on confession and worship pt. 1

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of confession in our worship. I’ve always felt that it is a big part of what lies at the heart of true worship to God, but how to practice it in a corporate setting; that’s the challenge.

Typically, we evangelicals understand confession in the context of repentance; of asking for forgiveness and grace for what we’ve done. The problem for me is that I usually don’t have a sense of any huge pressing “sin” on me. So, if I don’t feel guilty, how do I use confession as a means of worship?  Because I don’t think it would be realistic to experience weeping and gnashing of teeth every week over our sin, especially because a) that doesn’t sound like freedom in Christ to me, and b) I’d like to think that the more I walk with Christ and learn to love God and others more fully that, eventually, I would sin less.

But, here’s the thing I’ve been learning: even at my best I am still insufficient. Let me explain…

It’s commonly held that we can’t live our lives based on emotions alone. That is to say, we can’t base our decisions and actions solely on what we feel, because what we feel is always changing. If we can’t trust our emotions to guide us, then where do we turn? Our minds? Wrong!

Our minds (or intellect or reason, whatever you want to call it) are just as fickle as our emotions, and quite often are actually slaves to our emotions.  One of my favourite books of the last while is “A Mind of Its Own” by Cordelia Fine (I talk about it a bit here).  It is a very funny and humbling book that takes a ton of study and research that has been done in cognitive and behavioural psychology in order to paint a more accurate picture of our brains.  Here is how she summarizes the human brain: It is “vain, immoral, emotional, secretive, pigheaded, delusional, bigoted and vulnerable”.

There are so many amazing and fascinating examples of these attributes in action in the book, you should just go and buy it.  In the meantime though, let me pull one example from the book to illustrate how our emotions can cloud our judgement (also, it’s just really fun to read):

“There is empirical proof that we can be almost literally blinded (or at least seriously visually impaired) by love or hatred; or rather – in the low key fashion of the ethically guided modern laboratory experiment – by liking and disliking.  To inspire such sentiments in unsuspecting volunteers, a stooge was trained to behave in either an exceptionally likeable or objectionable fashion.  For some volunteers, the charming stooge (supposedly another volunteer in the experiment) sported a sweatshirt from the real volunteer’s own university.  When her tardiness was commented on by the experimenter, she was winningly apologetic and made amends by generously proffering cookies all around.  In the other scenario, the stooge advertised on her clothing her allegiance to a rival university.  In response to the experimenter’s mild remark about her late arrival, she snapped irritably words to the effect that if they could just cut the chat then they could get on with it.  Then, helping herself (and herself alone) to cookies, the stooge rammed in the earphones of her Walkman and, in an act that guaranteed rousing feelings of enmity, cranked up the volume to a level audible to all.” (Fine 2006, 43,44).

So that is the set up.  The actual experiment went like this:

“The volunteers were then assigned to be either the player or observer of a very simple computerized tennis game.  By means of one of those rigged draws at which social psychologists are so proficient, the stooge was deputed to play the tennis game against the computer.  The true volunteers were chosen to be the observers.  Their task was to individually watch the game in an adjacent cubicle, and for every volley (a flash of light appearing on the on the screen), to indicate whether it fell in or out of bounds.  Crucially, the volunteers were told that their calls as linesmen would have no effect whatsoever on the game… The computer itself could of course determine whether the flash of light fell in or out of bounds, and points would be won or lost according to this more authoritative source.” (Fine 2006, 44,45).

So, the volunteers knew that their judgment would have no effect on the outcome of the game (they were told that they were “providing information on the clarity of the game”).  So if they disliked the stooge or liked the stooge, there would be nothing to gain by allowing those feelings to influence their judgements.  All they were to do was provide data on the clarity of the game.

“Yet, remarkably, the volunteers’ sentiments toward the stooge still biased what they actually saw.  When a ball hit by the stooge fell just a few pixels within the line, volunteers still seething from her incivilities were more likely to mistakenly call it ‘out.’  When the stooge’s computerized opponent hit a ball outside the line, volunteers were more likely to say it was ‘in.’  Equally partisan, and exactly opposite, were the perceptions of those who felt warmly toward the amiable stooge.” (Fine 2006, 45).

With nothing to be gained, presumably no agenda being served, they still were moved by either their positive or negative feelings and their judgement was influence accordingly.

This kind thing doesn’t just happen in a laboratory, it happens to all of us in one way or another all the time.  A few weeks ago I got in a debate about an article written by Mark Driscoll.  The other person was predisposed due to previous experience to view Mark Driscoll as a great teacher and leader and thus, her response to the article was affirming and positive.  I was predisposed due to previous experience to view Mark Driscoll as an arrogant stain on Christendom and thus, my response to the article was negative and nit-picky.  In reality we both were probably too clouded by bias to really discuss the merit of the article (especially me and especially on facebook).

So if we can’t trust our emotions, and our brains are equally untrustworthy, then who or what can we trust…

(tune in next time for the exciting conclusion of “On Confession and Worship”).

[Fine, Cordelia A Mind of Its Own: How the Brain Distorts and Deceives. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.]

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