Two of the readings in today’s Daily Office (Psalm 78 and Nehemiah 9:26-38) provide us with extended prayers of confession and repentance. Of course, that in itself is significant — if only because one gets the sense that dealing honestly with our sins and shortcomings isn’t any easier for God’s people today than it was in ages past. Oh sure, we might be able and willing to name the ways that “those people” (insert here your favorite scapegoat for the world’s ills) are threatening to bring God’s judgment down on us. But to take a good, hard look at our own lives — to acknowledge the ways in which we take the good news of God’s kingdom, where enemies are reconciled and where greatness comes in serving others, and turn it into a message of exclusion and privilege — well, that gets to be far more difficult.
But our readings today offer two “lessons in repentance,” I think, that might help us cultivate the kind of humble hearts in which God is pleased to dwell. First, these passages confront us with the reality that we are entangled in an age-old problem. We need not (and must not) whitewash our past, because it lays bare our uncanny ability to run toward God when we need Him — and to run from Him when we think we don’t. Psalm 78, for example, offers a lengthy litany of ways that God’s people turned from Him, even after benefiting from His goodness (see verses 17-20; 32-37, 40-43, and 56-58). And Nehemiah writes:
“But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.” (Nehemiah 9:28)
Of course, by offering these examples, these readings also confront us with the promise that we are rescued by an age-old hope: God really is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. When we confess our sin, He really is faithful and just and will forgive our sin. And that realization gives us the courage to act on the second lesson that these passages teach: Those sins of the past are our sins, too.
Take a look at the way Nehemiah describes it…
“Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps His covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes…In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.” (Nehemiah 9:32-33, emphasis added)
Today, may God grant us both the humility and the courage to acknowledge our sins, both past and present, and to trust completely that He has done what is necessary to deal with them. May the prayer that David prayed be ours, too…
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)