“Almighty and most merciful Father . . .”
Whenever we speak with anyone, it is good to begin by reminding ourselves with whom we are speaking. If we do not, the chances of our saying something clear or just or edifying drop precipitously. What is true of conversation in general is equally true of prayers addressed to God.
In the General Confession we address God as “Almighty” first. Surprising, perhaps, considering that when coming to God confessing the deep stains of sin on our hands, its deep, hidden, and stubborn roots in our hearts, the Father’s power probably is not the first attribute of His to which we would instinctively look for comfort. But there it is, first. Why?
I can think of two reasons. First, unless God is almighty, He may not be the proper person to hear our confession. Second, if God is not almighty, His mercy may prove ineffectual to pardon and cleanse us.
I. The Father’s jurisdiction
The first issue has to do with the Father’s authority, His jurisdiction: If we are going to confess our crimes, why should He be the one to hear the confession and decide how to treat it?
Take David’s prayer in Psalm 51: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” David was repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Did he overlook the fact that he had taken Uriah’s wife? Did he forget his deceit to Uriah, his craftiness in sending Uriah to his death?
No. This was clarity, the sign that David was finally stirring again, after long tossing and turning in the sleep of death. David’s offenses, lethal to Uriah, injurious to Bathsheba and to himself, were first and foremost sins against God: The God who created him, and Uriah and Bathsheba; the God who’d made Uriah and Bathsheba one flesh in marriage; the God whose image Uriah bore when David struck him down by trickery. David ungratefully forgot who it was that repeatedly delivered him from the murderous hand of Saul, and who made him king in Jerusalem, and who had promised by solemn covenant that his throne would endure forever. David scoffed at the greatness of the giver of the Sixth and Seventh commandments, as he would not have done, had he not first forgotten the First: “I am the LORD your God; have no other gods before me.”
So God — who made heaven and earth, and mankind in his own image, who graciously enters into covenant with his people and gives them the law — is the party chiefly offended by any transgression. As such, He is the proper person to confess to and appeal for mercy.
II. The Father’s might to pardon and cleanse
But even if God is the proper person to whom sins ought to be confessed, has He power to carry out his judgments — that is, if He forgives, can He effect His pardon, and defend, clear, and cleanse the one confessing? The answer can be a blanket “yes” only if God is almighty.
Job, who suffered horribly and took a long, unsentimental look at his sufferings, concluded by saying to God, “I know that you can do all things. No purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, said to them many years later, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Hannah, after long years of torment and barrenness, prayed thus after bearing Samuel:
The LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
* * *
The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s;
upon them he has set the world.
When we recognize God as Someone with power like that — that is, when we reflectively address God as “Almighty . . . Father” — St Paul’s question, “it is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” really comes into its own. God’s might to effect His decrees in the world includes the ability to silence accusers — and when He does so He cannot be gainsaid.
And the accusers that stand silenced before the Almighty Father include the voices of the restless conscience. In his first epistle St John says, “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” So whenever we reproach ourselves — for our unkindness, our short temper, our foolishness and cowardliness and laziness, for not being better parents, better spouses, better friends, better at our jobs, for not making more progress in our arts, hobbies and fields of study, for not being richer or fitter or more powerful or better-looking — John tells us that God sees all this far more clearly and extensively than we do. And that when our misfiring conscience just won’t shut up, God, who is greater than our conscience, can silence it. The question “can I forgive myself?” can be an agonizing one. But its importance, so overblown when we install ourselves as judges in a cramped hell of our own making, vanishes like mist before the rising sun when we place ourselves in the dock before the Judge of all. For He is both more severe and infinitely kinder with us than we are with ourselves.