Confess What? (Thoughts on Psalm 32)

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
whose sin is covered over,
is truly happy!
The one the Lord
doesn’t consider guilty–
in whose spirit there is no dishonesty–
that one is truly happy!
When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
I was groaning all day long–
every day, every night!–
because your hand was heavy upon me.
My energy was sapped as if in a
summer drought.
So, I admitted my sin to you;
I didn’t conceal my guilt.
“I’ll confess my sins to the Lord,”
is what I said.
Then you removed the guilt of my sin.
That’s why all the faithful should pray to
you during troubled times,
so that a great flood of water
won’t reach them.
You are my secret hideout!
You protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of rescue!
I will instruct you and teach you
about the direction you should go.
I’ll advise you and keep my eye on you.
Don’t be like some senseless
horse or mule,
whose movement must be controlled
with a bit and a bridle.
Don’t be anything like that!
The pain of the wicked is severe,
but faithful love surrounds
the one who trusts the Lord.
You who are righteous,
rejoice in the Lord and be glad!
All you whose hearts are right,
sing out in joy.

(Psalm 32, Common English Bible)

It takes forty days for us to confess the burdens of our souls in preparation of Resurrection Sunday (Easter.) Forty long days. And that isn’t counting the Sundays of Lent. Add those in and it comes closer to 50 days.

Why so much time focused on confession and fasting?

As a child I assumed confession only alluded to the “bad” things we’d done. So, I would list the naughty things. And if the list didn’t seem long enough to be sufficiently penitent, I’d go to the old fail-safes:  “Forgive me for not being a good daughter, for not paying attention in school, for picking on my sister, for fighting with my brother…”

Often, those “confessions” were so vague and general that I couldn’t really tell you what specifically I had done wrong.  But that was the nature of a sin-only confessional:  A person spends so much time self-flagellating that she winds up seeing herself as nothing more than a steaming pile of bad. Surely, if I was such a bad person, I must be a lousy daughter, sister, student, friend, etc…

There wasn’t a lot of room left for self-exploration, let alone time to decide what it was I needed to name in order to be set free.

Sin isn’t just about the “bad” things we do. It isn’t just about the “wrong” things.

Sin is anything that separates us from God. And sometimes, what we need to confess isn’t a list of the naughty things we’ve done…

Since adolescence I have struggled with depression. These dark episodes of my life aren’t caused by anything I’ve necessarily done. It’s not that God is punishing me for being “bad” by oppressing me so heavily with suicidal depression that each day during those periods of time was a struggle just to make it through. It was caused by biological factors–a brain chemistry that wasn’t quite right (and in later years, a thyroid that just doesn’t quite function correctly).

However, there is a major stigma about mental illness in our society–particulary around depression and anxiety.

“You just need to get over it,” I was told. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Just decide to be happy. Stop being negative. Just think happy thoughts. Anti-depressants are the lazy way out. Pray more. The only prescription you need is an Rx for the Bible!”

There were nights I lay in my bed, sobbing into my pillow because I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the night. There were moments when everything in me was so twisted and tense that I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed. There were mornings I cried because I didn’t have the strength to get up. And there were the prayers–that a logging truck would strike my car so that I wouldn’t have to go through the motions of another day. A nice, long coma seemed a happy alternative to the misery of one more day with the weight of the world hanging on me.

So many of my confessions during that time of my life were missing the point. I’d beg for forgiveness for feeling so bad, as if I’d chosen it. I’d ask for mercy for the hurt I was feeling, as if I’d just decided I wanted to be suicidal. But I wasn’t able to name the actual thing that was separating me from God because I assumed the only way of understanding sin was to see it as something I had done wrong.

Then came the suicide attempt.

Then another.

There was the therapy I didn’t want to tell anyone about because I was afraid it was a sign of weakness. Why did I need to talk to a stranger? Wasn’t talking to God enough? What could some middle-aged woman with a notepad do for me that God couldn’t?

And the dark episodes just didn’t stop coming.

I’m not sure when exactly I realized I was not confessing the truth about my situation. I was so busy trying to live into the narrow misunderstanding of sin, that I had not been able to see just how much I needed to name the thing that was hurting me–to say it out loud–to tell God that I was hurting and why I was hurting without having to whip myself for the pain.

It was a pastor in my teens who pointed out to me how many of the Psalms deal with anquish and depression. He told me to read the Psalms attributed to David, to pay attention to the moments when it seemed David was suicidal or so depressed he couldn’t find the strength to go on.

And so I’ve been reading the Psalms ever since because I hear my own voice in David’s songs.

Yes, David did things that were a clear transgression against God and against others. Despite his legendary leadership skills and his devotion to God, he could sometimes be a bad person.

But, can’t we all?

And yet, many of the Psalms didn’t necessarily deal with his trangressions, but his anquish at things beyond his control.

Oh, how many mornings did I lay in my bed, like David, with “my bones wore out… groaning all day long, every day, every night… my energy sapped as if in a summer drought”?

David was never afraid to name his pain. And he did it eloquently. Nor was he afraid to point out the separation between him and God.  For David, confession was about more than simply listing his wrongdoings… it was about naming his hurt and pain and suffering, whether it was caused by something he had done or something caused by sources beyond him. He acknowledged his depression, and even his suicidal moments. He confessed his loneliness and his fear. He told God when he was angry at other people… and at God. He named it all.

Confession is about naming. We just don’t name the wrongdoings of our own lives, but we name the things that separate us from God. We name the suffering and that is the first step to allowing God to bridge that gap, to reach across and offer us a respite.

We need these forty days because we need the time to really dive into the depths of our souls, to explore the broken places and to find those chasms between us and God. We need time to begin to name them. We need time to understand them. And we need time to listen for God’s voice coming to us from the other side.

To put it bluntly, if your Lenten confession is nothing more than a list of your wrongdoings, you’re doing it wrong. You’re missing the point. Sit back down. Look deep inside your soul. And begin to name the things that are blocking you from truly accessing God.

It’s when you keep quiet that your “bones wear out.”

But confession will set you free.



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