Doing a Good Thing Badly

For those who observe Lent, this is a season of self-examination and spiritual exercise that begins with confession. “Against you only have I sinned,” we read in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, “and done what is evil in your sight.” “Confess your sins to one another,” James writes, enumerating the practices that make for spiritual and communal health.

Protestants gave up the ritual of sacramental confession nearly five centuries ago. Instead we confess our sins to God in private prayer or to one another in a corporate confession read aloud on Sundays, not requiring us to name the particularly embarrassing offenses that burden, and eventually blunt, the conscience. Or sometimes we find ourselves in groups whose intention is to provide a safe space for confession. These can be enormously helpful—twelve-step programs, for instance, where people can tell stories of brokenness in a climate of acceptance that for many is the beginning of healing.

I remember thinking about confession in a new way a few years back when I heard a chapel talk by a college faculty member who had been asked to share his spiritual journey. I was expecting a fairly standard conversion narrative, including a chapter about waywardness, repentance, and return. When we came to that part of his story, however, he said, “I’m not going to enumerate the sins of my youth. They’ve been forgiven and they are gone. I’m not going to run the risk of making them sound juicy or lively or even interesting by naming them here.” The wisdom of that restraint has come back to me on other occasions when I have found myself in groups where storytelling took a confessional turn. Public confession, I’ve noticed, offers a variety of temptations. Here are a few of the more obvious ways confession can turn into self-deception, self-exoneration, self-aggrandizement, even self-congratulation:

— I have been bad in ways that are unusually interesting. My kind of bad is more psychologically and spiritually complex than most. It has a kind of bouquet, like fine wine. This can be elaborated with hints of dark humor, lustiness and Byronic mystery.

— When I tell you how bad I am, you’ll see how humble I can be. The more details of my badness I tell, the more you will admire my humility. By the time I’m done here, you’ll be walking out shaking your heads and murmuring, “Wow. She’s so humble. Wish I could be that humble.”

— I have been bad in ways that offer fine grist for the entertainment mill. I have stories of prurience, squalor, betrayal, and clever falsehood that might really inspire a good movie script. You’ll laugh. You’ll think of characters in mafia movies and double-agents and midnight cowboys or (in the female version) of kindly hookers and sexy double-agents.

— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how good my motives were. You’ll even see that all that badness was really for the sake of something good—a kind of fidelity, even—misguided, perhaps, but kind-hearted.

— When I’m done telling you my story of being bad, you’ll see how it’s really a parable: good can come out of evil. Maybe the evil is even necessary for the good to happen. Maybe what I did was actually a kind of service.

The grain of truth in each of these versions is what makes them so tempting. The thing I want to remember this season as I undertake examination of conscience that will, I hope, open up the places where I am obstructing the flow of divine energy to and through me is that confession is a precarious business, mined with traps for the needy ego, not (as they say in the marriage rite) to be entered into lightly. When the liturgist says “Let us prepare our hearts for confession,” I’d like an extra moment to do that, because a few boulders may need to be moved out of the way.

A colleague of mine used to append this dark reminder from Jeremiah to all his e-mails: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Some of us laughed about his choice of tag-line. And yet I remember it, some days, with gratitude. Self-deception grows deep with roots that branch and clutch. So here’s one of my prayers for this season: May I see myself more clearly, confess more truly, and accept more gratefully the forgiveness that sets me free.

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