Those who recite the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer, up until the 2019 edition, have traditionally prayed these words: “O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” The Litany or General Supplication employs similar language and in the prayer it contains the church addresses each member of the Trinity, asking God to have mercy on them for several specific sins. Evil, mischief, blindness of heart, pride, vain-glory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness– they are the sort of things that might raise eyebrows in ordinary conversation. But in this context, we are not only undisturbed by such an admission, to hear the congregation recite it in unison offers a kind of comfort.
Of course, not everyone observes the rite. Many evangelical congregations, perhaps most, worship in the low-church tradition. They do not follow the order of the prayer book. For them, the admission of sin is something that is handled by the individual. Each one prays to themselves. Or perhaps they seek out the pastor after the service and ask for counsel and prayer. When I first began attending church, it was common to invite people to come to the “altar” at the end of the service and pray. There was no actual altar, only a stage or raised platform with boxes of tissue strategically placed at each end. Those of us who came forward in response wept quietly over our sins. Usually, the same ones we shed tears over the previous week. We were miserable sinners, but not for long. After a few minutes, we dried our eyes and made our way back into the world.
Despite the language of the prayer book, us miserable sinners aren’t always unhappy in our sin. We do not pine away about it the way the monastic fathers and the Puritans did. We have come to terms with our condition, which is just another way of saying that we tend to live our lives in a state of denial. But the fact that we do not always feel miserable does not make us any less miserable, at least not in the original sense of the word. The Latin root from which the word miserable comes is one that meant “pitiable.” In his essay entitled “Miserable Offenders: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language,” C. S. Lewis observes, “I do not think whether we are feeling miserable or not matters. I think it is using the word miserable in the old sense–meaning an object of pity.” When the Book of Common Prayer calls us miserable sinners, it is both a recognition of what we are and a reminder of God’s response. Specifically, it tells us that we are those whose moral condition is so deplorable that the only remedy is the goodness and mercy of God, no matter how we may feel.
Lewis is probably right to say that our emotional state is not the most crucial point. But that doesn’t mean that it is good to feel nonchalant about our sin, only that the emotions we usually associate with misery are not always proof of the genuineness of one’s repentance. Esau’s tears spoke more of his grief over losing the blessing he had sold for a pittance than they did of any remorse he had for his disregard of the God who gave it (Heb. 12:16–17). Judas felt remorse, but only enough to cause him to regret his betrayal of Christ. Instead of looking to God for mercy, Judas acted as his own judge and executioner when he carried out upon himself the punishment he felt he deserved (Matt. 27:3–6). Sometimes we mistakenly think that misery is what God requires of us in return for forgiveness. We wonder if we have felt bad enough or been miserable long enough to warrant the mercy we seek. Others may confuse this misery with repentance itself. They conflate misery with repentance, seeing the two as synonymous. The result is a kind of Protestant penance, where miserable feeling relieves us of our guilt and makes us feel like we have handled the problem.
It isn’t wrong to feel bad about our sins. Sorrow for sin is an element of Christian repentance but only one of its features. Feeling, by itself, secures nothing. In order to qualify as true repentance, feeling must be combined with our agreement with God’s assessment of our condition. That is, the sorrow of repentance is more than regret. It is a recognition of our guilt. True repentance also involves a turning. When we repent, we turn from our sin to God whose Son is the only true remedy for sin. Forgiveness does not come because we have agonized over our sin but because Christ suffered for them in our stead.
The nature of forgiveness is such that it can only come to us from the outside. We know this is true in human relationships. The essence of apology includes an admission of guilt. But the mere fact that we apologize does not guarantee the aggrieved one will automatically accept and reconcile with us. “No restoration or redress is possible unless the guilty person call his sin by its true name,” theologian Josef Pieper explains. “But that having been said, the person impaired by the sin must respond as well, or the relationship will never be restored.” In other words, forgiveness is never earned. It can only be given. No matter how badly we may feel after we have offended, it remains in the hands of the one against whom we have committed the offense to absolve us. We cannot compel their forgiveness
Where God is concerned, forgiveness depends upon both His willingness and His ability to extend mercy. Whatever debt we owe to those we have hurt, our ultimate culpability is to God. “All sin has first and finally a Godward force,” theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. explains. Plantinga defines sin as “a culpable and personal affront to a personal God.” This means that every sin is an offense against two worlds. One world is the realm of human relationships. Each time we sin, we violate both ourselves and our neighbor. The other world is the realm of God’s dominion. As Plantinga puts it, sin is an act of vandalism against God’s peace. Sin, by its nature, is always a rejection of the rule of God. These two “worlds” also correspond to the two “tablets” of the Law and the two great commandments. But sin’s ultimate reference point is to God.
We can see this in David’s great sin. His act of adultery was more than an offense against Bathsheba. It was a sin against Uriah as well. When David ordered Joab to arrange Uriah’s death by warfare, he extended the reach of his transgression to his commander-in-chief, making Joab complicit in the crime (2 Sam. 11:15). David’s adultery eventually brought calamity to his whole family, when David’s son Absalom’s political ambitions compelled him to lie with David’s wives “in broad daylight” (2 Sam. 12:11; 16:22). This is always the way with sin. The cascading nature of transgression compounds its destructive effect. Yet when David eventually admitted his guilt to God, He said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” (Ps. 51:4).
To call ourselves miserable offenders is to admit that God’s pity, shown to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is the only thing that can save us from our sin. To confess this together is a needed reality check for those who, by nature, are prone to denial. Speaking this truth about ourselves is an act of resistance against the self-congratulatory culture in which we are immersed. It is also a kind of posture. When we admit that we are miserable offenders who have broken God’s laws by failing to do the things we ought to have done and doing things we ought not to have done, we position ourselves for grace. The point here is not that we would all be better off if we used the Book of Prayer in its old form, though it probably wouldn’t hurt us if we did. Whether we recite it together in polite unison as a part of the liturgy or weep in silent anguish at the altar, we must eventually recognize this fundamental truth: mercy begins with God and comes only to those who are miserable offenders. Jesus said it Himself when the religious professionals asked how He could stand to eat in the company of thieves and sinners. Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).