At the heart and center of your sinfulness, you want to be free of God. You want to be a god unto yourself, free to live your own life and do your own thing — and you want to look good doing it!
Thus, your greatest sin is also your greatest pride, which you guard zealously along with you ego.
But attempting to hide and protect yourself from the exposure of your guilt and shame drives your sin inward, where it continues to work its deadly curse within you and upon you. So you end up hiding and protecting yourself from the one and only cure: the healing medicine of the Gospel.
Thanks be to God that He does not leave you to your sin, but He disciplines and chastens you, because He loves you. As a father disciplines and chastens the son whom he loves, the Lord addresses your sins; He corrects your errors; He calls you to repentance; and He trains you in the way of righteousness and truth, that you should live in faith toward Him and in love for others.
In particular, He does allow the curse of the fall and the consequences of your own sins to hinder and impede your relentless pursuit of sin and death, so that even the calamities of life and death are bent and constrained to serve His good and gracious will for you and your salvation.
Now, when you are subjected to sickness or some other kind of suffering, when you face trials and tribulations in this body and life, and when you bear the penalties and punishments of the wrong that you have done — whatever the case may be — your sinful inclination is to search for some remedy of the superficial symptoms, so that you can simply get on with your habits and routines.
But the Lord is really aiming at your heart. Like a surgeon, He would open you up to address the deeply rooted evil of your sinful heart, which is the underlying cause of all your sin and death.
The particular sins of thought, word, and deed that you commit on a daily basis, as well as the outward consequences of sin in your mortal flesh and blood, all point to the heart of the problem. They expose the unbelief and idolatry of your heart, out of which every other sin of mind, mouth, and body proceeds, driving you away from God and further into death and damnation.
The Lord, therefore, would bring you, not simply to some kind of rehabilitation, but to actual repentance, that is, to contrition and to faith in the Gospel. To sorrow for your sins, but also to rely upon His grace and mercy and forgiveness of your sins. Such repentance is entirely the work of God, who acts upon you with His Word — with His Law that kills you, and with His Gospel that gives you life. And this Word of the Law and the Gospel is neither abstract nor generic. It is not simply aimed at everyone. The Lord addresses His Word quite personally and specifically to you.
The Lord’s goal in all of this is not finally punitive. It is not punishment for its own sake. He has in fact already put the entire penalty and punishment for all of your sins upon Christ Jesus, His own dear Son. There is therefore now no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus.
So, then, the discipline and chastening of your God and Father in Christ are not at all intended to harm you or destroy you. It is rather the case, paradoxically, that He puts you to death and kills you with His preaching of the Law, in order to raise you up to newness of life with His Word and preaching of the Gospel. It is painful, yes, but it is all for the purpose of help and healing.
No pain, no gain. But the Lord is not out to break you. The truth is that you are already broken, and He seeks to make you healthy and whole, a brand new creature in body and soul.
It is again like the surgeon who cuts into your body, who does real violence to your body — and puts you to sleep for a while, like a little death — in order to heal you and wake you up to a new and better life. Like the mechanic who takes your car apart and makes it useless for awhile, in order to remove what is broken and replace those parts, so that your car will drive safely and well.
The correction and healing that God works in you is not to bring about self-righteousness in you, but the righteousness of faith in His free and full forgiveness of your sins through the grace of His Gospel in Christ Jesus. He does not make you new so that you can save yourself by your own good works. Instead, He makes you new by saving you with His good works on your behalf.
The Lord your God does not wait for you to get your act together and come to Him on your own. You know that, of yourself, you could not and would not ever do so. And even now, as a child of God, though you do live by His grace through faith in His Word, you also remain a poor child of Adam, and you so often find yourself paralyzed by guilt and shame, by dark regrets and deadly fears, which hinder you and hold you back from seeking the Lord where He may be found.
So it is that, when you cannot bring yourself to Jesus — or you simply won’t, because you are more and more ensnared by your sins and vices and the idolatry of this fallen and perishing world — then the Lord often brings you to Himself by the agency of your Christian family and friends, your parents and teachers who speak and act in love for you, even when you may resent their help. Or, again, He might come to you, and confront you with His Word, and call you to repentance through His called and ordained servants, who speak in His Name and act with His authority.
As a Christian, however, you should understand that a healthy spiritual life will involve regularly going to the Lord Jesus by way of contrition and repentance, by confession of your sins, and by faith in His forgiveness of sins. You lay hold of that forgiveness by laying hold of the Lord Jesus Christ in His Word and promises of the Gospel — by making active use of His means of grace.
Really, the entire Christian life is lived by such faith in the forgiveness of the Gospel. Everything depends upon that forgiveness. So the entire life of the Church is arranged for that forgiveness.
