There is a scene in Nehemiah 9 where the Israelites who have been brought back into the land after the exile confess their sins before the Lord. It’s a lengthy confession that details their unfaithfulness starting with Abram and continuing up until their current situation.
As I was thinking about it, I was struck by how different this confession is from some of the other ways we commonly respond to the consequences of our sin. And I thought it would make a good meditation for Good Friday.
Nehemiah and the Israelites did two things that I think are necessary for a good confession:
- They took full responsibility for their sin, accepting the consequences as just.
- But they also cried out for deliverance, depending utterly on the mercy of God.
It seems to me that doing both of these things is necessary in confession, and if we only do one of them, we end up in a bad place. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.
If we do the first part (taking full responsibility for our sin) but not the second (cry out for mercy), we end up trying to deserve deliverance. “Yes, we’ve messed up, God, but just wait a second! We can fix this! Give me a couple days to figure this out! Eventually we will earn your deliverance.” We frantically try to fix the problems because we don’t know what it would look like to simply accept God’s mercy and deliverance as a gift.
This is what the prodigal son tried to do when he first came back to his father’s house after squandering the family inheritance. “I’ve blown it, but I’ll try to start paying you back by being one of your hired hands…”
If we do the second part (ask God to fix it!) but not the first part (taking responsibility for our sin), we end up demanding deliverance from God. “We actually didn’t deserve this, God! Get us out of this mess! How could a good God let this kind of thing happen? Fix it, God!” Because we don’t see the depths of our sin and accept responsibility for the consequences, we demand God’s deliverance like petulant children.
This is essentially what the older brother in the prodigal son parable was doing. He didn’t like what was happening and felt that he had been working hard, and his little brother should not be getting a party after what he did. “You never throw me any parties!”
The answer, then, is to simply do both parts. We confess our sin, we acknowledge that we do deserve whatever situation we find ourselves (and much worse, really). We did this to ourselves! We allowed sin to rule us and now we are suffering because of it.
But we also know what kind of God we serve, that He’s good and full of compassion for his children, so we cry out for deliverance from our sin, utterly dependent on him, trusting his goodness and mercy to save us, confident that he will do it, not because we deserve it, but because he is good and merciful and forgiving, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son.
(I’ve posted a copy of Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” for your edification below. This is one of my favorite paintings of all time.)