I am currently reading a fascinating social psychological exploration of just how much we don’t like to engage in little things like telling the truth, repenting, confessing, and apologizing. It’s called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. The title of the book draws on a phrase that has been used many times by politicians and religious leaders in public “apologies.” The passive third-person language in the phrase “mistakes were made,” though, essentially distances oneself from the act being apologized for. This work draws on lots of research to show how otherwise good people can get sucked into an escalating chain of irresponsible behavior because of the power of self-justification.
Self-justification is driven by what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, which is the painful tension or stress we feel when we have beliefs that conflict with the reality of who we are and what we do. So for example, we may believe that lying is wrong, that good people don’t lie, that we are a good person, and that therefore we shouldn’t be lying. So when we do lie, that causes us some inner tension that is unpleasant (so I’ve been told). To get out of the tension, or to resolve the dissonance, there are two basic options: we can confess and repent and all that, or we can just come up with good reasons why we needed to lie.
She just wouldn’t understand.
He wouldn’t care anyway.
I deserve it.
They hurt me and so it evens out.
And so it goes. The ancient Israelite prophet had it right when he said that “the human heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). Lying to others isn’t that big of a deal when we are constantly lying to ourselves.
The other option is the path less followed, because it appears harder, but is actually much easier in the long-run. One of the reasons I try not to lie is because it just takes too much energy. The project of always trying to justify yourself is just too exhausting.
Which is where justification by faith comes in. The way of Christ is the opposite of the way of self-justification. Walking on the path of Christ means that we give up the project of always trying to be in the right and to prove our self-worth, and instead, we make the commitment to trust that God justifies us through God’s grace. We don’t have to spin a bunch of BS to save face, because we already acknowledge that we are sinners, and that God loves us regardless.
Which brings me to why I think its important to tell God we are sorry on a regular basis. It’s important because I think it is important to live in reality as much as we can, and the reality is that even though we are beloved children of God, friends of Jesus, and temples of the Holy Spirit, we’re also sinners and we have a tendency to think, say, and do lots of self-centered things. (Such as just now in writing that last sentence, my secret hope was that you’ll be impressed with my humility.)
I like worship services that begin with confession. Some people don’t, because they feel like they are a “downer.” Personally, a good solid prayer of confession at the beginning of worship tells me that the people leading worship here are serious about the intersection of the gospel and real life. On any given Sunday, chances are that at some point in the previous week I have sinned. Chances are high you wouldn’t have to go back long before worship began. Especially if my wife drove us to church.
Telling God we are sorry doesn’t mean that we think we are a worthless piece of crap or that we never doing anything right. It just means owning up to reality- to the reality of who we are (fragile and fickle) and the reality of who God is (merciful and steadfast). Confession isn’t about piling on guilt, its about letting go of baggage. It sets you free.
Rationalizations may save face, but confession will save your soul.