A wise person once observed that confessing sins is a little like taking out the trash: it’s a job most people don’t get excited about doing, but if we neglect it, the mess piles up and starts to stink. David, the Psalmist, describes this well: “When I kept silent [about my sin] my bones wasted away; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4). A prayer life that includes a regular practice of acknowledging to God those words, thoughts, and actions we have done (or not done) that displease God brings us healing. God can help us and our children deepen our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Let’s consider how to encourage our children to practice the discipline of confession.
Confessional prayers sometimes get a bad rap. They can feel a bit like a never-ending effort to keep our “forgiveness account” paid up, so that we stay in God’s good graces. Or, they can feel like an exercise in spiritual sadism, as we wallow in our own sin and misery. But there are better reasons to teach our children the practice of confession.
Confession teaches our children what to do with their guilt. Whether it’s cheating on a test at school, disobeying parents, or looking at something they ought not to look at, our children carry with them feelings of guilt. Left alone, guilt has a way of curdling into shame (remember the words of the Psalmist!). Try as we might (and we do try!), we can’t simply ignore our feelings of guilt. Teaching children to confess their sins is good spiritual hygiene. It lets them discover that there is a place they can go when they do something wrong to be restored.
Confession helps our children experience the goodness of God’s grace. When the Psalmist finally reaches a breaking point, he confesses his sin to God and immediately discovers that God “forgave the guilt of my sin.” With nowhere to turn with his guilt, he finds that the very one against whom he has sinned responds with grace. In Christ, God has cemented this promise for us so that forgiveness is always assured. For the Christian, confessing our sins is more like acknowledging to our Father the ways we have hurt him than appearing in court to plead guilty before a judge. In Christ, our sentence has been paid in full, and we may assure our children that God will never stop loving them, no matter what they do or how many times they may do it. Our children first experience the gospel by learning to confess their sins and being reminded of how God responds!
Demonstrate it: The best practice for teaching your children how to confess sins in prayer is by modeling it yourself. When you pray at mealtime devotions, for example, regularly include prayers of confession on behalf of your family. Use a thoughtful vocabulary to acknowledge sin before God. In other words, rather than just “Forgive us our sin” (which, of course, is perfectly adequate), find ways to be more specific: “Forgive us when we’ve used our words to hurt others; we’re sorry when we don’t always love strangers as you want us to; we know there are thoughts that we have or words we say that only you know about, forgive us for those sins as well.” Consider including prayers for both what we have and have not done.
Specific Practice: Sometimes our kids do things that really stand out in all the wrong ways. They steal something that doesn’t belong to them, they copy the answers off of a friend, or they participate in bullying a classmate on social media. These actions stand out as hurtful and wrong, and, as a parent, you find ways to give consequences and teach better choices in the future. But these opportunities also provide the chance to discuss the way our actions impact our relationship with God. These can be golden opportunities to help our children see their need to address the problem of sin with God, as well as to encourage them to bring their sin and guilt before him so that they might taste his forgiveness. These conversations, and the prayers that can come out of them, can be the foundation that God uses to help our children understand the gospel.
Family Practice: Doing family devotions together is an invaluable discipline. This can be done at mealtimes, or before bed, or first thing in the morning. Our family has used the ACTS prayer as a template for our prayer time. Each week each member of our family (including my wife and I) choose one of the categories of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, or Supplication. This way, everyone has an opportunity to pray the varied pieces of prayer. Sometimes, we’ve all prayed through the same letter so that we each pray a prayer of Adoration, or Confession that week. As a part of this, you can also include biblical conversation on why this is important, and how to pray in this way.
It has been suggested that prayers of confession are antiquated. Some people tend to focus more on the “positive” parts of our walk with God. But done in the right mind, leading our children to confess their sins in prayer is a rich practice that will yield lifelong fruit in the lives of God’s children.