A Right Understanding

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite current writers.  I like this particular post so much that I will probably comment on it again.  The beginning:

Hidden away in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer may be found a small masterpiece of pastoral theology called “A Prayer for Persons Troubled in Mind or in Conscience.” The prayer is a kind of exploded collect—longer and more complex than is typical:

O Blessed Lord, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comforts; We beseech thee, look down in pity and compassion upon this thy afflicted servant. Thou writest bitter things against him, and makest him to possess his former iniquities; thy wrath lieth hard upon him, and his soul is full of trouble: But, O merciful God, who hast written thy holy Word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of thy holy Scriptures, might have hope; give him a right understanding of himself, and of thy threats and promises; that he may neither cast away his confidence in thee, nor place it any where but in thee. Give him strength against all his temptations, and heal all his distempers. Break not the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Shut not up thy tender mercies in displeasure; but make him to hear of joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Deliver him from fear of the enemy, and lift up the light of thy countenance upon him, and give him peace, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The place of this prayer in the prayer book is significant: it is one of the prayers for the sick. What is the nature of this sickness? The person prayed for here has mistaken the character and the purposes of God. She has looked back over her life and seen the sin and darkness therein and cannot see anything else: she has been “made to possess her former iniquities.” Moreover, and worse still, she takes these iniquities and her consciousness of them as signs of God’s displeasure toward her. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth she has “a mind of scorpions.”The priest who comes to this woman in her time of need is instructed by this prayer to see her condition not less as God’s punishment than as the sign of a diseased mind in need of healing. And only God can bring this healing.

So what does the prayer ask God to do? To give her a “right understanding of herself.”

John Newton said at the end of his life, “I am a very old man and my memory has gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great saviour.” Either of these two things is death, taken alone; but taken together, they are life eternal and abundant. The woman whom our imagined priest is visiting has lost half of the equation: she knows herself only to be a great sinner.

To have a right understanding of herself she must have a right understanding of God. God is not her punisher, but her deliverer: she must not “cast away her confidence” in him. There is so much to be set right, so much misunderstanding of self and God, so many terrors that must be overcome that she also must not place that confidence in anything or anyone except God.

But how did this poor woman get in such a condition?  Read the rest here.


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