There are, at the most basic level, two indispensable, essential activities in the Christian life: reading and studying God's word, the Holy Bible; and prayer. They call these things "spiritual disciplines," which is a word we don't like very much, but it's a good word to use: because sometimes, prayer and Bible study are hard work, and require real effort. It's impossible to say which of the two is more important: in prayer, you're talking to God, and in reading the Bible, God is talking to you. That two-way communication is essential to any and every Christian.
(By the way, if you're not a Christian - - - if you've never received Jesus Christ by an act of the will, according to John 1:12 - - - then this post really isn't terribly relevant to you. For you, the issue is not "spiritual disciplines:" the issue is, "What will you do with Jesus Christ?" He wants you to be born again, according to John 3:3-6. That's the starting point. He's waiting to receive you with open arms, as soon as you're willing to receive Him.)
In this post, we're talking about prayer. And any real praying begins with confessing our sins: clearing the decks, settling the accounts, clearing the channels of communication. (That's not a mixed metaphor, by the way: that's a series of metaphors!) We need to get rid of the dead rats and the dust balls that are cluttering our conscience.
The first thing to realize is that God, in His mercy, meets us where we are. You don't have to be a theologian, or a lifelong Christian, to pray, or to confess your sins. A child can do it - - - and, very often, children are more aware of the need to do it, and are more willing to do it, than adults! Maybe you just need to say,"God, I blew it when I did that, and I know it. Please forgive me!"
Every Christian, of course, is God's child: and we're approaching a loving, compassionate Father Who wants to forgive us. Anyone who thinks that he or she is an "expert" on prayer has a lot to learn. But, although God delights in the simple, heartfelt prayer of a child, He doesn't expect us to remain children, spiritually speaking, forever. He wants us to grow, to mature: and as we grow in our knowledge of Him, and our experience with Him, He expects us to learn more and more about communicating with Him. A little boy or girl communicates in a certain way with his or her parents; but as they grow, they will communicate in far different ways with their friends, their business associates, and their own families. "Baby talk" is perfectly appropriate for babies; but it doesn't work so well with a teacher or a business associate!
I don't know about you, or what parts of the Bible you've read the most, or which are the most important to you. But I know the single verse that I've repeated more often than any other in my Christian life. It's 1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I learned very early about the importance of that verse: not because I'm a "quick study" (I'm just the opposite), but because God gave me some excellent teachers.
You see, we're usually aware of when we've blown it, when we've committed some obvious sin. But there are plenty of sins that we don't even realize we've committed. (I'm not trying to make you feel guilty; I'm trying to show you how to get rid of the guilt.) God is far more aware of this than we are, of course, and He's unimaginably compassionate. If we confess our sins - - - the ones we know about, the ones that are making us miserable and ashamed - - - he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We confess the sins we're aware of - - - losing our temper, mistreating our spouse, lying or stealing or lust - - - and, if we confess them sincerely, God forgives even the sins we haven't noticed: like not reading His word enough, or not being sensitive to someone's needs, or just acting like a fool. Think of that. How much more loving and forgiving could He be? It has been aptly said, "If you take one step toward God, He'll take two steps toward you" - - - and this is a perfect example.
1 John 1:9 is a promise. It's a categorical, propositional statement. Either it's true, or it's a lie. We're going to proceed on the assumption that it's true, because if God has ever lied, nobody's ever caught Him.
In your prayers, try rephrasing that verse as a prayer. (That's why I've repeated the verse so often, for forty-five years: I've been praying it, because I screw things up a lot.) Let's say that you have a problem (i.e., a tendency to sin) with gambling. You stay away from it for awhile, but then you blow your paycheck at a casino, or buy the lottery ticket. You've sinned, and you know it. So, instead of rationalizing and feeling guilty, you say "Father, please forgive my sin of gambling, and cleanse me from all unrighteousness." If you're anything like me, you'll have more than one thing to confess! But by praying that prayer, you've done at least two things: acknowledged your sin, and taken it to God, speaking to Him in His own words. And it works. The verse isn't a lie. God forgives you!
It's also helpful to know that, whatever you've done, your prayers of confession are not going to take God by surprise, or "shock" Him. He's more aware of what you've done than you are, whether you confess it or not. The chronic adulterer, the brutal murderer, the most depraved pervert, hasn't done anything that God hasn't seen before. (Sometimes, He's seen it in His own servants, such as the murderer Moses or the adulterer David or the Christ-denying Peter.) You can shock people, but you won't shock God. Sadden Him, yes; but not surprise Him. O LORD, David prayed, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether (Psalm 139:1-4). You grieved God when you sinned; but you won't grieve Him when you come to Him in contrition, asking His forgiveness.
There are far more principles of prayer than can be treated in a single post, of course. In this one, we're dealing with the specific issue of asking God's forgiveness. Two things should be mentioned: first of all, we should keep "short accounts" with God. Don't let your sins pile up, so that you're weighted down with shame and hopelessness; don't wait until the next church service to confess your prayers. Do it as soon as you become aware of them. If someone cuts you off in traffic, and you curse at them, you should ask God's forgiveness with your next breath: why wait? Get rid of the guilt right away! The second thing to remember is that we don't need to confess the same sin twice - - - at least, not if we were sincere the first time. This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more (Hebrews 10:16-17).
The skeptics and scoffers love to ask, "Is there anything God can't do?" Yes, there is. Once we've placed our sins under the Blood of Jesus Christ, He can't see them, or remember them. If you've sincerely confessed a sin, and asked God's forgiveness, you don't need to confess it again. You may still feel guilty, and you may be tempted to confess it again: after all, the Enemy, Satan, will hold it over your head as long as you let him. But (I say it reverently), if I've confessed a sin sincerely, and then I go back and confess it a second time, God says, "What are you talking about?" He's forgotten it!
The more you pray, and the more you study God's word, the more you learn about prayer. We've hardly scratched the surface, and will have to continue this in another post. Because there's a great and deep truth that most Christians never realize: God isn't terribly interested in hearing us recite our sins. (As we've seen, He already knows about them.) He doesn't want us to ask forgiveness for what we've done, so much as He wants to hear us confess what we are.
That's where it gets deep! And that's where we'll pick it up another time!