Agreeing with God’s Words
I missed that confession is not just a commandment, not just one of the “steps to salvation”—it is a means of God’s grace. The word confess, which means to assent or agree, is the English translation of the Greek compound word homologēo (homos, “the same,” and logos, “word”). When we practice confession, we use our words to agree with Gods words. God always speaks the truth, so in confession we must also speak the truth.
The Church Must Confess as Well
The church is never more in danger than when it sees itself simply as the solution-bearer and forgets that every day it too must say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and allow that confession to work its way into genuine humility even as it stands boldly before the world and its crazy empires.
The Confession Booth
In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller tells the story of his time as an evangelical Christian at the extremely liberal Reed College in Portland, Oregon. A part of the underlying theme of the book is how to be a follower of Jesus in post-modern, often post-Christian, 21st century America.
In one particularly poignant scene, the Christian group at Reed decides they want to take part in Reed’s renaissance festival known as Ren Fayre. Ren Fayre was an all-out bacchanalian celebration, with special lounges constructed with black lights and television screens to enhance students’ drug experiences.
This is the context for the confession booth:
Some of the Christians in our little group at Reed decided this event marked a good time to come out of the closet and let everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. We wondered what to do, because in the past, some students had expressed hostility toward Christians. I suggested we build a confession booth in the middle of campus, with a sign that said, “Confess your sins.” I meant it as a joke, but Tony thought it was brilliant.
“But here’s the catch,” he told our little group, “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving. We have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for the televangelists, and we will apologize for neglecting the poor and lonely. We will ask students to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus. We will tell people who come to our booth that Jesus loves them.”
We all sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit with a thud. We all thought it was a great idea.
Confession: Coming to the Edge of Our Graves
One of the movements in the rhythm of discipleship and sanctification is the movement of dying. The practice of confession is where the “dying” of conversion repeatedly occurs. We come as though to the edge of our own graves and renounce our old self and its habits and practices.
Yet that renunciation, as a preface to new life, requires knowing our sin. This is just how the tradition of the seven vices got started. The desert fathers’ classification of seven vices began as a Christian system of self-examination in the fourth century and continued to provide an almost ubiquitous rubric for confession in penitential manuals up until the fifteenth century—an endurance that testifies to their power as a spiritual tool for confession and repentance.
Confession Reminds Us
Confession reminds us that none of us gather for worship because we are “pretty good people.” But we are new people, people marked by grace in spite of ourselves because of the work of Christ. Our communal practice of confession reminds us that failure in the Christian life is the norm.
We—each and all—take part in gathered worship as unworthy people who, left on our own, deserve God’s condemnation. But we are not left on our own… Once a close friend visited my church, and she was concerned by this part of our service. She didn’t like that the priest pronounced absolution.
She asked, “Don’t we receive forgiveness from God, not a priest?” Why use a go-between? I told her that forgiveness is from God, and yet I still need to be told. I need to hear in a loud voice that I am forgiven and loved, a voice that is truer, louder, and more tangible than the accusing voices within and without that tell me I’m not.
Taken from Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, pp.57-58. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Confession to A Person?
Some years ago the Court of Appeal of British Columbia, Canada, was hearing a case about a man accused of arson. During his trial in a lower court a microphone had picked up something he had murmured under his breath – ‘O God, let me get away with it just this once.’ The judge of that court had ruled that this incriminating remark was not admissible as evidence, since it was not (in his view) a public utterance, but a private conversation between two persons – the accused and God.
The Appeal Court, however, now ruled against this judgement, on the grounds that ‘God is not a person’. When this story was reported in the Guardian newspaper, the reporter added his own twist to the verdict: he suggested that Christians should agree with the judgement of the Appeal Judges since they believe that ‘God is not one person but three’.
The Cost of Confession and Repentance
Genuine confession and repentance can be costly, as I have discovered in dealing with offenders. Take the case of the young man in the Washington area, deeply involved with his church and solidly converted to Christ, who came to visit one of our staff members several years ago. He had, he confessed, committed a murder in a drunken stupor many years earlier. He was never a suspect and had never been charged. But in his prayer time his sin greatly troubled him. He knew he was guilty in the eyes of the law. What should he do?
My associate counseled him that he had to follow his conscience; if he believed God was really telling him to turn himself in, he should do that. But he should also know God had forgiven him. In the weeks that followed, the man became increasingly convicted. He discussed it with his wife, also a believer, and both came to the conclusion, although it meant leaving the children, that he should turn himself in. He did, was charged, and sentenced to ten years in prison. Today this man is still serving his sentence in a Midwest prison, where he is one of the prison’s Christian leaders.
A few years ago, HBO released a gritty (surprise!) crime drama called True Detective. The show starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the two detectives responsible for catching a serial killer. Towards the end of the series, McConaughey’s character reveals his philosophy of human nature behind his detective work:
“Look-everybody know’s there’s something wrong with them. They just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially. And everybody’s guilty.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Relief of Getting Caught
Years ago, visiting one of the London prisons, I heard a statement made by one of the prisoners that impressed me very much. He said to me, ‘You do not know what a relief it is to be found out.’ We discussed the matter at some length because I wanted to understand and I wanted to see what he meant. What I discovered was that for years he had been aware that being a professional thief was not exactly what he had aimed at. He had a sense of honesty, of loyalty, of integrity, and yet this sense of integrity did not help him overcome his problem, because whenever he made an attempt at changing his life, everyone around him pricked up their ears.
