ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. (1)
The General Confession opens with a sweet address: to our Father in heaven, the Almighty One with absolute authority to pronounce judgments that silence the judgments of the lesser, stingier, nearsighted judges who surround us daily — including the one we see in the mirror. And the high and mighty One who dwells in the heavens and does as he pleases is “most merciful.” It is his good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (2). He gives a full day’s wage to the workers hired at the eleventh hour (3). He welcomes the prodigal son home. He kindly holds out his hands to the prodigal’s bitter older brother (4). Indeed, outbreaks of his generosity are liable to happen anywhere. He sends Elijah to a bereaved widow in Sidon — a hotbed of Baal worship, where the people assumed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel had no business meddling (5). Much later he sends his Son to the same region to heal the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman (6). He sends Jonah, kicking and screaming, over five hundred miles of wilderness to call Nineveh to repent (7). He takes Ruth the Moabite and makes her mother to the kings of God’s covenant people, and part of the Christ’s family tree (8). He draws Naaman the leprous Syrian to the prophet Elisha for cleansing (9). The walls of the Kingdom are porous. Its agents go out to the ends of the earth, and its doors are open to all who would enter.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (10). Or, as Simon and Garfunkel have it:
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on . . .
Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers . . .
Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers (11)
And it’s a good thing, too. For after the glorious opening address, the General Confession turns sharply to the sordid truth about ourselves: “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
There are, I confess, few phrases in the Prayer Book that I enjoy more than “devices and desires of our our hearts.” Had P. D. James not beaten me to it I think I would have taken a wicked delight in writing a novel with the title Devices and Desires (Miserable Offenders would pack a similar punch, but lacks the intrigue). “Devices and desires . . .” If anyone frets over the supposed inability of words to convey meaning with weight and clarity, please step out of the fog of postmodern deconstruction for two seconds and listen to that phrase: “devices and desires.” Can its meaning really be doubted or mistaken? Does it not land heavy as a sledgehammer, and cut sharp as a scalpel?
But for all my delight in Thomas Cranmer’s brilliant wordsmithing, there are also few phrases that inflict greater pain. For, sadly, I have been following the devices and desires of my own heart too much since . . . well, conception (12). “I want. I need. Pay attention to me.” These are the thoughts that govern far too much of my interaction with the world. I want the universe to be all about me. I scream like an unweaned child when I don’t get my way. I preen like a self-satisfied toddler on the toilet when it looks like I’ve succeeded in my potty-training. Granted, advancing age and years of education have lent these things a mask of sophistication, which enables me frequently to deceive the watching world and — almost as frequently — myself. God is not deceived.
And in some precious moments, he undeceives me. He does this through (among other agents) his prophets:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (13)
And through his Son:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (14)
And through the Church, and the confession that opens the daily office: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
G. K. Chesterton once noted the absurdity of denying human sin, “which [we] can see in the street.” But we really don’t have to go even that far to see sin. Sartre correctly said that “hell is other people.” He could have added, “hell is also myself.” On a good day, it is right there, in the twisted devices and desires of my heart, that I see the depth and power of hell with most horrifying clarity. And shudder.
That stark picture preempts the typical evasions. Like: “I really didn’t mean to. I didn’t want things to end so badly. I meant better in my heart.” There is no weaseling off responsibility. I did not mean better, certainly not in my heart. We are culpable precisely because our bad acts — thoughts, words, and deeds — proceed from the heart. They can proceed from nowhere else.
But there is, admittedly, a little more to it. Why do we turn to the “devices and desires of our own hearts”? The General Confession tells us in its very first admission:
“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep” (15).
Life is hard. And scary. And bewildering. And we are by nature small, needy, dependent creatures, whose vision is not always adequate to see where legitimate creature-comforts — daily bread, for example — will come from, or when they’ll arrive. That is scary, and a frightened sheep will run every which way but the right way. So we may know, in times of relative peace, that our Father in heaven knows what we need and will give it to us if we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (16). Scare us a little, though, and we’ll go back to depending on those bad old devices and desires to give us what we need. That does not lessen our culpability in the least — the lack of faith is nothing less than spitting at the generosity of a most generous Father — but it explains how we go so far astray. I don’t usually get up in the morning consciously plotting to put my “devices and desires” in the driver’s seat. Yet in the driver’s seat they end up, because I’m a scared and foolish sheep.
If the opening admissions of the General Confession were turned into a horror flick, the one making them would be at once confessing to being the ghoulish villain and the guy who walks into the dark room without turning on the light. So we can be grateful the Confession doesn’t stop there, but goes on to better things. Who knows? There may yet be a way to brighten the villain’s thoughts. And, for once, the audience’s collective “Man, flick the light switch!” might actually get through.
(1) The General Confession from the Order for Morning Prayer, from The Book of Common Prayer.
(2) Luke 12:32
(3) Matthew 20:1-16
(4) Luke 15:11-32
(5) 1 Kings 17:8-24
(6) Mark 7:24-30
(9) 2 Kings 5:1-14
(10) Matthew 5:3
(11) Paul Simon, “Blessed” (from Sounds of Silence, 1966)
(12) Psalm 51:5
(13) Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
(14) Mark 7:20-23 (ESV)
(15) The prayer book here alludes to Isaiah 53:6
(16) Matthew 6:33