In his book of Lamentations, Jeremiah the prophet mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. He describes in vivid, horrible detail the agonies of his people. He personifies the fallen city, and it is sometimes difficult for the reader to tell if Jeremiah or Jerusalem is speaking. But the one thing I’d like to note is that Jeremiah sees all the suffering of Jerusalem as deserved, and identifies himself with the city and her people. “Jerusalem sinned greatly” (1:8). “The LORD is righteous; for I have rebelled against His command” (1:18). “I have been very rebellious” (1:20).
Daniel in Babylon, toward the end of the 70-year captivity, saw that the time of restoration was nearing and so “set his face” to God with “prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:1-5). His prayer is a prayer of confession, not just of the people of Israel, as though they were a separate entity. He includes himself. “ ... we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, rebelled ... “ etc., etc. “ ... open shame belongs to us.” The prayer is a long recitation of the sins of his people, with whom he includes himself. He confesses that they had received what they deserved, because they had “not listened” to God’s law or His prophets and he begs for God’s mercy and forgiveness (9:6-19).
Nehemiah in Persia, upon hearing of the “distress and reproach” that had befallen the remnant who had returned to Jerusalem, began a period of weeping, mourning, fasting and praying for his people (Nehemiah 1:1-5). He confesses the sin of his people, which had brought on their suffering. And again, he doesn’t pray for a distant “them,” he includes himself in the confession, “ ... we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly ... ” (1:6, 7).
Probably neither Jeremiah or Daniel or Nehemiah had personally taken part in any of the sins they enumerate. In fact, Jeremiah had been haranguing his people about their sins for close to forty years. Yet each of these men identified with his people so intimately that he could understand their sins as well as their deserved sufferings, as his own. They had a sort of “corporate identity.”
But this is not merely an Old Testament or Jewish concept, confined to those who made or make up an ethnically homogeneous group such as the nation of Israel.
Jesus did this for us – for His people. “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
When Jesus spoke of “the cup” in His prayer in the garden (Luke 22:42), He was using an Old Testament concept – the “cup” represented God’s wrath for sin. He took our sin and God’s wrath on Himself. He identified with us in a way much greater than the prophets had identified with Israel.
What about the church? Paul tells us over and over that “we who are many are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:27). We’re told that “ ... and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). So if the church is guilty of sin or sins, should we identify? Do we each individually bear some of the guilt of the church as we do the sufferings and the glory? Should we as individual Christians confess these sins as our own? Should we say “Lord, we have sinned”?
Now I don’t mean we should be like the sort of nit-pickers we’ve all come across (and have probably been, at least part of the time). They can tell you what’s wrong with a particular church, whether it’s the music or the preaching or the length of the service. They can identify the sins of any church, but they don’t identify WITH them.
Nor do I mean being a “bleeding heart.” You know the folks who feel that whatever awful is happening in the world is somehow our fault, that the church is to blame for all the evils in America and the world. Immorality, divorce, homosexuality crime, etc. are perceived as in some way caused by the church, usually either by its legalism or its tolerance.
I believe we need to look inside, at what the church is doing wrong, to see ourselves as in a very real way involved, because we are part of the corporate identity, the body of Christ. And perhaps we need to seriously pray something like this:
-- We have sinned, I and my fathers have sinned.
-- We have forsaken You and have turned unto other gods.
-- We have become obsessed with size, with growth for growth’s sake.
-- We have desired to make a name for ourselves, rather than to glorify Your Name.
-- We have concerned ourselves with the sins of those outside, rather than with our own.
-- We have placed our trust in political solutions to the moral problems of our nation.
-- We have failed to love our neighbor.
-- We have failed to concern ourselves with carrying out Your great commission.
-- O Lord hear, O Lord forgive! For Your own sake and for the people who are called by Your Name.