To be a Christian, and to live as a Christian, first and foremost, is to live constantly immersed in the forgiveness of sins. To revel in the Gospel of forgiveness, and always to rely upon it. That is the very essence of faith: Every day. All the time. But so also in particular ways, at specific times and in specific places. Not only in your head and in your heart, with your intellect and emotions, but in your body, also, with your words and actions.
As your sinful unbelief and idolatry are manifest in your sinful words and actions, so is your faith in the Gospel manifest in the confession of Christ and in the right worship of the Lord your God, which is to say, by hearing His Word, by calling on His Name, and by living within His Liturgy.
Repentance, again, involves a recognition of your sins, and regret for your sins, but also a reliance on the forgiveness of your sins in the Name and for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Savior.
It is in such forgiveness, and for such forgiveness, that you daily pray in the Our Father, as the Lord Himself has taught you and invited you to pray. And it is likewise with such forgiveness that you live in love for your brothers and sisters in Christ, and for all of your neighbors in the world.
As you depend upon the Lord’s forgiveness of your sins for everything that you need in this body and life, and for the life everlasting, so do you forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you.
What does that look like in practice? It is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Or, to say it even better, it is to love your neighbor as the Lord Jesus loves you. It is to be humble and kind, knowing your own unworthiness and need and the Lord’s grace and mercy toward you. It is to be gentle, compassionate, generous, and charitable in your thoughts, words, actions, and assistance. It is to give as you have received, not stingily or grumpily, but gladly and abundantly, even to those who have sinned against you; for the Lord your God has given Himself for you and to you.
To live by faith in the forgiveness of sins also looks and sounds like Confession and Absolution, which the Lord has provided by and with His own authority for the comforting of your conscience, for the strengthening of your faith, and for the salvation of your body and soul in His Name.
As you pray in the Our Father, and as you deal with your neighbors in faith and love and with the forgiveness of sins, so do you go to the Lord Jesus Christ by going to your pastor for the help and healing care of the Gospel, which your pastor has been called and sent to speak and administer.
This means of grace, that is, the practice of Confession and Absolution — the Fifth Chief Part of the Christian faith and life, which some Lutherans have appropriately called the Third Sacrament — it is at the very heart and center of all pastoral care. To forgive sins in the Name and stead of Christ is the definitive essence of the pastoral office. Everything else a pastor is given to do takes its cues from the Office of the Keys, because everything aims at the forgiveness of sins. Whatever else a pastor does, and whatever else may happen in the Church, depends on that forgiveness.
The hearing of confession with the ears of Christ, and the speaking of Holy Absolution with the mouth of Christ, is how a pastors administers the significance of Holy Baptism. It is the fountain from which his preaching and catechesis of the Law and the Gospel emerge and arise, and to which they return. It is the pastoral care with which the Lord brings you to His Supper in repentant faith, relying not upon yourself, nor hiding away to protect your ego, but boldly resting in Christ Jesus.
To examine yourself as the Word of the Lord and the Catechism have taught you, to confess your sins in the light of the Ten Commandments, and to hear and receive the Holy Absolution that is spoken to you — that is to live as a Christian by faith in the forgiveness of the Gospel, and to make use of the means that Christ has instituted and provided for your good and for the glory of God.
Is it humbling and embarrassing? It sure can be. But this humility is good, and the embarrassment is not that bad. And these emotions, colored as they are by your sin, are not the whole story in any case. They are certainly not the main point or purpose of Confession and Absolution. You bring these emotions to your Lord, along with your sins, to seek and receive His mercy and compassion.
The spiritual care that you thus receive from your pastor is similar, in this respect, to the bodily care that you ask for and receive from your medical doctor. You reveal things to your doctor, and even expose yourself to your doctor, in ways that you would not do with anyone else. You make yourself vulnerable, and you acknowledge your weaknesses, in the interest of getting help, and with the hope and expectation that your doctor can address and do something about your illness.
So does the practice of confession allow your pastor the opportunity to be a good physician of your soul. To know you well. To know and understand your weaknesses and struggles. And to address your sins and heal you with the life-giving medicine of the Gospel.
When it’s all said and done, no medical doctor on earth will be able to keep you from dying; far less will any doctor on earth be able to save your body and soul from your sins, from the assaults and accusations of the devil, or from the damnation of hell. But your dear Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted your pastor with this medicine of immortality, with His own Word of forgiveness, which does what it says and gives what it promises. From your pastor’s mouth in the Name and stead of Christ, it is just as valid and certain on earth as it is in heaven.
The Holy Absolution that Christ Jesus speaks by the mouth of His servant does forgive your sins. It does deliver your soul and body from eternal death and damnation. And as such, it does indeed armor you and arm you against the assaults and accusations of the devil, who simply cannot stand against this Word of the Lord. For the Lord would have you live with Him in safety and peace. And to that end He has come to be your Champion, to fight for you and protect you; not only by His dying and rising once upon a time, but now also by and with this Word of Absolution that He speaks to you from the sacrifice of His Cross and in the righteousness of His Resurrection.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.