set and match the lad. I was lost for a quick-fix answer!

The thing about being a Christian is that we are in constant danger of getting the focus wrong. Many of us seem driven to place our sins in the middle of the canvass that is our lives rather than the goodness and love of God. I think that that is because we can more easily believe that we're 'but worms', rather than believe that God loves us. One is innate, the other acquired. I don't believe that we worthily lament our sins. I think that we tend towards obsessively grieving them. 

So what is worthy lamentation, Mr Curate? - I hear you yell with one voice.

Worthy - useful, of value, virtuous
Lament - to express grief, mourn, to regret

In short, we are called to attend to our sinfulness and our sins with valuable regret, with virtuous mourning - not obsessively. In other words, we take note, we regret, we mourn and we learn; we learn, we express sorrow, we seek forgiveness and we move on. This takes inestimable courage. Most of us are given two arms, two hands and one heart. As I say to my kids, there is only so much I can do at once, and so it is for us. If we are laden with our obsessive griefs, we will never have the capacity to embrace the love and hope that underpins any and all forgiveness. 

I think there is merit in assessing the value of self-reproach that never wains. Many (if not all) of us have those things in our hearts that we labour with after years and years. Such energy and dedication is required to carry such a load when in the end we are called, as Jesus followers, to lay them at the foot of the Cross and accept the gift that was once hanging upon it. I might even go so far as to say that endlessly burdening ourselves with our past sins, especially after receiving absolution, is a sin itself - a sin of ingratitude and wasted time and energy. At worst, it may even err towards a sin of vanity. 


  1. Thank you, Father; a very pertinent distinction and a good analysis of our difficulty in dealing with our selves.

  2. One of the reasons (I think), why so many people, myself included, find it difficult to as you put it "move on" is that we perceive some of our sins to be greater than others.
    Where a sin impinges on other people it is perhaps easier to make what amends are possible and then accept that we have done all we can. Other sins, some of which are not in the public domain tend to weigh more heavily on us and to forgive ourselves is infinitely more difficult.
    Throw a tone or two of guilt into the equation and you have a perfect recipe for life-long mental self-flagellation.

  3. I know where you are coming from, Ray. Someone once explained to me that all sins are equal - but that their consequences that are not, and that the consequences give sin their tariff. I have good days and bad with this notion - but I think a great deal revolves around intent. Most of what we do 'wrong' is unintentional and well-meaning often.

    Individual confess becomes a far more potent force for people who feel that corporate penitence doesn't go quite deep enough. Sometimes, it is in articulating the sin outwardly that the healing takes place. We internalise so much, and that can never be healthy over a lifetime.

    Thanks for both comments!

  4. We have to receive forgiveness as well as seeking it. When we find it hard to accept forgiveness, it's sometimes because we can't forgive ourselves, which as you indicate, may have something to do with vanity.

  5. A further thought David, sorry to come back to my comment. Just how if we are not RC do we obtain absolution? Am I right in thinking this is not the same as forgiveness?

    Incidentally, the word "tone" should have read "ton". Yet another typo.

  6. Thank you for this reflection. I am a believer in individual Sacramental confession, perhaps coming from an RC background, I found it difficult at first when joining the CofE.

    My excellent SD gave me the steer and correctly forecast how much it would help my reconciliation with the past. Especially those sins with a tariff, which hang around and come back and bite you when you least expect it.

    Glad to have found your blog as well!!

  7. UK - glad to have you hear, and thanks for the comment.

    The mainstream Anglican idea of corporate absolution is ok, but it doesnt demand of us that we name our shames. God knows the secrets of our hearts, but very often we still harbour things that we cannot bare to speak of, even to ourselves

  8. This is an excellent post and should be required reading for every church-goer.

    I particularly like the graphic!

  9. Many of in the Episcopal Church engage in the rite of reconciliation during Lent /Holy Week in which we confess and name our sins and burdens and receive absolution from a priest. Some of us do so with someone who knows us and we know while others prefer someone they don't know.

  10. I am glad that I found this blog. I have been trying to use the Ash Wednesday Collect daily during Lent to remind me why we keep Lent. Alongside this collect I also use the Easter day collect, again to remind me to look forward and see each day as a step nearer Easter. I find the balance keeps me on the right road.

  11. Glad you are too, Pilgrim. I will finish off my inadvertent walk through this Collect in the days ahead. Collects are such neglected works of pure beautiful theology, I think!

    And thank you too Penopolopplopple! I like that idea of mentor confessors (if I may apply my own term) - though I recognise that some would find the known mentor a great problem. You bring to the fore a neglected option, and one that I am glad that you have mentioned!

  12. A very helpful read, as always, well written and (gently) provocative.

    A much needed tonic,




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