The Sin of Omission

“For what we have done and for what we have left undone…” This is a standard Prayer of Confession offered in union at a mainline church. What I like about it is the moral equivalency of what we do wrong with what we neglect to do right. The prayer is right but our appreciation of what we do and fail to do rarely reflects the spirit of this prayer. 99% of the time, in public conversation, in the way we are evaluated at work, in the way we hold on to hurts and grudges, it is what others have said or done or what we have said or done that sticks with us. We tend to let others off the hook, relieve ourselves of guilt, for what was not said or done.

Why the bias toward the action as opposed to the inaction? One obvious answer is that we have the evidence in front of us, we know what was said and done. The “what if” is abstract, speculation, who knows if we did follow through, if the other followed through, that things would have improved. It is easier to stand in judgment of the act than the act not taken.

Yet…let me try to make a case for the opposite to our common perception of wrong doing. Isn’t the person who messed up saying or doing the wrong thing to receive some credit for “trying”? That person attempted to make things right and failed. But she did put thought into action, that person made the effort to put the kind sentiment into some resolve. Despite the shortcoming of this act can’t we give him/her some praise for the fact that s/he rolled up her/his sleeves and got to work?

On the other hand, what about the person who has all the best of intentions, the kind and open heart, but rarely gets round to action, to calling, to connecting? There are no poorly chosen words to criticize, no action that was “not quite right” and no foot in mouth to try and live down. But the intentions are left in purgatory, in that space between the idea of something and the act of carrying out the thought. This purgatory is where the good feelings go to a permanent sleep.

I am a firm believer that most of what we have to be sorry for is what we didn’t do, not what we did. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Or as the Indigo Girls sing in their song Hammer and Nail, “Had a lot of good intentions, Sit around for fifty years and then collect a pension, Started seeing the road to hell and just where it starts, But my life is more than a vision, The sweetest part is acting after making a decision, I started seeing the whole as a sum of its parts…”

New Year is a good time for resolutions. How about this, ask more of ourselves, not less, allow ourselves to make mistakes, just decide to take more risks, risks to make a difference, to bring healing to a broken world.