If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:9)
Confession is treated as one of the sacraments (mysteries) of the faith. In most cases it is done with a priest, within the confines of the canonical discipline of the Church. But what makes a good confession? I have written here recently that sin is not a “legal” problem. If that is true, then what is the nature of what we are confessing? Why do we confess and what difference does it make?
The Scriptures say, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Confession is linked to healing ‐ and this is the heart of the matter. Confession is not a legal matter, a requirement imposed by God in order to earn His forgiveness. God always forgives us, everywhere and for all things. But our sins are not legal problems, mere breaking of the rules. Sin is like a disease, something that makes us spiritually, and even physically, sick. And like a disease, we often need medicine in order to be healed. We can certainly overcome an infection without medication, but an infection is also in danger of spreading and doing great, even fatal damage.
The same is true of our sin. We may be forgiven and healed without confession, but there is a very great danger that the true nature of the sin will not be recognized by us, nor correctly treated, nor healed. Sin that remains untreated easily becomes a festering wound in the soul, darkening our mind and poisoning even unrelated aspects of our lives.
A very common example of this poison is the experience of shame. Psychologists describe shame as among the most primitive of emotions. It is the feeling that we have not only done something wrong, but that we ourselves are something wrong. It’s mildest form is mere embarrassment. But it quickly becomes toxic and paralyzing. As an emotion, it is so painful that people quickly (and unconsciously) transform it into another emotion: anger and depression are the two most commonly cited. We hide our shame and find it too painful to examine, much less to share with another.
This is highly important for the sacrament of confession. Most of the “things” we have done wrong, whether lying, cheating, sexual peccadilloes or instances of anger, etc., are common, and known to be common. Our confession of such things quickly becomes little more than the admission that we are like other people. Indeed, people frequently say something to this effect in their confessions. Very little if anything is healed in such an effort.
The Fathers are quite clear, as is the Scripture, that the heart is the primary goal in confession.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart– These, O God, You will not despise. (Psa 51:17)
It is quite difficult to muster any serious level of contrition by admitting that you are no worse than anyone else. “I am average,” is not the voice of a broken heart. Mediocrity is the enemy of the spiritual life.
This is where confession becomes difficult. Going beneath the surface and pulling back the curtain of secrecy with which we hide our true shame and the depth of our fears is essential in the work of contrition.
The confession becomes difficult not only for the one who shares such power-charged places within the heart, but difficult as well for the one who hears and bears witness to such things. To sit as a priest in the holy place of human-shame-revealed is to hold a soul at its most vulnerable moment. Any effort to heap more shame on someone at such a time would be deeply toxic.
It is a great sin for a priest to judge someone who comes to confession. He must not be fearful nor should he seek to control the outcome of someone’s contrition or seek to make a penitent “behave.” While some great elders have the gifts and wisdom for directing souls, very few priests do. And to play ignorant or silly spiritual games with the lives of others is a far greater sin than any that a priest might hear.
But in the place of a trusted confessor, the penitent can begin the difficult task of revealing their shame and their toxic behaviors.
An interesting example of toxic behaviors/thoughts is that of sins that can be described as envy. Envy is far more than wanting what someone else has (that is mere covetousness). Envy is the joy we feel over the pain and suffering of others. I have written before of how deeply enmeshed the sin of envy is in what our culture describes as a desire for justice. Most complaints that something is not fair carries a large amount of envy. Envy is dark and brooding. The Scripture says that it was envy that crucified Christ. Christ also speaks of this when He says, “But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness” (Luk 11:34). The Greek here could just as well be translated “evil eye,” for that is precisely the nature of the “evil eye” – envy.
As average, mediocre Christians, we rarely engage in actual acts of harm. But our evil eye rejoices at the harm that befalls others – particularly famous people and political leaders with whom we disagree. It is, ultimately, the heart of murder.
To reveal such darkness within ourselves is the path towards contrition and a broken heart. The prayers of the Church teach us to say of ourselves that we are the “worst of sinners.” Of course, in a congregation, surrounded by other spiritual mediocrities, it is easy to say such things about ourselves. After all, everyone in the room is claiming the same thing!
Sin is not a legal issue. Forgiveness, the medicine for sin, has already been given by God. It is the hiddenness of our disease that makes healing difficult. And so we hear:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:9)