The concept of confession has fallen out of style in certain strands of Christianity. Some of this is more to do with church tradition: some decry it as "too Catholic," as if that's enough of a reason to avoid doing anything facing that charge. Others would rather the church experience, particularly on Sunday morning, focus more on what lifts people up and improves their sense of self-worth. Many have had negative--perhaps too mild a term--experiences with Christians who have weaponized this practice in some way.
Whether confession may be redeemed in the eyes of some is an open question. Nevertheless, we take time to understand what it means context-free, with the hope that it may be used faithfully rather than abusively.
To talk about confession, we should talk about sin. This word has plenty of baggage of its own. In its purest sense, we use the word "sin" to talk about thoughts and actions that go against what God has set out to accomplish for the world, or what God intended the world itself to accomplish as God's beloved creation. We may think about sin either in personal terms or social terms: actions such as murder, idolatry, and prejudice in all its forms are often committed by individuals. Just the same, they may also be committed by societal or cultural systems, as laws and governmental decisions give favor to certain groups over others or, alternatively, restrict the freedoms of some while privileging or expanding those of others.
We may use the word "sin" to give name to the grim nature of the offense. Proposed alternatives like "selfishness," "mistake," and "miscalculation" have their place, but sometimes we need a word that more pointedly describes the ugliness of what a person or system has done. Serious actions invite a serious descriptor, and "sin" does that just fine.
But not only is "sin" still a useful word, the practice of confession can be as well.
As Richard Foster notes in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, there are three necessary elements of confession (p. 151):
- An examination of conscience - From time to time, we may make it a point to intentionally step back and look at our actions and attitudes toward others and toward ourselves. What honors God and others, and what does not? What shows love to God's creation, and what demeans, dehumanizes, or exploits it?
- Sorrow - After realizing those pieces of ourselves that are destructive, it may be natural to fall into a time of despair over the harm we have caused. This is the precursor to the third point.
- A determination to avoid sin - After we have named and recognized the wrong we have done for what it is, we may take steps to turn away from those things and reorient our lives back toward what is productive, life-giving, loving, and God-honoring. This may include making amends for what has already happened, but also developing new habits more in line with how we are meant to live.
Often, confession needs a companion. We may do this work on our own, but the accountability and support of another often makes this easier. For Catholic believers, this may be one's priest. For others, it may be a spiritual director, pastor, or trusted friend who can help with this.
Here's a sample exercise for the practice of confession:
- Take time to think about actions of the past day or week, including important relationships. You may want to use the Examen as a tool. What in particular might you need to apologize for or make right? What actions that you have taken cause you sorrow?
- Approach a spiritual companion with these concerns, perhaps taking time to write down and organize your thoughts beforehand. Again, this may be a clergyperson, spiritual director, or friend. Share with them what you have done that you want to change. Open with prayer, and make clear the understanding that this conversation is confidential.
- Confer with your companion about possibilities going forward. How might you mend what is broken with others? How might you take steps to realign parts of your life with what God wants?
- Conclude in prayer and journal about your experience, including what you resolve to do next. Check in with your companion on a regular basis to keep yourself on task.