This Lenten season I find myself reflecting on the spiritual discipline of confession. What does a healthy practice of confession look like both individually and collectively?
Confession played a huge part in my childhood faith. I was taught that you couldn’t pray or be right with God if you had unconfessed sin in your life, so I spent the majority of my prayer time confessing my sins. I would name every sin I committed each day to God, starting by listing my sins of commission (things I did but shouldn’t have done) followed by sins of omission (things I didn’t do but should have done). I then asked God to forgive all the sinful things I’d done and forgotten about or didn’t know were sins. I concluded with a desperate plea for God to cleanse me from any other iniquity, transgression, impurity or trespass God might still be holding against me.
As a child, I confessed as if my eternal soul depended on it. This intensity only increased once I hit puberty. I had been taught that God only forgives a genuinely contrite heart. This meant God would only forgive me if I demonstrated enough remorse and sorrow for sinning. If I didn’t feel bad enough, for long enough, there was no forgiveness. Confession without appropriate penance was inadequate and rejected by God. In essence, I believed God granted forgiveness in equal measure to the quality of my confession. This was heresy, of course.
Divine forgiveness is not dependent on how we confess. God forgives because it is God’s nature to forgive, not because we enter a rare forgivable state after an impressive confession session. God forgives us because God is good, compassionate, merciful and gracious, not because we are sorry, scared or sorrowful. God doesn’t need us to grovel for forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is freely and fully given. Always.
When you don’t feel or sense God’s forgiveness, it isn’t that God is withholding forgiveness until you become sufficiently penitent. It is most likely your beliefs about God’s forgiveness that prevent you from experiencing God’s unconditional love and acceptance. God’s forgiveness is like a river that flows into the world. You don’t need to beg God or feel bad for the river to flow. The river is already flowing. All you need to do is step into the river. Confession is stepping into that river and letting it cleanse you.
We step into the river of God’s forgiveness by being aware of, and responsive to, God’s presence in our lives. Confession is essentially returning to the awareness that God’s Spirit is right here, right now. As you become present with Divine Spirit, freedom and forgiveness are instantaneously yours. Freedom is your reality when you’re in the Spirit. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17).
However, it is still important to acknowledge your selfish and hurtful deeds with God. This aspect of confession is essential not because God needs us to do this in order to forgive us. It’s essential because this is how we consciously experience and psychologically accept the truth that we are forgiven. Confession is not for God’s benefit, it’s for ours. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for my moral and ethical failures enables me to consciously experience the forgiveness and freedom of God and move forward with dignity, liberated from the soul-crushing shackles of guilt and shame.
The practice of confession has three primary purposes:
1. To take responsibility for our actions, attitudes and words.
2. To be set free from the shame, unworthiness and indebtedness that accumulate whenever we make foolish, selfish and harmful choices,
3. To open our lives to the healing presence of God and invite God’s transformative power into our acknowledged areas of imperfection, struggle and weakness.
I’ve learned that confession isn’t about convincing God to forgive me. It’s letting God shine a light on everything that hinders me from becoming the person God created me to be, the person I truly want to be. Confession is focused on my present and future, more than my past. It’s a conscious reconnection with God that inspires and motivates me to set my standards higher as it stokes the desire to become the best version of myself possible, trusting that God will complete the good work God started in me. For me, that is the value and importance of personal confession.
So what role does communal confession have in our lives? That will be the subject of my next column.
Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.