Why we need penitential prayers

When I participate in liturgical confessions of sin, I sometimes can’t help feeling that we’re all being rather insincere. With great solemnity we “bewail” how sinful and unworthy we are; the rhetoric of our self-deprecation is forceful. But then we rattle on to the next part of the liturgy; no one thinks of spending the rest of the day in mourning. And we never speak of ourselves this way in everyday life. Something doesn’t add up. Do we really think we’re as bad as the confession made us sound?

I don’t think I’ve read a better description of why we need such penitential prayers than this from C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves:

“All those expressions of unworthiness which Christian practice puts into the believer’s mouth seem to the outer world like the degraded and insincere grovellings of a sycophant before a tyrant, or at best a façon de parler like the self-depreciation of a Chinese gentlemen when he calls himself ‘this course and illiterate person.’ In reality, however, they express the continually renewed, because continually necessary, attempt to negate that misconception of ourselves and of our relation to God which nature, even while we pray, is always recommending to us. No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically loveable. The Pagans obeyed this impulse unabashed; a good man was ‘dear to the gods’ because he was good. We, being better taught, resort to subterfuge. Far be it from us to think that we have virtues for which God could love us. But then, how magnificently we have repented! As Bunyan says, describing his first and illusory conversion, ‘I thought there was no man in England that pleased God better than I.’ Beaten out of this, we next offer our own humility to God’s admiration. Surely He’ll like that? Or if not that, our clear-sighted and humble recognition that we still lack humility. Thus, depth beneath depth and subtlety within subtlety, there remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own, attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realise for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little – however little – native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?”

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