As a recent Catholic convert, I’ve been thinking a lot about confession lately. It has been almost a year since being confirmed at St. Peter’s in Columbia, SC, and Catholic faithful “go to confession” at least once per year. I did it just prior to the confirmation, dumping on the priest a bunch of shameful stuff I have done over the decades, and that was about a year ago.
Of course all Christians believe in confession. How could we do otherwise, given 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” For most of my life I understood confessing my sins to mean simply bowing my head in prayer and saying something like, “I did _______, and I am sorry. Please forgive me.” I’m not going to even suggest that God never heard or honored those confessions, but there is some challenging scripture that seems to suggest a bit more complexity about confession.
There is that instruction in James 5:16 – “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” There is often an interesting connection between healing and forgiveness in the New Testament. So, it became reasonable to me that we need to say those confessions out loud and within hearing distance of somebody else. And maybe we also need to pray for each other about those things confessed. But I don’t really know if this is a command or a law or just a bit of “fatherly” advice offered by James to his readers.
And there is the “Our Father” in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” additional evidence of the importance of person to person interaction as a part of confession, and indication that we should not only let others hear our confession but that we should hear theirs and forgive them as well. It is not clear to me whether that “as” means “while” or “in the same way” or “to the same extent?” In the Matthew version of the “Our Father,” Jesus offers some additional explanation in Matthew 6:14-15 - “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” There is no emphasis on confession here, or even any request for forgiveness, but I suppose they are assumed. I believe that “trespass” is a synonym for “sin.”
Finally, there are those instances in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23 in which Jesus gives Peter and the Disciples authority to forgive sins. I guess that, before becoming Catholic, I always just assumed that meant we all have some limited authority to forgive sins, and we do, of course, or would not have been instructed to do so, but I’m thinking this authority he gave them, the so-called Office of the Keys, is a bit different. Even if so, I might have once argued that it applied only to those who received the authority directly from Jesus. But now that doesn’t make sense to me. I have come to believe that Jesus founded His church and left somebody in charge with the authority and responsibility to hear confessions and forgive sins and teach and interpret and perform other specific duties and to ordain successors and that that authority and responsibility continue today.
So, I am getting ready, and of course a big part of the confession process is the time spent praying and reflecting on one’s own life with the objective of determining what needs to be confessed. Overt and undeniable sins of commission, lying, adultery, theft, etc., would come to the top of the list. Hopefully, I don’t have many of those, but I have to be concerned also about the more subtle failures, the places I have fallen short, the things I ought to have done but didn’t. And it is easy, especially in a hedonistic culture that encourages self-esteem, to deceive myself, to convince myself I am a pretty good guy. In Leviticus 11:45, God tells the people, “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” and Peter quotes and repeats that charge to the early Church in 1 Peter 1:16. The gap between that and where I find myself is pretty wide. Thank God for the opportunity for confession, for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for penance, and for continuing conversion.