On the one hand people said, ‘What nonsense! Are you going to join the opposite camp? Are you going to become an honest man with all the evils that means–becoming as hypocritical as those who exploit others, as untruthful, as conventional, as lacking in authenticity, as alien to your most natural impulses? And others began to look at him with suspicion. People who had never discovered in the past that he was a thief began to see changes in him and began to imagine that he might very well be one. And even those people with whom he had a quite natural, good, honest relationship began to treat him with circumspection and suspicion.
So every attempt he made to change his behaviour, and to allow other sides of his personality to take over, was nipped in the bud – on the one hand by the reactions of his own clan, his own gang, his normal surroundings, and on the other by the people he wished to join, but who became the more alien to him as he began to try to become more like them, because every change exposed more of his predicament.
One day he was caught. There was a very very great feeling of shame, of distress, and then a sense of liberation: ‘Now I have no need to hide who I am, or rather, who I was. There is no need to be hypocritical, to be what I am not. I can now become whatever I choose. I can either remain a thief, in which case there are ways in which I can behave well enough in prison to get out of it soon enough to go back to my job, having learnt a great deal from my fellow inmates – or else I can choose to change and start anew.
Our Need for Forgiveness: Our Search for Wholeness
The practice of confession in the context of a liturgy or in a private ecclesiastical setting has declined drastically over the past fifty years, and in particular since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Has the need for forgiveness diminished? Or have we forgotten that our search for wholeness begins with a contrite heart over past wrongs and the willingness to allow God to restore and guide us? I don’t think so.
The need for hearing the words spoken as if they were Christ’s is everyone’s need, and the need for restoration and correction, for a turning and a remembering of the ways of God is the basis of the church’s existence and ministry. Knit together as individual members of Christ’s body, we are both sinner and saint, broken and redeemed, aware that we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and can be renewed by the Spirit of forgiveness. This means that if we recognize and act upon our need for ongoing forgiveness and God’s grace we will be renewed, and so will the church as a whole.
A Short History of Repentance and Confession
The history of repentance is as old as humankind. We each carry the remembrance of wrongdoing in burdensome satchels, hoping that eventually someone will ease them off our back. We each know the feeling of self-reproach, self-criticism, and self-blame. And we each continue to enjoy the vast landscape of free will by doing what is wrong, harmful, and unjust, and by refusing to aim for what is good, life-giving, and fair. Repentance and confession release our high-piled debts and scrub clean a sullied conscience. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to express repentance means “to turn,” reflecting the notion of journeying and pilgrimage and an attitude and relationship between YHWH and ancient Israel that required constant vigilance and intentionality.
The Greek word used in the New Testament is metanoia, basically denoting a “change of mind,” with only subtle nuances of regret or remorse. When we repent we “turn” and “change our mind” about who we thought we were and the acceptability of what we have done. We recognize the difference between our ways and the ways God intended for us and find that we have drifted off course and out of line with the divine current. Confession, on the other hand, comes from a Latin word meaning “to agree” and “to give consent.” It describes an oral activity, a moment in time when we “agree” to the difference observed between what should have been and was not, due to our actions, when we verbally lay bare and make public our off-course dealings and doings.
The Silent Daily Anxiety
In his devotional guide on preparing for the rite of confession in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says that true repentance from the perspective of the Eternal One “is a silent daily anxiety.” When we abandon the practice, terror may seize us at unexpected moments and keep us frozen and stuck in our relationship with God. Kierkegaard illustrates what he means through the story of a man who had served a sentence in prison:
After he had suffered for his wrong acts he went back into ordinary society, improved. Then he went to a strange land, where he was not known, and where he became known for his worthy conduct. All was forgotten. Then one day there appeared a fugitive that recognized the distinguished person as his equal back in those miserable days. This was a terrifying memory to meet. A deathlike fear shook him each time this man passed.
Although silent, his memory shouted in a high voice until through the voice of this vile fugitive it took on words. Then suddenly despair seized this man, who seemed to have been saved. And it seized him just because repentance was forgotten, because the improvement toward society was not the resigning of himself to God, so that in the humility of repentance he might remember what he had been.
Annemarie S. Kidder, Making Confession, Hearing Confession A History of the Cure of Souls, Liturgical Press, 2010. Original Source Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), 45.
Taking Confession on an Airplane
Locked into captivity by an airplane seat, a kindly disposition of keeping a friend company, or a telephone connection, we become ex officio confessors to those with troubled consciences and traces, or bold footprints, of guilt. Confession seems to make us feel better, to lift burdens, to restore our self-confidence. I notice it when church members come to see me for pastoral counseling in my office.
Often I can tell that what they name as the reason for the appointment is something entirely different from the real cause: they need to admit to a failure of the past, a slip of their temper, a careless word or precipitous deed, even drug abuse, abortion, attempted suicide, or a resentment harbored for years. “I feel better now that I told you,” they say as they get up from the chair. “Thanks for listening and understanding.”
Yet, while I am grateful for their relief and appreciation of me as unofficial confessor, I cannot help but feel that something is missing: a biblical word of forgiveness and direction, a litany of repentance and absolution, an assurance on my part to pray for them that they may resist future temptation, and a verbal or visual pledge on their part not to slip again. Moreover, I find myself stretched in making a plausible connection between their act of confession and the biblical concept of repentance, of turning from the old ways and reconciling with God in Christ and the church so as to be born anew and made anew.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Confession of Sin. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!