So, I was mulling over what discipline I could tie in with Numbers. Census-taking is not usually found in lists of disciplines, so that ruled out a few chapters. There’s a whole lot of stuff about purity, but we covered that last month. But as I was reading through Numbers, I came across that bit in chapter 14. Ten of the 12 spies have messed up and convinced God’s people to ignore God’s promises. The same ten spies have also been struck down. Only Joshua and Caleb survive. Moses has pleaded with God and seen God relent and agree not to wipe out the Israelites. But those who failed to trust in God’s promise will not see it come to fruition. Moses reports all this to the Israelites, and they’re gutted. After they’ve mourned bitterly, we are told:
Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, ‘Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!’
‘Ah’, we think. They’ve finally cottoned on. The penny’s dropped. But hang on, Moses has just reported back to them … presumably he mentioned that none of them (well, none of the over-20s, anyway) were going to the promised land. Sure enough, as they’re heading off, Moses says to them:
‘Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.’
And sure enough, they went up, without God, and got beaten back by the people in the promised land.
And so I thought I’d look at confession this month. On the face of it, maybe it appears that the Israelites have done the right thing, recognising their sin. But that’s only one part of confession in the sense of spiritual disciplines. Because confession is not just a chance to ‘fess up’. There’s more to it than that. Having spent some time thinking about it, I would divide the discipline of confession into three parts.
Confession, forgiveness and repentance.
In confession we throw ourselves at God’s mercy. We know His commands are right. We know we have fallen short. We confess. But with this confession comes the promise of forgiveness. Psalm 51, an extraordinary Psalm of confession, tells us that God has great compassion and love that is unfailing. 1 John 1 reminds us that God ‘is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’. There is a danger that we hear the need to confess but do not hear the promise of forgiveness. Sure, if we sin again, we confess again. But we may sometimes need to accept we have received forgiveness, rather than confessing one event over and over. Forgiveness comes through the death of Jesus. If ever you question whether you’re truly forgiven, think about this – what would be the point of Jesus’ sacrifice if it wasn’t enough to deal with sin? You ARE forgiven.
But confession and forgiveness go hand in hand with one other thing – repentance. Remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? (it’s in John 8) What is Jesus’ command to the woman? ‘Go and sin no more’. Confession shouldn’t simply be a circular thing, going round and round in the same sin/confession cycle (though, as humans, a level of this is inevitable!) It should be a part of our desire as Christians to be holy; to become increasingly like Jesus. We need to decide not to sin again. This might sound a bit weird, and it won’t guarantee that we go on to pursue a sinless life, but if we don’t decide to avoid sin, we’re likely to fall more easily into the same old traps and temptations.
Personally, I’ve found using a structured prayer (liturgy) is often helpful. There’s one here, if I’ve done the link properly (skip in the pdf to p5, which is numbered 337 in the document) It’s also worth confessing with others as well as by yourself. Show me a church, and I’ll show you a bunch of sinners. None of us is perfect, and confessing together can help build a realistic and strong community. It can help our focus become more on living for Christ.
My challenge this month is threefold:
1) If you don’t already do so, spend time on a regular basis taking stock and confessing to God those things which fall short of His standard.
2) Memorise at least one passage that will help you to remember that you are forgiven. (Don’t bother doing step one if you’re not going to do step two)
3) Choose one thing that you will put particular effort into turning away from, and turning towards God instead. This turning away may be a quiet shift in your focus, or it may mean running screaming from temptation. Whatever it is, commit to doing it, with God’s help. (Don’t bother trying to do it simply with your own willpower – unlikely to do the trick; believe me, I’ve tried)
If you fancy a bit of further reading, look at the story behind Psalm 51 in 2 Samuel 11-12 and then read through Psalm 51 itself. As always, please interact in the comments section and link to your own relevant blog posts.