An Empty Vessel

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen Thou me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust Thee altogether. O Lord, help me.

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
(as quoted in Ken Gire’s Between Heaven and Earth)

Martin Luther’s prayer reminds me not to stop at confessing my sin, but move beyond that to a place where I trust in God’s transforming power. Sometimes when God shows me a weak area in my life or convicts me of a sin, all I look at is that flaw. “What a horrible person I am! I’m hopeless!” I forget in my heart what I know in my head: that God has the power to not only cleanse me, but change me. When I wallow in self-condemnation and defeat, it amounts to nothing less than unbelief — it’s like saying Christ’s death on the cross was not enough to provide forgiveness and new life for me.

God is able to fill my emptiness, give me strength for weakness, and warm my cold heart, but He will only do that when I place my faith in Him. When I trust Him to change me, my flaws and failures can become wonderful opportunities to experience His power at work within me.


Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant…But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us…But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
– 2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 4:7; 12:9 (NIV)

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

First my apologies for some technical difficulties: last week, the service that sends out my posts had some sort of “hiccup” and sent an old post from October! Then this morning my blog decided to post an unfinished entry that’s not supposed to go up until next week (February 14). So here’s the “real” item for today!

Liturgical churches celebrate today as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which is a season of self-examination, repentance and even fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. The following prayer was written by English reformer Thomas Cranmer to be used in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Thomas Cranmer, 1928 Book of Common Prayer

I see several biblical truths in this prayer, including echoes of both 1 John 1:9 and Psalm 51. My sin is a genuine offense against God, and I must truly repent if I want to experience the forgiveness Christ purchased for me. Look how repentance is described: being penitent, having a contrite heart, lamenting my sin, acknowledging my wretchedness. How often I substitute self-hatred for this kind of healthy mourning for my sin! But if God doesn’t hate me when I sin, what right do I have to hate myself? Especially when He is the God of all mercy who graciously gives me a new heart, complete with all the repentance I need to enjoy His forgiveness!

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
    according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me...

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me...

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart,
    O God, you will not despise.

- Psalm 51:1-3, 9-10, 17 (NIV)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
– 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

A Prayer of Repentance

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of Thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen.
– Ambrose of Milan (c.339-397)

St. Ambrose’s prayer echoes the words God spoke through Ezekiel to the Jewish exiles:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27, NIV)

When I repent, it is God in His mercy who cleanses me from sin, who softens my hard heart, and who gives me both the desire and ability to live for Him through His Holy Spirit. This was true when I trusted Christ for my salvation, and it is true again every time I confess my sin with a repentant heart, surrender myself to God, and rely on Him to direct and empower me with His Holy Spirit.

Repentance, surrender, trust; simple concepts, really, yet applying them is hard work! And though they are simple, I never outgrow my need for them. They brought me to Christ, and they keep me close to Christ, for as the apostle Paul said, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him” (Galatians 2:6, NIV)

(These concepts are at the heart of the Spirit-filled Life, as taught by the late Dr. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ and explained here. God used this teaching powerfully in my life, and still does.)

A General Confession

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but in college began attending churches of other denominations. Recently I’ve been looking at the liturgy again and have gained a new appreciation for many of the prayers. This one is the General (i.e., congregational) Confession from the communion service. Although I’m quoting from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the wording has remained substantially unchanged since 1549 when it was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the Church of England’s first protestant prayer book.

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer reminds me that true repentance means seeing my sins for what they are: serious offenses against a holy God. I should be grieved and burdened over them, yet too often I treat my little rebellions casually. Repentance also requires throwing myself on God’s mercy, because forgiveness can only be found in Christ. And finally, repentance involves trusting God to produce in me what only He can produce: a radically new life that pleases and honors Him.

Shortly after this prayer, the liturgy includes these scriptures:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… (1 Timothy 1:15, NIV)

…if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation (atoning sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath) for our sins… (1 John 2:1-2, NASB)

“Batter my heart, three-person’d God…”

This poem has long been one of my favorites. It expresses both a deep desire to surrender to God and the incredible strength of sin’s pull on our hearts, even as believers a pull from which only God Himself can deliver us. Although the King James English may seem daunting at first, I think you’ll find it well worth the effort to ponder the rich imagery.

Holy Sonnets. XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

– John Donne (1572-1631)

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 7:22-8:2, NIV)

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