An Evangelical’s Guide To Confession
I’ve had confession all wrong. I grew up in a tradition where confession was barely talked about because confession had more to do with our conversion than an ongoing practice. We certainly talked about sin and it’s consequences but never talked about how we actually confessed sins. Instead, I remember being told to ask Jesus for forgiveness when I did something “bad” and He would forgive me for my sins. Just a few minutes down the road, however, was the town’s main Catholic church. I remember judging my catholic brothers and sisters about their tradition of confessing their sins to a priest. In my high and mighty evangelicalness, I would claim that I have full access to God and that I don’t need a priest to confess my sins; As if Catholics don’t believe that they have access to God. My tradition felt like it trumped this tradition and I was the one that got it right.
Almost 20 years later, I find myself whistling a different tune. I have come to know and even love the traditions of other faith communities around me. The Church, and I mean the Universal Church, is beautifully diverse and we can learn a lot from each other. However, much of the time we judge these various traditions too harshly forgetting that we are all sitting at the same table of God, trying our best to follow Jesus. The funny thing about judging others is that we stop examining our own hearts. I think there might be a scripture about that… Over the past few years, I have found myself drawn more and more to practices around self-examination. It has been, well, quite revealing and I realize now that all those years of flaunting my full access to God, I wasn’t actually doing any real confession myself.
I have a good friend who has recently been confirmed in Catholicism. She grew up in the charismatic, evangelical tradition and feels deeply enriched by this new tradition she now follows as a new Catholic. Here’s what she shared with me about confession.
It’s a multi-faceted process, which I normally have to talk myself through. Not unlike going in for an uncomfortable medical procedure. First, I go because it’s prescribed by the Church and an objective reality that everyone must repent; I’m not special. Those are the two things that throw water on my fiery objections of not wanting to go. Second, I do an examination of conscience and write down what I need to confess. This helps me to be concise when I’m there, and not forget things. (After I go, I rip the paper up). The things on this list may be bothering me, or maybe not. If I feel justified in sinning, I know there’s a deeper problem there. I can discuss that with the priest. At this point, preparing to go, I go through a lot of mental battles about it. Sometimes it takes me days to get the courage up to actually go. During this time I decide whether I want to go to a screened confession at a church I don’t normally attend, or if I want to have a face-to-face with my confessor. There are benefits to both kinds, and both are valid. I feel a lot of spiritual battling happens before a confession.
I’m a new Catholic, so I’ve only been about 8 times, but every time I’ve been surprised by the merciful and compassionate counsel of the priest- even though they’ve been different ages, from different countries. Confessing behind a screen really helps me focus on Jesus. It’s not about the priest and I feel my boundaries are safe. It’s remarkably cathartic. When I leave I’m usually smiling and I normally forget what I said. The things I’d built up to be so difficult to say just sort of evaporate. Hearing I’m forgiven- for anything- is just delightful. This has helped me with so many relationships. It’s also kept me from bad behavior; I think ‘do I really want to have to confess this?’. Lastly, I’m very blessed by the priest’s faithfulness in being a conduit of mercy.
I thanked her and told her how much I love what she is learning.
I’m glad you’re blessed! I’m aware of how cringe-inducing this sounds to evangelical ears.
And she is right for many still today. This kind of tradition is hard for evangelicals to accept as anything other than “unbiblical” but instead of judging perhaps, we could learn something edifying and helpful for our own spiritual walk with God. We may not have a confessional booth to enter to confess and receive a verbal invitation of forgiveness but we do have, as all believers have, the Holy Spirit and the community of God available to us.
If We Confess Our Sins
To be clear, confession isn’t a tradition it’s a command. This isn’t optional for us. If we confess Jesus as Lord, we are also to confess our sins and to also confess them to one another.
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Proverbs 28:13
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:16
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Timothy 6:12
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
Confession by definition is coming into agreement about what is true, both the good and the bad. If we confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior, we are agreeing with God that this is indeed the true. When we confess our sins, we are agreeing that we have indeed sinned against God and man. This is tremendously uncomfortable and makes us want to hide. Just as my friend talked about the spiritual battle she faces before confession, we all have a tendency to hide and not be honest about where we messed up. We certainly don’t want to make a list of our sins! This is so very different from the evangelical tradition which has many of us not experiencing our sin to this extent. We certainly feel the weight of our sin at times especially when there are actual consequences. We all have the Holy Spirit as well that will bring our sins into the light for us to deal with. But consequences and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are not intentional practices that require our time and attention. Though none of us can escape sin, some sins are just easily hidden away and not be properly dealt with. The benefit of any spiritual practice is to develop, with intention, the fruits of the spirit and to grow in a deeper relationship to God. I believe we are missing out on the benefits of engaging practices of self examination such as confession.
