About five weeks ago I wrote a post here about finding the will to forgive those who offend us, belittle us, or make us look bad in the eyes of our friends. I told the story of the former Nazi prison guard who approached one of his victims, Corrie ten Boom, after World War II asking for her forgiveness.

You may have thought while reading that story that he was a bit too glib in his request. Corrie certainly thought so in that first moment. A simple sentence or two, an outstretched hand in a church basement—was that enough to dismiss the ghastly atrocities of Ravensbrück?

His words may have reminded you of watching today’s star athlete or endangered politician approach the microphones after getting caught in a scandal. Dressed in a conservative suit and tie, he utters his mea culpas and apologies in eloquent verbiage, scripted no doubt by the attorney or agent who stand reverently in the shadows. “I am sincerely sorry for my behavior in this matter, which has brought disgrace to myself, my family, my team and my fans. I have let myself down, and let you down …” blah, blah, blah.

Of course, there’s a fair chance that when it comes to our confessions, God might wonder sometimes about us, too. When we get to the line in the Lord’s Prayer that says, “… and forgive us our trespasses,” he might question if we have anything specific in mind, as opposed to simply reciting a memorized phrase. Even if we frame our own sentence, the fact is that “Sorry about that” is a fairly easy thing to say.

We learned it early in life, didn’t we? When we snatched a toy away from a sibling or playmate, some adult reproved us and ordered, “Now say you’re sorry.” We muttered “Sorry” just to get the episode finished.

A few years later, many of us learned to play the board game Sorry, in which you draw cards to advance your four little tokens around the board. Occasionally a player gets the chance to jump far ahead while setting another player back in the dust. “Sorry!” he chirps in hypocritical glee.

Today, when we bump someone in a crowded grocery aisle or airport concourse, we automatically say, “Sorry.” It’s just common courtesy, we tell ourselves.

Confession is programmed into a four-part prayer formula many of us learned along the way known as A-C-T-S. We were taught that when we bow our heads to pray, we should engage in Adoration, then Confession, then Thanksgiving, and finally Supplication, or requests. Nothing faulty with that … if we do so with sincerity.

I must confess, however, that when I’m in a more formal church service that includes a corporate prayer of confession, nicely prewritten for all of us to recite, I struggle to participate. The liturgy wants me to read from the bulletin, “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is nothing good in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” Well, perhaps … but I wonder, How does the person who wrote this know what’s going on in MY heart? Isn’t this awfully generic? If I were to get entirely honest about MY shortcomings before God, it wouldn’t sound like this.

And by the way, who’s “we”? Shouldn’t a real confession use “I” language?

Don’t worry; I refrain from making a scene there in the eleventh row. But I know God is waiting for me to get specific with him sometime, somewhere about my personal issues. His goal for me is “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). He wants me to admit that I really was insensitive to my wife the other evening, that my sarcastic tendency got out of hand in that conversation with a colleague, that I mismanaged my schedule yesterday so that time in the Scriptures got skipped. He is waiting for me to say with the Psalmist, “I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin” (38:18).

Maybe I’d do better if instead of trying to talk through this process, I were to write it down. Putting the words on paper would no doubt make me squirm a bit. But at least I’d be more candid.

As I write this, I’m outside London, England, at a mission guest facility interviewing a source expert for a writing project. This morning I went upstairs to a set-aside prayer room, where I saw something new to me: a circular tray of sand some two feet across, with a sign that quoted the familiar 1 John 1:8-9 about confessing our sins and then instructed, “Write or draw in the sand anything you need to confess to God….”

I could only imagine what all had been entered in that tray over the years. But none of the sins were visible to me, because the sign continued to quote a couple of other Scriptures, and then said, “[Now] smooth the sand, erasing what you wrote. Receive God’s forgiveness.”

A worthy approach to consider, I think. As I wrote my particular offense (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was!), I had to be real. There it was, entirely visible. I couldn’t be vague.

But then, in light of God’s forgiveness, I reached down to smooth out the sand again. In that motion I sensed God brushing the offense away, restoring my soul like clean sand. “Sorry” was thus more than a platitude; it was a gateway to God’s genuine restoration.

What’s your Confession Quotient? What helps you get real with God about your “stuff”?