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Confession and Guilt

2009 September 3
by Julie Clawson

A couple of weeks ago when we were in Michigan, we attended Mars Hill for church one Sunday. Rob Bell was speaking on Genesis 2 – our call to be co-creators through stewarding creation and how sin disorders the way that was meant to happen. (the sermon The Importance of Beginning in the Beginning is currently available for download). At one point Rob made a comment about sin and confession that struck me (and I may not have the quote completely right here, this is just what I wrote down) –

Confession is admission, recognition, declaration, and agreement that we have participated in the wrong order of things – in ways that don’t further the Shalom of God. And then we repent and say we want to return to the order that God wants.

The definition of confession that I have always heard restricts it to admitting particular sins. You told a lie, you confess it. But that view of confession doesn’t truly cover all the ways we have participated in the disruption of true Shalom. It makes confession all about us and an easy checklist of dos and don’ts instead of our relationship with God and others and our call to participate in the kingdom of God.

For example, when we participate in systems that support injustices in the world we are disrupting Shalom. I would never go so far as to say that buying a banana grown by oppressed workers and with dangerous polluting pesticides is a sin in the traditional understanding of the word, but it is a failure to love and a disruption of the way things ought to be. So we can confess that we have participated in the wrong order of things, failed to support God’s Shalom, and then choose to return (repent) to the order of love and stewardship that God desires. It’s not about acts of individual sin, it’s about an orientation of love.

But it is also not about guilt. Admitting, recognizing, declaring, and agreeing (confessing according to this definition) that these acts of oppression and pollution exist and that we are participants in them is not meant to make people feel guilty but to establish the impetus for change. Unless we admit that there is a problem, then things can never return to the way they should be. All too often those of us who talk about the need to confess our cultural sins (as with purchasing unfairly made items or benefiting from the past slavery of others) are accused of just wanting people to feel guilty. But in truth guilt should have nothing to do with this. Confession comes from a desire to serve God and see his will done. We may yes, feel bad or sorry for our actions, but change comes from positive vision not negative feelings.

This perspective on confession is bigger and messier than we might be used to, but it better reflects the way God desires us to be. It is harder to think of life holistically and attempt to orient ourselves to living out the Shalom of God, but I think it is more reflective of truth and results in deeper commitments to the way of Christ.


5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 3, 2009

    Thanks for this, I listened to the same sermon and appreciated your thoughts on it.

  2. September 3, 2009

    “All too often those of us who talk about the need to confess our cultural sins (as with purchasing unfairly made items or benefiting from the past slavery of others) are accused of just wanting people to feel guilty.”

    I think there is a simple reason for that accusation. Without Jesus, without a repentance that includes a re-turning to God through his son, there is no absolution, no putting away of the sin. Those who do not know experientially the grace of Christ (and I believe this includes many members of our churches, not just non-christians), have no reason to associate anything other than guilt with admission of sin.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the statement you took from Bell’s message and with your conclusion. I need to be careful to take this forward not by calling out the sins of others, but by calling out my own, modeling this attitude toward sin/confession/repentance that leads to wholeness and shalom.

  3. September 11, 2009

    Julie. Good post. I think you’re instincts here point in the right direction, but unless we ground this action of shalom-making in the vicarious humanity of Christ and in Christ’s vicarious confession for all of humanity’s guilt (whether acknowledged or not) then there is a danger that we might construe that the commitments you are properly calling us to here are without God’s own (in your words) ‘deeper commitments to the way of Christ’.

  4. September 13, 2009

    I first heard Rob talk about this at Poets Prophets Preachers. It was a tie-the-clouds-together moment. My husband and I have been working on similar concepts out of genesis for almost 3 years now, and felt incredibly validated to hear we aren’t crazy. Or at least other people are in our crazy-boat.

    It’s a big, big concept. And beautiful. And fantastic. Begin in the beginning. Tell the story that’s being told. And work to restore the great shalom that existed at the creation of time. Beautiful.

    I think the world would be a better place if we all took in 3 Rob Bell sermons:
    This one.
    Drop the Jawbone from June, I think?
    And Grace & Peace from January almost 2 years ago.

    Precisely because of how Bell deals with guilt/freedom, love, grace, peace (The Great Shalom), and the restoration of us and the world. Oh, and their links with justice. Because they link with justice. Did ya know? It’s like an everyday thing :)

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