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)
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)
Both verses say the same thing. “Confess your sins,” is the equivalent of “walking in the light.” It is to leave behind the darkness of make-believe and secrecy. Confession, letting the light shine in the darkest parts of our lives, brings about the healing possibility of communion with others (and with God) in which the blood (life) of Jesus heals and cleanses us.
So, if forgiveness is not about a legal problem, then what is its purpose? This is another way of asking what is the nature of the human spiritual problem – what is sin?
Sin is death. That is the first simple way of stating our problem. But death is more than the mortality of our bodies. Death is also a correct way to describe the entire process of movement away from union with God. The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is the Lord and Giver of Life. He is the author of our Being, the Ground of all existence. As St. Paul states: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”
Thus movement away from God, away from communion, is a movement away from true existence, from true being and true life. It is to live in a manner in which things are falling apart, in decay and corruption. In moral terms, this process of death is manifest as those things popularly known as “sins.” But these are but the outward signs of an inward disease. This disease infects relationships and all human activity. It can be revealed even in the general artifacts of culture itself. The true life which is a gift of God also has a hallmark of beauty. There plenty of beautiful things to be found even in a sin-wracked culture, but often with strange perversions. Beauty begins to lose its transcendence, and instead of pointing beyond itself, it begins to collapse.
Even in material culture such as food and clothing, the process of death begins to degrade the true nature of everything. People begin to cook and eat for pleasure (or worse) without regard for substance. We dress for selfish effect and no longer for practical or honorable reasons.
Do we call a fat-filled, over-salted, over-sweetened cheeseburger a sin? Do we confess our Big Macs?
In and of itself, such an artifact is trivial, hardly worth the mention. But the failure to recognize what is going on in the world and our own role within it is significant indeed. We refuse to come into the light and share in making the world darker in every way. For many children born into the world, almost every path that stretches before them ends in darkness – not of their own making.
In our relationships with others this same forgiveness, this same play between light and dark, life and death are at work. Christ describes our forgiveness towards our enemies in terms that unite it to the life-giving kindness of God:
But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Mat 5:44-45)
Forgiveness is the word we give to the healing of this dark madness of death. It is light and resurrection. It is the destruction of death and the creation of life. It is the recreation of the human person according to the image and likeness of God.
There are manifestations of this healing. Just as death is the root of sin, so life is the root of righteousness and holiness. Kindness and generosity, self-sacrifice and love become not only possible but living realities. A proper regard for the self in relation to others as well as to God becomes increasingly normal. Joy and the ecstasy of existence itself become hallmarks of the inner life. A growing compassion for all existing things marks more and more of our thoughts. Beauty surrounds the work of this healing. Civilizations that have promoted this work of forgiveness have produced some of the greatest treasures of human history. Meaning and purpose focus on compassion and transcendence rather than mere utility and profitability.
The most telling artifact of sin is a rotting human body which spreads its contagion to everything around it. It must be disposed of and quarantined to protect the health of those around it. Similarly a telling artifact of forgiveness is the incorrupt body of a saint, which far from endangering the health of those around it, becomes a sought after and treasured relic precisely for its wonderworking and life-giving miracles, even raising the dead (2 Kings 13:21).
Forgiveness is nothing less than eternal life working in us. Thus when we come to receive the life-giving mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ we hear: “the servant of God, N., partakes the precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”
To be cleansed of sin is to be freed from death.
A good confession is one in which the heart is broken and contrite, in which the light of God is able to shine not only on the symptoms of sin, but on their root. With such compunction before God, the work of the Spirit bears great fruit. A life lived with such compunction is the stuff of which saints are made.