Confession: The Prayer of Vulnerability (Matthew 6:12-13)

My first six months of youth ministry were a bear. The church I served in had three kinds coming to the youth group when I arrived, one was the pastor’s son and the other two were the daughters of the previous youth leader. But building a youth group from scratch wasn’t the difficult part, what was difficult was some of the politics already in place before our arrival. Within six months the stakes had been claimed and people had chosen sides, some didn’t want to pay for a youth pastor, especially an outsider like me, while others were happy to have us there. There was one woman who was the most outspokenly against us being there and began looking for ways to discredit me and get me removed. I remember for instance her visiting our Sunday School class and investigating the kinds of things I was teaching the youth, where did it come from, who was holding my teaching accountable, etc? I had no trust with this woman and was suspect no matter what I did. When my six month interim was up, the church called together a business meeting to extend my call. A number of people called ex-members who had not gone to the church in years to come back and help to try and get me ousted. It was needless to say, a hostile situation.

I was 21 and hadn’t even been through anything like this before. I started harboring some serious anger towards this one person. I couldn’t go to worship on Sunday without being distracted by her presence constantly wondering what move she would make next, what she might say. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid her eyes, and steer clear of any interaction with her. Then, one day during open worship God clearly told me to go and ask her for forgiveness.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! You’ve got to be kidding me God? I mean, I was totally blindsided by this person. I came in here and they have just continued to harp on me, spreading untrue rumors, trying to get me ousted, I’m hurt!”

But I realized God was right. Whether or not she had done nothing wrong, the only way for me to be able get clear of the situation, to be able to have enough peace of mind to to worship again, was to ask her to forgive me for my ill-feelings festering towards her.

I wrestled with this conviction for at least three weeks. I tried everything to get out of it. I even forgave her before God, hoping that would clear things up. It didn’t and I finally realized I had no choice. If I wanted to find forgiveness, I would have to extend it. Isn’t it always hardest to ask to be forgiven, I mean giving forgiveness was so easy in comparison. Well you might guess how the rest of the story goes. I approached her after our meeting for worship and sheepishly, my head mostly down, with my heart visibly pounding through my shirt, said to her, I need to talk to you for a second. I said, I have been harboring bitterness towards you ever since you visited my Sunday morning class, I need you to forgive me.” I have never felt so powerless, so vulnerable before someone I trusted so little in my life!

You know what she said? She said she didn’t know what I was talking about, but if I wanted forgiveness, then sure, I can have it and walked away. I think I felt even more vulnerable after my confession than before. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go! She was supposed to admit her wrong, we were supposed to both ask forgiveness, makeup and become friends, living happily ever after. Nothing like that took place. Sadly, her and her family actually left the church not too long after that, and I often remember her family. I really never knew what it was all about, or what my role really was in it, but I do remember that feeling of powerlessness that came with confessing and asking for forgiveness.

This morning we look at the third part of the Disciple’s prayer, it is a prayer that concerns our witness in the world. We pray it as a prayer of vulnerability. That feeling of powerlessness that I had back then, even the fact that the situation didn’t resolve the way I thought it would, the fact that I had no power to change the situation but was still to follow through with confessing a need for forgiveness (and even the somewhat genuine offer of forgiveness I gave her) are the very movements that shape not only our own faith but our corporate witness in the world. Confession is not only an act, it is an attitude.

This third strand of the prayer, this “forgive us our debts,” and “the do not bring us to the time of trial” is to be the very shape of how the church interacts with, or witnesses in the world.Too often our attitude and posture as Christians in the world is caricatured as shouting past one another, infighting, arguing fine doctrinal points, being out of touch and irrelevant, as though we can strong arm people into church. When we think about our witness as the church in the world, we must strive to be people who live out the power of weakness, people who are known for their forgiveness, who openly confess their need to be forgiven. Matt. 6:12-13 is a prayer of confession that is as much an attitude as it is an action, this vulnerability is to be at the heart of our mission as the church.

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Forgiveness and Cycles: In this last part of the prayer then, there are two markers of this vulnerability: forgiveness and confession. “Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors,” is first and foremost concerned with the cycles of literal debt, violence, of sin, oppression and hatred, that confound our world. Jesus here quite simply offers us the key to short-circuiting these, what we might call cycles of exchange. If you forgive others, God will forgive you. That is, if you do not hang onto the offense committed against you, but you instead let it go, the cycle of exchange can be broken. Forgiveness is always a gift, the word debt here should quickly bring to mind the Jewish concept of Jubilee. Gift, as we see in Jubilee, does not anticipate something in return. My approaching the woman and asking forgiveness was not exactly a gift, I still had expectations that were even hidden to myself about how she might respond.

