Consulting our conscience

Mercifully hear our prayers, O Lord, and spare all those who confess their sins to you; that those whose consciences are accused by sin may by your merciful pardon be absolved; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

After exploring themes of repentance, fasting, protection, and sacraments, today's collect is center on confession and absolution. We trust that God hears our confessions of sin with a merciful ear and that God will be equally merciful in pardoning those sins. Many of us have trouble believing that we can be pardoned sometimes, and of course literature is full of characters who believe they can never be pardoned and absolved and are completely undone by their feelings of guilt.

What speaks to me in this prayer is the phrase "whose consciences are accused by sin." We ought to feel it when we have fallen short and missed the mark (as sin is sometimes defined). How can we use that feeling to serve as a correction, as an impetus to do better without ending up just racked by guilt? For me, the key is that we know that confession not only is good for the soul but that it does bring forth mercy from God. We live in the knowledge that we are human and humans are often sinful, but also in the knowledge that God is well aware of this and God's plan is to absolve us anyway. 

Given that absolution is God's plan, St. Paul asks, as he tries to explain this to the Christians in Rome, does this mean we should just sin away then, not caring about our behavior? By no means, he answers himself. Eugene Peterson translated Romans 6:15-17 in The Message Bible this way: 
So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. 

Peterson's translations sometimes strike me as a little too precious, but I do appreciate some of his phrasing. Where other translations speak of slavery in this passage (slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness) The Message connects us through the word freedom, a notion which we Americans hold very dear. 

We are, I think, both wary and less enamored of mercy, and unwilling to bring ourselves to confession. But as we draw nearer to the culmination of this Lenten season, perhaps we should spend some time reflecting on God's mercy and in the assurance thereof, and consult our consciences, and go ahead and make our confession to God.