In the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Common Worship there is a phrase that more than once finds its way into the prayer of confession:
“Forgive me Lord for what I have done and for what I have left undone.”
The things we “have done” are generally easy to identify, perhaps because that’s how we’re taught to think about sin — as things we should not do. When Moses descended from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the message was pretty clear: “Thou shalt not.” Don’t do these things. If you do them, pray to God and ask forgiveness for what you have done.
This approach to what we “shouldn’t do” carries over into modern daily practices of communal life. Children in schools are taught many don’ts — don’t run in the hallways, don’t scribble in the library book, don’t hit or bite or say mean things to your peers. If you do these things, you should apologize.
However, sometimes it is the things we have left undone that cause the most pain in the lives of our fellow human beings.
When I was in middle school there was a girl in my class who struggled socially. One weekend she invited me to spend the night at her house and I accepted the invitation. We had a fun time, although I do remember her seeming nervous and unsure of how to act with a friend in the house. Looking back, I now see that it must have taken her a great deal of courage to invite me over.
Several weeks later we were riding the bus home and some other girls began to harass her. I can assure you I did not join them. It was clear to me what they were doing was harmful and I easily refrained from participating. No need to apologize there — I did nothing wrong.
But, in that moment, it was not what I had done that was my sin, it was what I left undone. How easy it would have been for me to go sit beside her. What a difference it would have made in her life if I’d told the other girls to leave her alone. But I did neither of these things. Forgive me, Lord, for what I have left undone.
Thinking about what we have left undone can be overwhelming. It calls to mind larger systems of injustice and oppression. We can potentially get through a day without doing anything wrong, but even if we somehow manage that, the list of what we have left “undone” will always remain endless.
I expect God knows we can’t do everything. That’s why our prayer of confession is always immediately followed by a declaration of forgiveness: “Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace.” That said, praying for what we have done and left undone is an ever-present reminder to us that doing the right thing may be just as important as not doing the wrong thing.
Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed serves as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Journal for Preachers, The Christian Century, and Presbyterians Today.