Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent, a season of confession, repentance, and preparation leading up to Easter Sunday. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that formally observed Lent, but I’ve come to appreciate this season before Easter. Its emphasis upon telling the truth about ourselves through the confession of our mortality and our sinfulness reminds me that I’m not as good as I think I am nor as strong. I admit, I need all the practice I can get when it comes to confession. For all the lip service Christians give to the idea confession (that is, telling the truth about ourselves), we’re not very good at it.
Do you ever wonder why we have such trouble with admitting our sinfulness to one another and to God? One of the most basic doctrines of our faith is that we are all sinners, every last one of us. Because of that, you’d think church would be the most likely place a person could come and bare her soul. But as we know, church is often the least likely someone will come to confess transgressions or weakness. More often than not, a person caught up in some sin will drop out of church instead of run to it. Or even more frequently, this battered soul will simply pretend as if everything in her life is as it should be. Far from being a place of truth telling, our worship, our community, void of confession, becomes a place of lies.
Why are we so prone to this type of personal and corporate self deception? While I’ve never seen the movie, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a scene in that old movie, Charade, when Audrey Hepburn turns to Carey Grant and asks him, “Why do people lie?”
“People lie,” he answers, “because they want something and fear that the truth will not get it for them.”
Taylor adds, “If he had been a preacher instead of a movie star, he might have said, ‘People sin because they want something and fear that goodness will not get it for them.’” And that’s the great paradox of our confessionless Christianity. We know we are bad. We preach a gospel that says God loves bad people. But we don’t actually trust that this truth can set us free. So, instead, we pretend goodness. Not so much for God but for one another, so that we won’t experience each other’s scorn, so that we’ll keep belonging even if it’s to a group of self-deceived souls. In our hypocrisy, we toss one more sin up on the pile and it kills our worship and steals away our chance to have God’s truth set us free.
Lent, then, serves as a purposeful check upon confessionless Christianity. It is a time when we do our best to simply tell the truth. We still our hearts long enough to tell the truth about our mortality – I will one day die. We allow God’s Spirit to search our hearts that we might tell truth about our own sinfulness – I have sinned. In telling the truth, we miraculously discover the God who can forgive our sins and give us life everlasting.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24)