To mention that breaking these cycles of exchange with the gift of forgiveness leaves one vulnerable probably goes without saying. Not only was I left feeling naked before a woman who had hurt me by confessing my own harboring of anger, but she never really reconciled with me. But to say that I approached her on purely good intentions would be to mislead you. Forgiveness is a mixed bag, that it is complex is to say the least. It often leaves us feeling completely striped naked and defenseless.

This is of course, how it should be.

Take for instance a key passage in the Gospel of Matthew that helps interpret this prayer for forgiveness. In Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus tells a parable of a servant whose financial debt had become debilitating. It says he owed 10,000 talents which is said to be equal to around 6,000 denari. You know how many denari a slave would get for a days wage? One. So in order to get 6,000 denari for just one talent would take probably half a lifetime. In other words, this is an astronomical amount of debt [school loans anyone?]. Anyways, The king calls him in, wanting to settle the accounts and the servant falls down to his knew and pleads with him, “‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And then it says that the King’s heart went out to him and forgave him the loan. Out of complete act of mercy the king declares jubilee and cancels the entire debt.

You know what happens next. The servant returns home and one of his fellow servants who owed him talents came fell on his knees before him. This second servant repeats almost precisely what the first servant said to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’” But unlike the king, the first servant, whose outrageous debt had been canceled, he had his fellow servant through in jail until all of the debt was repaid. The king hears of this, flips his top, as surely as anyone else would do, and throws the first servant in jail, not as retaliation, but as a way of saying, if you do not want to work by the gift economy of jubilee of which I canceled your debts, then you to must go to jail. That is, if you want to play by the cycle of exchange, as it appears you do, then the cycle of exchange says you too must be imprisoned.

The king made himself vulnerable, not simply by the fact that he lost 10,000 talents but by the fact that he risked the servant abusing the new found freedom he was given. Now surely the lesson here is not that it is okay to throw people in jail if they don’t return the favor given to them. I would be remiss to have tried to condemn my friend for not returning the confession I offered her. The point is that we have the choice to work in the power of the world, and operate out of the cycle of exchange, the vicious cycles we see all around us. Or we choose to embody this prayer, to break that cycle, stop it in its tracks, throw a wrench in the machine, and offer forgiveness by opening ourselves up to way of vulnerability.

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The Act of Confession: Then in the last part of the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray: “Do not bring us into a time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Some of you are more familiar with the translation, “Do not lead us into temptation…”Questions arise with this second translation about whether or not God might in some tricky way lead us into temptation. I am unhappy with this translation and the confusion it causes. For one James says, “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it…” (James 1:13-15) Instead, the better reading is “do not bring us into a time of trial, or testing.” God may not tempt us to do wrong, but God surely tests faith, and we can see testings through church history that for those who wish to live out the way of Jesus trials were unavoidable. When Jesus uttered these fragile words, his movement was still insignificant in size and constantly coming more and more in contact with religious and political authorities.

Not only was Jesus’ own faith tested in Matthew 4 by the “Evil One,” but the disciples got a taste of a real faith-testing trial at the Garden of Gethsemane, who were asked to pray and remain alert, yet fell prey to their own human desires for sleep. Then think of the trial during the arrest, do we draw the sword or not, then there are of course, the trials that Peter faced and who didn’t prove to do so hot in his testing. When we finally get to Jesus’ death, only a few disciples still remain. Thus, I take, “Do not bring us into a time of trial, as a prayer to be spared from the worst of it all. In other words it is a way of admitting that we as disciples are vulnerable.

It is as Dallas Willard says, it is a “vote of no confidence.”

Jesus taught us these words, to be said with regularity, words that admit our propensity to stumble and misstep. We can see from this line of the prayer that confession, both the act and the attitude, was to be a part of the regularly vocabulary of the church. It might be suggested that we follow our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous and open with our own confession, “Hi I’m Wess, and when tested I stumbled.”

What would the church look like if its mission started from a place of vulnerability? Does it just look like a bunch of people who put themselves down, always feeling guilty? No!

