A Prayer of Confession, a Plea for Forgiveness

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 21, 2018, based on Daniel 9:1-19.

The study guide helpfully prompts us toward reflection on personal confession of individual sin. But there is another angle on this prayer of Daniel that has often struck me: this prayer is a personal confession of collective sin.

Daniel, according to all the stories in the book which bears his name, was a righteous man. It was not his fault his people were in exile. Yet he prays as if the guilt of his forebears is his own. He includes himself among previous, sinful generations, in order to make a clean break with the sins of the past and allow God to move him and his people toward a better future.

Is it appropriate for children to bear the guilt of their parents, or even their grandparents? Most of us would cringe at the idea. The Bible itself gives mixed messages on this (Exod 34:7; Ezek 18:20). Yet there are some helpful lessons for us that derive from the Bible’s personal confessions of collective sin.

One lesson is that sin is not merely an individual, private matter. Collective, even systemic, sin runs just as deep among us. If we think of “sin” as all the ways in which we harm one another and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, then it’s not hard to see how sin has both individual and collective dimensions. Churches can develop settled attitudes that run counter to God’s life-bringing ways. Societies can nurture values that encourage abuse of power or the use of violence. Nations can enshrine injustice in the very laws that are supposed to ensure justice.

A second lesson is that sometimes what’s needed to break from the collective sins of the past is collective soul-searching and confession. This has nothing to do with whether or not we ourselves are personally guilty for the wrongdoing. Rather, it has everything to with naming the wrongs of our forebears, recognizing our inclination to continue in those wrongs if nothing is done, and committing ourselves to doing better, rectifying those wrongs if we are able, avoiding those wrongs as much as we can. This is why initiatives such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are so important.

There’s a third lesson for us. Daniel’s prayer confesses, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:6). In every generation God sends prophets to speak truth, to call God’s people to faithfulness, to warn of the consequences of unfaithfulness, to promise the blessings of faithfulness—and yet, all too often, we crucify these prophets instead of heeding them (see Matt 23:29-39). Who are the prophets of our generation, calling us to renewed faithfulness to the way of Jesus? Are we willing to listen, to repent, and to obey?

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