The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has a prayer that I think is at once a powerful reminder of our sin and at the same time a reminder of the mercy and provision of God. I think that the original form of the prayer has a more meaning than the revisions currently in use, the original form of the prayer in the BCP goes as follows:
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.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name.
The prayer opens with an open call to God, not as Lord, though that is certainly encompassed in the word Almighty, but as Father. We approach God no more as strangers but as sons and daughters of God, adopted by virtue of the work of Christ. When we come before God we come as the prodigal Son in Luke, unworthy of love but still receiving infinitely more than we could ever ask or imagine. We appeal not to God’s holiness, though he is holy, but to his infinite mercy, the mercy which he has already lavished upon us in Christ’s work on the cross.
The prayer then continues into how we as people have offended against God by our sin, and indeed reveals so much about sin itself. It reminds us how we have gone astray and followed after the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. And in placing ourselves over God, we have indeed offended against his holy law. James also reminds us that sin is everything that we know to do, but fail to, and so sin becomes everything wrong, that we do and that we fail to do. But what is perhaps the strongest reminder about our sin is the line that there “is no health in us.” We have no good in ourselves apart from God, apart from his continual and common grace.
The second half of the prayer changes from a description of our failings to an invocation of God’s promises. The prayer starts with a call on God’s infinite mercy and again repeats that call. It is a recognition that we could never, of ourselves, atone for our own sins. It is a gesture of humility, calling upon God for something that we have no power to accomplish, a reminder that we cannot live life alone (and a recognition that all sin is an attempt to do just that). It also calls for a restoration of any impaired communion that we might have with God and the final invocation calls for us to remember the work of Christ on the cross and to have the power to live a life worthy of the call of the gospel for the glory of God. Finally, the prayer ends with a simple amen, a word meaning “truly” and stemming deeply from the concept of belief. We have faith that God will remain true to his promises, and we believe that he will help us in the coming days.
Confession is a powerful reminder of our own weakness, an act of humility, and a recognition that we cannot live life alone. Consider these words, and perhaps also pray this prayer remembering with each line that we have no power of ourselves to do good. Rather, as Christians our power comes from God who works in us by the Holy Spirit who strengthens us so that we may live a life to the glory of God.
1 John 1.9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.