The Case of the Disturbed Corn Flakes
There’s an old adage—Confession is good for the soul. From time to time, Covenanters are encouraged to share in the ritual confession of their sinful ways. Pastors, using words from The Covenant Hymnal and The Covenant Book of Worship, lead us in prayers through which we face up to the fact that we:
- often rebel against God’s will, denying His intentions
- have erred, straying from God’s ways like lost sheep
- have offended against God’s holy laws
- are guilty of sins of omission and commission
- have increased the pain of the world through unkind and impatient words, selfish and unloving deeds
- ignore our neighbor in need, showing no compassion
- demonstrate stubborn greed and destructiveness
- fail God by rejecting rights and restricting freedom
- are proud, overlooking personal, national wrongs
- hold back the force of the Holy Spirit
- are reluctant to spread the Good News
- have lost our way, are content with “Easy Religion”
- go along with evil—with prejudice, warfare, and greed
These are certainly faults about which those who claim a degree of piety, pietists especially, ought to be concerned and reminded. Though we are invited to refer to ourselves as “miserable offenders,” we are not usually confessing the “biggies,” like blasphemy, extortion, murder, rape, tax evasion, drug dealing, treason, armed robbery, or other grievous sins, but rather attitudes, inward struggles, pride, a hard heart, and such. But then, as they say, “sin is sin.”
I must confess that during times of congregational confession I often have trouble reading along, of accepting the appropriateness of the charges I am asked to make against myself. But then, I suppose, even that is a “sin” of sorts. Is it better to say the words insincerely?
The critical question, seldom addressed during or about the confessional ritual, is why people have such faults. It may be that the pastor, or the author of these confessional suggestions, simply assumes that since we all have depraved natures, sins like these can be expected to surface now and again.
There is, however, another explanation. These confessional prayers are, to a large extent, theological interpretations of developmental or maturational problems. When the growth of personal attitudes and emotions is stunted or retarded and we continue in our childish ways, faults of these sorts show up in our behavior. A Pastor’s word that there is Divine pardon is no guarantee that those confessing have established more mature, ethical behavior patterns, or that they have gained any new insight into decision-making and conduct. Confessional rituals and promised absolutions mix emotional and theological issues in a confused way.
Perhaps I can illustrate what I have in mind by relating another experience I had at Covenant Point in Upper Michigan when I was ten. The details are a bit fuzzy, but a group of us young boys decided to play a practical joke on the other campers. Clandestinely, we entered the dining hall in the early hours of the morning to find the tables all set for breakfast—cereal, Corn Flakes, I think, already in the bowls. Using a piece of cardboard, we cleverly turned the cereal bowls upside down on the tables and slipped the cardboard out We joked and laughed as we imagined the problem the other campers would experience getting the cereal back into their bowls. Excited and exhausted, we found our way back to the dorm, undressed quietly so as not to awaken our counselor and went to bed.
Breakfast time came, but to our surprise no one thought our deed was at all funny. The Camp Director somehow developed a list of the culprits and, for some reason, gave it to the week’s celebrated Camp Pastor. The evening service was something to remember. Dramatically, the Pastor turned our peccadillo into a deep and serious violation of God’s laws. Reading the names of those of us who had taken part, he told us to come up to the front. The rest of the audience—parents, relatives, visiting pastors, friends, Sunday School Teachers, staff, and the “righteous” campers—looked on. It was a solemn moment. We were asked to form a line in front of the altar, were lectured about how our terrible act was an affront to God, how it demonstrated our lack of gratitude for the dedication and tireless efforts of the kitchen staff, and how it was going to add to the sins we would have to deal with at the Last Judgment. We stood utterly condemned, naked before God, humiliated and separated from our peers. Had such a dreadful deed as we had committed ever before occurred in human history? Our weeping registered the fact that we were indeed poor, miserable, needy sinners. Yes, Pastor, we want the shed blood of Jesus to cover our sin! Yes, pray for our souls!
The Pastor’s use of our misfired practical joke is open to criticism and interpretation. Some might think he was right to exploit our juvenile misdeed theologically because it resulted in decisions for Christ. Others might well label it “child abuse.” Whatever interpretation is given, I would say that his handling of the event shows a common misunderstanding, even among some clergy today, viz., dealing with maturational problems as though they are theological. Everyone has guilt, but guilt forms in different ways, from different causes. It takes time to sort through one’s own guilt deposit to come to an understanding of how and why it has formed. Evangelists, for whatever reasons, tend to simplify things and put all guilt into one theological bag labeled “Sins.” They fail to recognize that some guilt feelings have no basis in reality whatever, other guilt feelings can be understood as due to strict or misunderstood rules; some, as in the case of the com flakes, to childish ways.
On the other hand, a few words from the Camp Director about our short-sightedness would have widened our perspective and deepened our sense of responsibility. In our self-centeredness, we had given no thought at all to the kitchen staff when we plotted our break-in. Our grasp of acceptable social conduct was marginal. Nor did we realize how seriously practical jokes can backfire. Some fitting punishment, say working in the kitchen while the others played ball, would have been more than adequate and might even have nudged us along a bit toward adulthood.
My point is that our early morning prank, though perhaps blameworthy and regrettable, did not require forgiveness from God. It was not sinful, it was stupid and thoughtless. We needed to be called up short, but not put on trial before the Eternal one.
We have gained some important psychological insights into the way human emotion and social development occur. The creative work of relating these maturational insights to the Spiritual realm has only begun. Our Lutheran heritage, unfortunately, stresses the close connection between low self-worth and faith. But Faith in God does not have to be built on personality weaknesses; it can be, and ideally should be, built on personality strengths—self-esteem, self-reliance, and the human competence to cope with life and death realistically. Spiritual formation from that perspective is a matter of supplementing, enhancing, enriching, and integrating already well-rounded, balanced, human beings. Theologically, acceptance of God’s grace adds new heights and depths of meaning to and individual’s attained personal virtues. Confession coupled with self-understanding i good for the soul.