Sometimes when I sit down to confess my sins to God, I struggle to know where, exactly, to begin. It’s not that I’m unaware of my wrong choices and attitudes, generally speaking. Quite the opposite: Sometimes I have so many recollections of shortcomings swirling through my head that it feels like a spiritual whirlpool pulling me under.
Once I get rolling, though, it can just turn into a jumbled flood of roiling, accelerating confession: “Lord, I’m sorry I swore at the guy who cut me off on the way to work; I know I shouldn’t have eaten that second donut at our staff meeting this morning … or the third … or the fourth. And Lord, the other day when I was really feeling down, I should have talked to You instead of medicating those feelings by going out and spending too much on another _________ that I really didn’t need. Lord, I was pretty quick to assume the worst of my wife in the argument we had yesterday instead just listening to her and realizing where I was being arrogant and defensive. And …”
Get the picture?
Now, sometimes we just need to spill our hearts to God, and it can be a healthy, cleansing thing. God doesn’t expect us to have it all together when we confess; He longs for us to come as we are. Still, when I get going down that kind of track, an avalanche of confession can eat up my entire prayer time. When that happens, I may not take time to thank Him, to listen to Him, to praise Him, to ask Him for help or to intercede for others. For that matter, I may not take the time to appropriate His lavish grace, to embrace the truth that in Christ I’m cleansed and forgiven. So sometimes I just need a bit of structure to guide me in my confession time.
A couple of years ago, I heard some teaching on what the Catholic church has traditionally identified as the “seven deadly sins.” I’m not Catholic (I’m some sort of hybrid Baptist/Presbyterian mutt, for what it’s worth), but I’ve found value in reflecting on how Catholic tradition has traditionally understood these sins.
The list of the seven deadly sins (which in some cases have gone by more than one word) has its roots in the fourth century and was codified in its most well-known form by Pope Gregory 1 in 590 A.D. I like the simple definitions of these seven sins found at www.deadlysins.com:
- Pride/Vanity: “The excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise.”
- Greed/Avarice: “The desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual.”
- Envy: “The desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.”
- Wrath/Anger: “[The trait that is] manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury.”
- Lust: “An inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.”
- Gluttony: “An inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.”
- Sloth/Acedia: “The avoidance of physical or spiritual work.” (For more on sloth, by the way, check out Denise Morris’ excellent May 1 post, “Slothful Relationships” if you haven’t done so already.)
I also appreciate the admonition that the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church gives about how indulging these vices leads to further bondage to them: “Sin creates [an inclination] to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself.”
In terms of my personal confession time, I like having a categorical way to talk to God about where I’ve fallen short. And while some might think it’s morbid to focus so much on sin, I find this list useful when it comes to helping me remember where I’ve stumbled and in terms of asking for God’s help in these areas. It effectively addresses both my sinful attitudes and my sinful appetites. Pride, envy and wrath tend to be sins of my mind and heart, whereas lust, gluttony, greed and sloth, generally speaking, have to do with my body. Dealing with each of these areas before God helps me to submit myself holistically to him, body, mind and spirit.
The structure of the list keeps me from rambling on and on in confession. It enables me to unpack my rebellious choices before God and lay them at the feet of the cross, where I find and receive forgiveness in Christ. And that propels me forward into praise, intercession and thanksgiving.
Frankly, on any given day, I might struggle in all seven of these areas. I desperately need the forgiveness Jesus freely offers on the cross. Thanks be to Him that our sins, no matter how many or how severe, do not have the last word when we submit them to Him.