As the saying goes, “Confession is good for the soul but bad for the reputation.”
Have you ever wondered what Jesus thought about his reputation? Word around town alleged he was an illegitimate child, a glutton, traitor, blasphemer and drunkard who hung out with debauchees and was probably demon possessed. His unorthodox behaviour, controversial teachings and frequent association with questionable people only made it worse. It seems Jesus didn’t care about his reputation.
Jesus focused on character development. The way of Jesus is essentially about becoming the best possible version of ourselves, namely, one who loves God, self and others fully and freely, without judgment. Character development and reputation management are often at odds with one another. When we’re concerned about our reputations we make choices that make us look good rather than choices that help us grow.
Focusing on character development, rather than managing our reputations, is an important and difficult reprioritization in life. Interpersonal confession helps us make this shift, as it invites us to be honest about who we are. This is not something humans excel at.
A great deal of research reveals the person you’re worst at evaluating is you. We are prone to overestimating our abilities, gifts and attributes, such as intelligence, objectivity and generosity. For example, more than 90 percent of us perceive ourselves to be above-average drivers. This tendency to overestimate how wonderful we are is called “illusory superiority.” This issue is compounded by the fact that we work really hard to convince others that this inflated and unrealistic image of ourselves is who we actually are.
This problem has exploded exponentially in our social-media paradigm. We compulsively post things on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr that reinforce our personal brand or preferred self-image, because of our need to be viewed by others the way we think and feel about ourselves.
Life coach Tony Robbins says, “The strongest force in the human personality is the need to stay consistent with how we define ourselves.” It’s extremely difficult and painful to recognize, own and integrate the aspects of our lives that don’t fit with how we define ourselves. Most of us need help to face the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths about ourselves, and to allow God to shine a light into our shadows (the hidden, disavowed and unknown parts of our beings).
This is terrifying for most of us, and next to impossible to do on our own, because we have blinders preventing us from seeing the contradictory totality of our complicated selves. We need others to speak and mirror truth into our lives with love, grace and courage.
This is why the Christian practice of interpersonal confession is so important. It creates intentional space for us to be vulnerable and find the courage to face the various ways we fail to measure up to the best possible version of ourselves. It opens up our lives to others who can help us unveil the truth of who we are, enabling us to see aspects of our beings we routinely hide or are unable to see on our own.
I know from personal experience how profoundly and deeply healing it is to reveal one’s deepest, darkest secrets to someone you trust and respect, and to hear the person say, “You are forgiven. You are loved.”
Counsellors, therapists and spiritual directors have taken the role of our “confessors” today. This makes sense, as they are trained to guide us to self-realization while protecting us from falling into debilitating shame and self-loathing. Good “confessors” help us see that all our behaviour is rooted in our deepest desire to be fully known and fully loved. They help us integrate the root energy of our brokenness, weakness, fear, insecurity and anger by seeing these “negative” aspects of ourselves as manifestations of unintegrated positive attributes of our true self.
However, our “confessors” must be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually mature to help us guide our whole selves into the transformative light and grace of God. This full exposure to divine light is the only way to be set free from our compulsive tendency to preserve our unrealistic self-images and to accept who we are, liberated to fully manifest our true selves in daily life.
I believe interpersonal confession is something we need to rediscover how to do in our church communities in safe and healthy ways. God’s original design was for us to do this with one another rather than reserving the “confessor” role to professional counsellors, therapists and spiritual directors. However, confessing to a professional “confessor” is significantly better than ignoring this important spiritual practice altogether.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is still convinced he’s an above-average driver. This concludes a three-part series on confession, which began with “Confession as a personal spiritual practice" and “What ‘confessing your sins to one another’ isn’t.”
Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns by Troy Watson:
What 'confessing your sins to one another' isn't
Confession as a personal spiritual practice
Worship as an act of loving God
Sharing life with your tribe
The clarity of divine call