“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
If we thought giving ourselves to The Lord and His Church was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, try honest confession! Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I never quite understood the Sacrament of Penance until I faced a priest who didn’t do the private curtain thing. I had to look him in the eyes! Those eyes, however, were looking deeply into a tarnished soul with compassion and pity. I was talking to a friend who seemed to understand not my individual sins but my spiritual struggle with finding a deeper connection that had long escaped me. By his wisdom and gentle counsel, he helped me to further understand why the Sacrament is now referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation – because that is what was happening. The priest, by his faithfulness, was leading me back into relationship by helping me to break free from the chains which previously had me bound. I could not live into my full, God-given potential because I was separated from Him by my own acts and my own neglect.
Protestants don’t do formal confession as our Catholic brothers and sisters do; and, frankly, more is the pity. The preferred method is a general “forgive my many sins”, or something along those lines without actually naming our sins. And why not? There is no one sitting with us challenging us to look deeper and be more open and honest. I don’t think the priestly thing is as much about a heavenly “proxy” more than it is about a gentle shepherd leading us to the “rivers of living water” we so desperately need. Yet if we leave even one transgression unspoken (and we may believe it too terrible to speak aloud!), our hands may be freed from the shackles but our legs are still bound. Something is still holding us back from the banks of the “rivers”.
Our Jewish friends take it a step further. In the week preceding the Passover, such contemplation is encouraged for this reason: if one becomes aware of someone harmed in any way by one’s own hand, it becomes necessary to go make restitution and/or peace. We must, as Jesus taught, make peace with our neighbor, our friend, even our enemy before we can offer our gifts to The Lord (Matthew 5:23-24). It isn’t a Jewish thing or a Christian thing; it is the righteous thing spoken of by Messiah Himself of coming directly from the Mouth of The Lord. In the Passover, one cannot be forgiven by The Lord if one is not truly repentant. Not just saying “I’m sorry” but doing the hard work of making it right.
St. John does seem to speak of going directly to The Lord and seeking forgiveness, but Jesus teaches there is something which must first be done before we can even be “purified”. We have to right our wrongs. I know this isn’t the popular choice, but let’s face it: being faithful to The Lord is not such a crowd-pleasing choice because our God, our heavenly Father, expects us to take responsibility for our own actions and fix what we broke – including relationships.
We need only to watch the circus which is the presidential contest to see that what ails us most are the many broken relationships we are too proud to mend – not “them”. US! The constant finger-pointing and name-calling even from those who call themselves “Christian” is evidence enough of what is really wrong in this country. Within the Church, men and women are leaving so much in tatters because of broken relationships, broken trust, broken hearts – and many (maybe most) are too proud to admit their own part, too proud to confess it, and/or too self-righteous to admit it.
Wisdom must also play a role as well because it is quite possible to do more harm than good by being completely honest – especially if our intentions are less than noble in being “completely honest”, when we just want to find fault in others - but reconciliation is still possible. St. James encourages the Church as a body, as a congregation to reach out within themselves, but this same Body must be of such a nature as to be open and encouraging (and discreet with confessions!) enough to lift up those among us who are still struggling with their own chains. They don’t need lectures, and they certainly don’t need us discussing their failures over coffee with others! They need help. They need friendship. They certainly need accountability, but they need compassion as well.
We must be afraid enough of our sins to respect the raw power of sin. We must not diminish the power of sin by brushing it off like so much dandruff without first being honest with what is causing the “dandruff”, facing it, and dealing with it. This is the heart of honest confession; but this confession cannot come until we are first willing to be honest with ourselves and with one another.
Forget the platitudes and the bumper sticker slogans and the memorized verses that “prove” we are forgiven without effort, without struggle, without honesty, without real repentance. Remember The Lord. In doing this, we will be reminded He not only wants what is best for us; He also wants what is best for those we’ve harmed.
The Lord is great, is He not?