This should not be taken, as it usually is within Evangelical churches, as a reason to feel guilty about something. Just google ‘confession.’ There is a complete industry of books and online websites, bulletin boards for people to confess all their sins, all their darkest secrets. [It’s a little disturbing really.] You can make your confession anonymous, or if you’re looking for something a little more warm and fuzzy, you can go to the site called group hug where others will virtually gather around you for a big squeeze. You can find guides to how to get the most of your confession, there are sites for the more transgressive confessions, one site hints at something you’d expect from Jerry Springer show, “droppedthebomb.com.” There are people who have gained celebrity status by “whistle blowing.” Politicians are happy to confess their opponents secrets (whether they are true or not). And it is easy enough to find confessions in movies, literature and TV Shows everywhere. Confession, to one degree or another is everywhere. And for the church, there are a lot of people walking around feeling guilty all the time. But I don’t think guilt is what the Disciple’s prayer is getting at. Instead, this vote of no confidence, this confession, is Jesus giving us permission to not have it all together.

Thus confession becomes as much and attitude that church is to be shaped by. Instead of being a church of the Jim Bakers, the Ted Haggard’s and Jimmy Swaggart’s, the church that is in the big time, that has it all together and is in a place to call judgment down on others, only to find they too have their own vulnerabilities, they too are human in need of constant rescuing, they too have their dirty little secrets, we have been given permission in this prayer to stop with all this phony pretentious mumbo jumbo. We say, God spare us from the tests we recognize we are fallible.

Here in Jesus’ words, inscribed into the formative prayer of the church, we are invited to be honest about where we are and this is precisely the point of genuine faith. We own up not just to our personal failings, but to our corporate missteps. Look, we as the church botch it, we can screw things up as much as we can help things. If the church started from a place of confession in the world, I think the world and the church would be a better place. Not only would we be more readily able to admit that we too can be hypocrites, but that we don’t have it all figured out. Instead of always having an answer or what we perceive to be the right answer on any given doctrinal topic, what if we owned up to the fact that we so often don’t really know the answer?

Confession creates an openness we need in the church. As soon as we assume we can learn nothing from another person, because of their age, their religion [they are from that Quaker group!], their politics, we have stopped praying this prayer. I tend to think that people who are the quickest to come forward with answers about this or that question about the Bible, or this or that question about a social issue, is a person who is deeply unsure about what lies beyond that answer. Our pat answers can be a coping mechanism for a lack of faith. After all, is faith a belief in something that is truly unknown? As soon as we suggest that we have figured out the infinite with our finite minds, that we know how many angels dance on the head of a needle, who will be and who will not be in heaven, or what God believes about this or that concept or issue, we stop praying this prayer and start praying our own version “God, Let me show you how I am infallible when put to the test.”

So for me, confession has to be about openness to change, an attitude of vulnerability that remains open to the Spirit’s present guidance. Confession admits we are on a spiritual journey, wrestling with the things of this world, the testings, the failings, the weaknesses, not just our own, but others whose actions so often deeply impact our lives. Confession, the “I can’t do it” part of all this, is to be woven into the very fabric of our spiritual practice.

Thus we desperately need this prayer, this confession, that we may not be brought to trial, that God will rescue us when we find ourselves there. It is a prayer of humility, and brokenness. The witness of the church is to be formed by the practicing of vulnerability through regularly giving and receiving of forgiveness and attitude of confession.

Let me end with this quote: Joan D. Chittister from her book Heart of Flesh:

We are vulnerable on all sides, in and out, p and down, past, present, and future. We fear vulnerability. It takes a great deal of living to discover that, actually, vulnerability comes to us more as friend than as enemy. Vulnerability may be the greatest strength we have. Vulnerability bonds us to one another and makes us a community in league with life. Because we need one another, we live looking for good in others, without which we ourselves can not survive, will not grow, can not become what we ourselves have the potential to be. [Change in our lives and in our communities cannot happen without this]. Vulnerability is the gift given to us to enable us to embed ourselves in the universe. We are born dependent and spend the rest of our lives coming to wholeness. It is a delicate and dangerous process, requiring and untold amount of support and an amazing degree of forgiveness as we stumble and grope our way from one new part of life to another. Vulnerability, in fact, is the one hallmark of life which, try as we might, we can not cure. Vulnerability, therefore is clearly part of the spiritual process, clearly part of the human endeavor. (142-143)

So then, what does it look like for us as the church to really truly embody the prayer:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”

{Image from Princess KB}

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Confession: The Prayer of Vulnerability (Matthew 6:12-13)”

  1. I see the way the EDUCATED put there on spin on gods words and thier meaning when jesus taught so simple lessons. He mainly walked with uneducated people……. This is were human teaching is put above the holy spirit. Enough said i like the writing and all just keep it simple like jesus did.

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