An Ash Wednesday Reflection

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
—Exodus 34:6–7

We can often rationalize sin away with the thought, “Well, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else…” We tend to think private, secret sins that don’t involve another are our business alone and nobody else’s.

I have mixed feelings about the passage above. It is God describing Himself to Moses, and it is beautiful and noble and awe-inspiring. But it kind of hits a sour note at the end. I am just fine with the guilty being punished, but to carry it on three and four generations down the line? Doesn’t seem too fair…

There are a number of viewpoints and commentaries on what this might mean and how it might work, but that’s not where my focus is.

What strikes me deeply is this: there is no such thing as a private sin. The people around us are hurt by our wrong choices whether they know about them or not. Our sin affects others. Period.

Ash Wednesday is a day of self-examination, confession, and repentance to kick off the Lent season. Although I did not grow up in a tradition that observed Ash Wednesday, I am now part of a fellowship that does.

In our Ash Wednesday service each person confesses his or her sin to others with the words, “I am sorry for the way my sin has impacted you.” It is a strangely liberating experience to have another look me in the eye and say, “You’re forgiven.”

So whether or not you observe Ash Wednesday, take some time this week to think about the secret sins in your life. Bring them into the light before our God Who is “merciful and gracious…forgiving transgression and sin”. Even better, find someone you trust and speak the words out loud. Let them offer words of forgiveness.

Because even our private sins leave a lasting impact if left unconfessed.

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