"I'm sorry, Mom."
"What I did."
"What did you do?"
"Yeah, but you need to say it."
My well-behaved, highly responsible, perfectionist firstborn is a great kid. She makes good choices, is obedient, a brilliant student, and genuinely concerned with doing the right thing. Like the stereotypical firstborn, she thinks rules are important and likes to follow them. And she's extremely hard on herself when she fails. Since she was a toddler, it's been easy for her to apologize and painfully difficult for her to say what she did wrong, to name her sin and shortcomings.
Parenting this girl for over ten years has taught me a lot about myself and my relationship with God. Recently, I learned something about confession: The people most in need of confession are often the most well-behaved.
Many of us, without thinking about it, probably believe that the people who most need confession are the ones who have done the worst things, like murderers. These are people we place in a different category from the rest of us. While we occasionally "mess up," the ones who need to confess are burdened with the guilt of really bad deeds—of honest-to-goodness sin that God probably has to exert himself to forgive.
This kind of thinking reveals the true nature of confession and why we all need it. Confession's primary purpose is not to set us straight, give other people satisfaction in our shame, or make it easier for God to forgive us. It's to show us our sin. To show us who we are, in comparison not to others, but to our perfect, holy God. And to help us understand the undeserved grace he extends every single time. We who most need to see our own sin are the ones most tempted to think we're not that bad.
This is why God, in his wisdom, gave us the law—the requirements and prohibitions we slam into when we try to go our own way. Paul tells us, "God's law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God's wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God's wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:20-21). The law exists to show us our sin so we can understand and accept God's grace—and be changed by it. Without a shameful and repentant acknowledgment of who we are, grace is just a nice name for a pretty girl.