When I counsel with people who struggle with deep feelings of shame, guilt, and regret, I sometimes suggest that they design a personalized liturgy. In what follows, I walk through the example of a woman who has had an abortion, and all that led up to that choice, and all that follows in someone whose conscience is alive. But you can tailor it to whatever struggle you or another person needs to deal with. God welcomes all who are weary with sin.
Designing your own liturgy of confession will help you to think through exactly what you need to bring to God, and what you need from God. It will lead you by the hand to God’s mercy and to his washing away of your sin and guilt. The parts of this liturgy in italics are taken and adapted from the General Confession of Sin in The Book of Common Prayer. Even when your thoughts and feelings are chaotic, these words can serve as your guide. Instead of wallowing in misery and failure, these words help you to plan how you will walk in the direction of honesty, mercy, gratitude, and freedom.
I suggest that you pray out loud. It helps you to remember that you are talking with Someone who is listening. Remind yourself out loud that God’s mercies are deeper than what you did or failed to do.
Almighty and most merciful Father,
Notice that you are talking with someone who is both all powerful and most merciful. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of comfort and Father of mercies. God becomes your Father, our Father who art in heaven, through Jesus. He loved you in the exact way you most need help and rescue from outside yourself. He died in your place. He laid down his life for you. He is alive. He pursues you. Someday you will see him face to face. He comes to you in person, giving his Holy Spirit, who makes you childlike towards him: “Abba, Father!” You need this Father of life, this living Savior, this life-giving Spirit. Turn to him. Call on him for help.
I have erred and strayed from your ways like a lost sheep.
Fill in the specific ways you have strayed from God’s ways. Because he is both strong and merciful, you can be honest.
I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart.
You can confess to God all the excuses and "reasons" that were once used to convince yourself that it was OK to do something that is wrong.
I have offended against your holy law.
Which laws of God have you offended? Think about the will of God that calls us to love the helpless, to be faithful to those in our care, to protect life, and especially to protect innocent, helpless persons. A gestating child is the most helpless and most dependent human being of all. For help in seeing clearly, look at these Bible passages: Romans 13:9–10; Isaiah 49:14–16.
I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done. And there is no health in me.
The General Confession leads you to take seriously what is wrong—but not so you wallow in feeling bad. By becoming deeply honest, you see your need for help, and can receive the mercy and help you actually need.
But you, O Lord, have mercy upon me, miserable offender. Spare me, O God, I who confess my faults. Restore me when I turn to you according to your promises that you have declared to me in Christ Jesus, my Lord.
The beauty of the gospel is that our confession is always linked with God’s promise of good. Guilt and regret make you miserable: unhappy, in dire need of mercy. Mercy is not something anyone deserves; it is something undeserved that someone else gives. What are God’s promises to you? Here are a few specifics to take to heart. Stop and think over each promise.
• I will never leave you or forsake you.
• The Lord bless you and keep you.
• The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
• The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.
• The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
• For your name’s sake, pardon my iniquity, for it is very great.
• All the promises of God are YES in Jesus Christ.
Jesus fulfills all these promises and more. Your hope centers on a Person, not a feeling, not an idea, not something you do. Jesus is and does what God promises. Because Jesus loved you to the uttermost, you have true hope, not “I hope so…” or “Maybe …” or “If only….” Jesus went to his death on a cross for your wrongs, not for his own. The innocent died for the guilty. He personally took your shame and guilt onto himself. He died so you would not die for your sins. He is alive forever, so you will live in him and with him. He personally fulfills and embodies each and every one of the promises you have been considering. Because of Jesus’ death for you and because of his resurrection to life, you can bring your darkest sins into his bright light.
[These bold-print promises come from Deuteronomy 31:6-8, Numbers 6:24-26, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 25:11, and 2 Corinthians 1:20.]
Grant, O most merciful Father, for Jesus’ sake, that I may hereafter live a godly and righteous and sober life to the glory of your holy name.
You not only ask God for forgiveness, you honestly ask for his power to change you in the hard places of life. Ask him to make you a different kind of person. Here are some of the ways he says this.
• Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Notice that he promises mercy and help in the very places where you most struggle, in your times of greatest need.
• He died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
It cost Jesus his life to give you life. He who has truly loved you now calls you to give your life to him.
• He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Even when the road seems hard, God will keep working in you.
[These bold-print promises come from Hebrews 4:16; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Philippians 1:6.]
So think now: how might God’s love transform you? How does heartfelt gratitude for God’s forgiveness change you, so that you become forgiving? How might your life become different by his power? Ask him for this. Ask him every day.
As you pray, remember that God promises mercy when you confess your sins. God desires that you turn to him and then, in the words of the liturgy that follow the Confession,
He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent.
To ‘pardon’ means to truly forgive. To ‘absolve’ means to release you, to set you free. To ‘repent’ simply means to turn to God. He says, “If you seek me, you will find me.” He makes you free and forgiven.
Come to God. He will take away what grieves and burdens you. He will wash you in fresh, clean water. Heartache and regret don’t disappear, but he will take the sting and despair away. They will no longer torture you. He will heal you. He gives you a fresh start. God says, “I have seen your ways, but I will heal you. I will guide you and restore comfort to you” (Isaiah 57:18 paraphrase). Your faith will find it true that “His mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-24). Let this very day be a day on which you find brand new mercies.
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. is a counselor, author and faculty member of the Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF). CCEF’s mission is “To restore Christ to counseling, and counseling to the church” and strives to achieve this mission by providing a wide range of training, publications, an annual national conference, and a variety of resources for counselors and pastors at its website, www.ccef.org. A complete version of this article is available at www.ccef.org/personal-liturgy-confession.