Though prayers of confession in public worship are primarily about a Christian community confessing its corporate sins, many hymns also reflect the need of forgiveness felt by individuals. Some writers address both aspects of confession within a single hymn text (see e.g. Christopher Ellis, below).
One way of approaching the hymns within the section named Repentance and Forgiveness in Singing the Faith (StF 419 – 438) is to think about the process or journey that they express.
Also see Repentance and Forgiveness (2)
Admitting that we need forgiveness
We get things wrong “in thought, word and deed”. What helps us move forward positively in our Christian journey is an ability to say we’ve got it wrong, to say sorry, and to ask God and those around us for forgiveness.
Christopher Ellis, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty all draw inspiration from the traditional “prayer of general confession”, which nowadays takes many forms but has deep roots in a number of Christian traditions: “Almighty God, we come to make confession, / for we have sinned in thought and word and deed” (Christopher Ellis’s version, StF 419).
The concluding lines of each verse in Christopher Ellis’s hymn form a pattern that recognises a need for repentance that is both corporate and individual. Verses 1 and 4 speak of the communal act of saying sorry; verses 2 and 3 help us to focus on our individual lives. “Forgive us, Lord,” he writes:
. . . and meet us in our need
. . . and make me like your Son
. . . and lead me in your way
. . . that we may live to serve you joyfully
Stuart Townend and Keith Getty paraphrase the traditional prayer in the first verse of Father, we have sinned in word, and deed, and thought (StF 422). In verse 2, they challenge us to examine the roles we all play in society’s wrongdoings: “we’ve made our greed a virtue, / while the children starve. . . ”
Realising the continuing need for forgiveness
None of us is perfect; predictably, we fail and fail again in our attempts to love as God loves. Equally predictably, we are welcomed back into God’s way without question.
This is nothing new; time and again, precedent for failure in the face of God’s continuing love is a theme of biblical events and stories. Michael Forster begins with the people of Israel, rescued from slavery in Egypt but soon forgetting the God who delivered them: “God of forgiveness, your people you freed” (StF 425).
Knowing that we are forgiven
Some of the most joyful hymns in Singing the Faith occur in this section that is helping us to say sorry.
Noel and Tricia Richards sing: “You take all my guilt away, / turn the darkest night to brightest day” (My lips shall praise you, StF 430). Similarly, from Rob Hayward: “I’m accepted, I’m forgiven, / I’m fathered by the true and living God” (StF 427). This balance between knowing, and being thankful for, God’s forgiveness and the realisation that nevertheless we are continually requiring that forgiveness is caught profoundly in William Cowper’s fine 18th century hymn: Hark, my soul! It is the Lord (StF 426).
Cowper envisages what feels like a conversation between Jesus and the sinful Christian individual. It has echoes of the post-resurrection conversation between Jesus and the disciple Peter (John 21: 15-19). Jesus speaks of his unchanging love and pushes the sinner to answer the question: “say, poor sinner, love’st thou me?” The hymn builds to a final verse in which the sinner/singer responds with passion and honesty in equal measure:
Lord, it is my chief complaint
that my love is weak and faint;
yet I love thee, and adore;
O for grace to love thee more!
Equally alive to the ongoing nature of repentance and forgiveness is Theodore Monod’s hymn, O the bitter shame and sorrow (StF 432).
Acknowledging the difficulty of forgiving others
We feel what we feel, and that can cause barriers to be put up between ourselves and those by whom we feel hurt. It takes effort to move through or remove those barriers.
Because the task can be hard, we require the grace that God inspires and Jesus models in order “to live the words we say” (Rosamond Herklots’ 'Forgive our sins as we forgive', StF 423). It’s a theme picked up by Ruth Duck in God, how can we forgive when bonds of love are torn? (StF 613) and Fred Kaan's God! When human bonds are broken. . . give us grace and make us still (StF 649).
What that life of mutual forgiveness and understanding may look like is described carefully and lovingly by Michael Forster in his hymn Let love be real, in giving and receiving (StF 615): “let us accept each other’s incompleteness, / and share the joy of learning to be whole” (v.3).
Always being honest
We will need to return to the hymns of Repentance and Forgiveness all too often. But when we do, “with no pretence, / yet nourished by your grace”, then God enables restoration and renewal as we pledge to take God’s way once more: “to live responding to your call / with each succeeding day.” (Andrew Pratt, We come to you with no pretence, StF 435)
Also see Repentance and Forgiveness (2)