Confession: Uncovering Our Sins
Confession is painful. There is no way around it. People often tell me, as they come to confession, how hard it is for them. And even if they don’t say it is nevertheless apparent on their face, in their bearing, in their downturned eyes.
We come to confession bearing the load of our sins like a weight strapped to our back. I have often given instructions to children who are preparing for their first confession. When I do this I invariably tell them that we each have an invisible backpack that we carry and when we sin it is like taking a rock and putting it in the backpack. Some sins are smaller, of course, so they are small stones. Some, though, are bigger and weigh more than the others. The thing is, even a lot of small stones, gathered over time, weigh just as much as one big stone.
Our backpack of accumulated sins weighs us down. Even if we are not aware of our sins - even if we deny that we have sins - that doesn’t change the reality of the weight upon our back. And this weight causes us pain in the form of grief, shame, anger, sadness, and a host of other troubles. It burdens our lives, those with whom we live, and even the whole world.
When we come to confession we are given a wonderful, if painful, opportunity, for we are given the opportunity to unpack our backpack. We take each stone out, one by one, the big and the small, and we hold it up to God and we say, “This is my sin.” We name the sin - anger, lust, envy, jealousy, hatred, despondency, pride - and we identify that sin as my sin. Not my parents’ sin or my spouses’ sin, but my sin.
This uncovering of our sin in confession is essential to our healing. Sin is like a wound. If we get cut by a dirty nail, for example, and cover the wound it will only fester and get worse as the infection sets in. When we uncover the wound, however, and expose it to the Good Physician, he can begin the healing process, like the Good Samaritan pouring in oil and wine to cleanse and sterilize it. Essential to this uncovering, from our side, is the naming of the sin and the owning of it as ours. From God’s side comes the forgiveness and the healing or, to use the backpack analogy, the taking of our stones and casting them into the abyss.
A couple of practical matters. First, for better or worse, we live after Freud. And that means we inhabit an age which is saturated and immersed in psychological models. It is necessary for us, though, when we come to confession, to name our sins and identify them as such. All too often we come to confession with our “problems” and treat confession as an opportunity to have a chat with the priest about these problems. This psychological approach, however, is, for the most part, out of place in confession. We are not there primarily to get advice about or problems (there are other times for that). We are there to uncover our sins before the physician. Bringing our “problems” to God in confession is a subtle way of evading the real problem which is precisely our sin.
A second matter, related to the first, is the need for us to confess all of the sins that we remember in confession. Too often, when we approach confession as talking about our problems, we decide beforehand which one or two problems we are going to talk with the priest about. At the end of a confession I will almost always ask the penitent, “Do you have any other sins to confess?” Too many times the reply is, ”That’s all I have right now.” This doesn’t mean, I am afraid, “That’s all the sins I can remember. ”Rather, it seems to mean, “That’s all I want to talk about.” But a good and saving confession uncovers all of the sins that we can remember and of the rest it says, “I have many sins that I cannot remember but I am not intentionally hiding any sins and I am truly sorry for all of them - known and unknown - and humbly repent.”
In closing, we should realize that confession, painful though it be, is a great gift of God to rouse us from our delusion and self-deception. How much joy is ours if, rather than deceiving ourselves, we can simply and without guile confess our sins to God.
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
Tell everything to your spiritual father, and the Lord will have mercy on you and you will escape delusion.
+St Silouan the Athonite
The Holy Spirit acts mystically through the spiritual father, and then when you go out from your spiritual father, the soul feels her renewal. But if you leave your spiritual father in a state of confusion, this means that you did not confess purely and did not forgive your brother all of his sinsfrom your heart.
+St Silouan the Athonite
Whoever hates his sins will stop sinning; and whoever confesses them will receive remission. A man can not abandon the habit of sin if he does not first gain enmity toward sin, nor can he receive remission of sin without confession of sin. For the confession of sin is the cause of true humility.
+St Isaac the Syrian
We should not return to the sins that we have already confessed. Remembrance of past sins creates bad things for us. Have we already asked for forgiveness? It is finished. God forgives all things through confession. If I think that I have sinned, that I am not functioning well then I will pray about it. I do not close it up inside of me. I go to my father confessor. I confess it. It is finished. The important thing about confession is what we are going to do with the rest of our lives.
+St Porphyrios of Kavsokalivia