A Quick Note About Verbal Confession
Evangelicalism has for the most part, placed confession in the area of prayer and has left out the community of God. We may seek counsel from our pastors and elders when our life goes south but much of the time, this is due to sin that has been built up over time. We also have tried to create small groups of 2 or 3 people called “Accountability Groups” or “DNA”, these are definitely getting closer but we still haven’t been taught the importance of confessing sin to one another. Instead, these groups end up becoming a litany of prayer requests. We love the verse “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Yet when we read that passage in context, we get a fuller picture:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10
I’m going to greek-out here for a moment. I bolded the terms “say” and “confess” to emphasize that a verbal action is taking place. The word for “say” in the greek basically means to bring a word and the word for “confession” means I publicly declare or agree. These are not silent prayers spoken in our quiet times with God, they can be of course, but confession is primarily a spoken agreement.
Confession for the Evangelical
Confession begins with a posture of acknowledging our sins. Just as my friend spends time before confession writing down hers, we ought to take time for ourselves each week to truly examine our hearts before the Lord. As a good first step for the evangelical, try using some physical actions that get our hearts attentions. Writing out a physical list like my friend or take a posture of kneeling while confessing. Kneeling in confession is a long-standing posture that puts us in a state of humility. Notice what happens in your heart when you decide to leave the coziness of your chair and cup of coffee to kneeling uncomfortably on your hardwood floor. I would encourage you to speak your confession out loud and perhaps even use a page from the Book of Common Prayer to help guide you.
After such a posture has been taken, I would encourage you to phone a trusted friend and verbally ask if they would be willing to hear you simply process your time confessing to the Lord. I am sure the conversation will veer in different directions but the “one another” part of confession isn’t optional either. This may be terribly informal compared to a screened session with a priest but we can still experience the conduits of God’s grace He graciously gives to us through His Church. We can be this for one another. We can confess to one another. We can pronounce forgiveness over each other and we too can walk away from our time of confession, feeling free and forgiven.
If you are willing to try participating in creating a new practice of confession, I would suggest for you to pick a time and day of the week you would like to do this. My church community follows a Lectio Divina journal and every Saturday we do the Examen prayer. This would be a good time for me personally. Whatever you decide to do, schedule it into your week. Engaging in any of the spiritual practices requires our time and attention, so be intentional about making time for it in your week. Keep in mind however that unlike the other spiritual practices, confessing our sins isn’t just a spiritual practice, it’s a command.
A Different Kind of Community
God has given us each other for many reasons. The body of Christ is available to us for such things as spiritual friendship, encouragement, teaching and healing. The body of Christ is also the vehicle of the Gospel that is commissioned to make disciples in Jesus’ name. This body of Christ is so beautiful in our desire to love and heal the world of sin and pain but we often want to cover up the ugly parts and present a utopian version of the Kingdom. Well, the world isn’t buying it and we shouldn’t either. We screw up, make mistakes, lie, and cheat, you name it, our sins are plentiful. I believe that if we spent more time confessing our mistakes and walking in forgiveness then we would in prettying ourselves up to attract the next generation, the world would see a very different community of people. A community of the broken people embracing broken people.
My prayer for the Church, the whole Church, is that we would all learn a posture of confession, not just in our confessional booths or prayer closets but in our ability to say out loud to another person “I was wrong.” as part of a universal command. Not only that, I pray that we would become more confident in confessing Jesus as Lord in all areas of our life out loud. And that and our faith would leave the comfort of our homes and churches, and begin to walk the streets of our neighborhoods and cities.
2 thoughts on “An Evangelical’s Guide To Confession”
Thank you. I am a Canadian Anglican (the American version would be Episcopalian) priest. I am currently writing a paper suggesting that the role of confessor be re-created in the evangelical church. The confessor’s role would combine spiritual direction with discernment of the spiritual journey and some psychological awareness and skills. In this case, people would not so much confess in the traditional sense of presenting a laundry list of sins, but really answer the question “Where am I with God?” Of course, this would include acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but also acknowledgement of lostness, of insecurities, of addictions and other issues. It would also be a way to see how God has been with you all along. It would, in fact, be similar to the Examen you are speaking about, but shared with a confidential listener who would also guide the confessant in the next steps on their spiritual journey.
You point out that the evangelical tradition is taking steps in the direction of confession, but is not there yet. I think that the day is not far off when this will become, once again, a regular part of the church writ large.
Hi Kent, those you so much for your reply! I am excited about your work in bringing back this tradition into the evangelical community. I do believe that with greater introduction into spiritual direction, we will begin to see confession as an ongoing practice as well!