Unlike Catholics, Quakers do not confess their sins to a priest. In fact, George Fox taught that it was possible to live in “that righteousness and holiness that Adam was in before he fell; to be pure and clean, without sin, as he was.” Yet, like Catholics, Fox recognized that people do sin and must repent in order to arrive at the state of sinlessness. He simply did not believe in the necessity of a priest and formal confession in order to be absolved of sin. He was more optimistic than Catholics about the possibility of remaining sinless, but neither Fox nor the Catholic Church teach that humankind is inherently sinful.
What sin really means is “separation from God.” That separation, of course, leads to individual sins like theft, lies, or adultery; but the root of such individual sins is the fact that we live in two orders: the temporal and the eternal. As creatures with fleshly bodies in the material world, we can never completely overcome the instinctual life that leads to moral problems—nor should we despise our bodies or scorn this material world. But we are also spirit, living for spiritual ends and eternal verities. There is a conflict between the temporal and the spiritual. We are caught “in the middle.”
Unlike Fox, I don’t believe in any permanent resolution of the tension between the two realms. I do think it’s necessary for individual Friends to “confess” the ways in which they’ve fallen short of God’s will. A practical way of doing this is simply to answer the Queries in New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice honestly and completely. Then, Friends should pray for the Holy Spirit to help them in removing any defects from their spiritual lives. I’m not suggesting that Quakers should be wracked by guilt and inflict some painful penance upon themselves—only that Friends seek to live more fully in the Light.
But what about those of you who don’t believe in God or the Holy Spirit? Well, you can undertake a psychological inventory and ask how you may be more in accord with whatever spirituality or philosophy you live by. And as you search your heart, you may find that new strength is mysteriously given you and that you are better able to live a deeply spiritual life.
~ Richard Russell
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