"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.
When my well-behaved daughter can't bring herself to say what she did wrong, she doesn't have to fully face her sin and shortcomings. But unless she does, she won't fully see her need for Christ either. And she won't see the brightness of the light of his grace cutting through her own cloud of sin.
So when my daughter apologizes, I require her to describe her behavior. And then I forgive her effusively. And I remind her that God does the same when she confesses to him. I ask her to do this hard work for the good of her heart and soul—so she can live in the assurance of forgiveness and grace that really mean something. Not to get lost in her sin, but to be truly found by the most astounding truth possible.
My daughter and I have a lot in common (although I'm not a firstborn, and I don't like rules that much—I prefer my own ideas better). I'm a perfectionist too, and I spend a lot of energy trying to be good enough to merit God's love and favor. I often live as if my chief calling in life is to avoid confession.
On the contrary, while God calls us to holiness, he won't be fooled. There's no avoiding the need to confess. Even our attempts at good behavior are fraught with sin and the suggestion that what we do is as good as what God does. We need to believe this: "We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6).
In the process of trying to help my daughter experience grace in contrast to her sin, I've realized how much I need this lesson myself. I need to confess constantly, with shocking honesty and complete disregard for how I stack up against others. I need to remember that confession is for me. And then accept and embrace the undeserved and yet freely given grace God wraps around me, his child.
Amy Simpson serves as editor of Gifted for Leadership and senior editor of Leadership Journal. Her newest book is Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter at @aresimpson.