It Has Been Too Long Since My Last Confession

At this point just about all Americans are aware of the rather unfortunate story of former General David Petraeus.  Highly decorated and revered, he recently resigned from his position as CIA Director after revealing he had an affair with his female biographer.  It is, among other things, a sad ending to a storied career.

While I’m not privy to all of the details involved, the picture we get is of a lonely and perhaps isolated man who in his time of need let another woman get too close.  His was a mistake, no doubt…and one far too many have made.

Rarely, I think, does someone wake up in the morning and say out of the blue, “Well, TODAY I’m going to cheat on my wife.”  The path from A to B normally runs a lot longer than that, with many stops along the way.  That’s the way it is with a lot of tragic decisions we make.  A slow degradation, never arrested or corrected, can result in serious compromise.  Would that there was something natural and regularly constituent to our lives that would bring these shadowy things into the light before they consume us.

When it comes to spiritual disciplines, I’ve long been a fan of confession.  It is something that I have made use of in my life; I encourage others to do the same.  It makes sense biblically (James 5:16), theologically, and practically.  Carrying our flaws and mistakes inside of us may seem brave in our heads, but is really rather dangerous.  Like cancer cells left untreated, they will eat us alive.  Confession, by contrast, is the beginning of the cure.  Bringing another person into the fold and laying down our burdens together with them is a powerful experience…and one I recommend.

I have a friend who is a part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and I’ve had some conversations with him about their practices of confession.  I envy him and my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for the structural feature that is available and regular confession.  For us Protestants who long ago threw out the baby with the bathwater, the logistics of confession can be tough.  Our individualizing of faith, while helpful in some areas, has nevertheless had some very detrimental effects in this area.

The truth is we don’t talk about our sins nearly enough, or at all.  At least not until it is too late.  And that’s a problem.

It has been a while since I’ve “confessed” as I used to, and I was just talking with my wife last night about how I feel I need a “confessor” in my life.  I think we all do.  Not necessarily a counselor or friend, but definitely a mature fellow believer who can hear our words and deeds, point us to the Scripture, and aid us in the process of working through the call of God on our lives.  Why?  Because we all falter, we all stumble, and we all need to know that we need not walk in that way alone.

I’m starting to feel that rumblings of a “confession” project within me: perhaps integrated into a course here at Northwest University, a personal experiment, personal research, and/or the design of something I’ve long wanted to do: a youth retreat weekend based entirely around the teaching and experience of confession.  Stay tuned in coming weeks for more.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts concerning your experiences with confession, suggestions for practical implementation, or suggestions about the best kind of confessor for someone like me (and many others): the ordained minister.

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12 comments on “It Has Been Too Long Since My Last Confession

  1. wcosnett says:

    I cannot remember from my experiences, so I must ask, do you have a time of confession during an Assemblies of God service?

    • No, not formally. There may be times when this happens, but it is infrequent. I had forgotten about the Presbyterian time of corporate confession. While a step in the right direction, this time of confession has seemed to me rather general and does not have the necessary immediacy of personal confession one to another that I’m thinking of here.

      • wcosnett says:

        My understanding of the protestant confession is that we are confessing sins to Christ, as opposed to one another. The corporate, communal prayer of confession is always followed by a silent, personal time of confession between you and God. This is concluded by the worship leader assuring the congregation that all sins confessed to Christ are indeed forgiven by Christ, which is not to be confused with the pastor forgiving the sins. I’m also not sure what I think about claiming that confessing your sins to Christ is not a personal confession.

        So the fundamental questions seems to be, to whom should we be confessing our sins, to Jesus, or to each other? I do think there is a place to talk about your shortcomings and regrets with other people, and this often takes place in the form of pastoral visits by clergy or deacons, or in programs like Stevens ministers or small group support, but I’m not sure I would term this “confession” in the theological sense since the people you are talking to have no authority to judge or forgive.

        I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m left with these questions. In a protestant context where clergy are seen as ordained to vocation and not status, what meaning does it have to confess sins to another person? How is “confessing” different from counseling, supporting, and holding fellow Christians accountable? Can anyone be a confessor, or are there certain qualities or qualifications someone should have?

        Afterward: It has occurred to be that there is value and a biblical basis in personally confessing and asking for forgiveness from individuals you have specifically wronged.

      • Will, biblically I would point to James 5:16 as evidence of confessing sins to one another. Perhaps I am quoting out of context?

        The Protestant idea of confession is “personal” in that Christ is a person…but I think I want to see more here. If it only happens in our heads between us and God, I don’t know if that is enough. God has gifted us with community–both Godself and each other–and we ought to make use of that. Perhaps we could call it a “Chalcedonian approach.”

        I suppose I’m tracking more with some of the experiences Jeremy has had. I’d like to talk to him more about his experience of confession in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

        I don’t believe, obviously, that ministers/pastors forgive sin…but I do think that if we had a person-to-person system of confession that was regular and, I think, different from counseling, we might just be more apt to use it…which is never a bad thing.

        How easy it is to overlook sin if we only confess to God or when we felt like it….how much more able we would be to process these things if it were a routine part of our spirituality.

      • Anna says:

        In my Lutheran congregation, as in my Presbyterian brother’s congregation, we offer corporate confession and words of absolution. We also have rites for individual confession, which are woefully under-utilized. What makes confession different from counseling, support, or accountability is the words of absolution from Christ himself. In these instances, the minister speaks the words of Jesus Christ through his or her own lips.

        I also find the office of the keys to be powerfully effective. When these words were given to me as a charge in my ordination and again in my installation, they left me terrified. (That is a lot of responsibility!) “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19) When one making confession asks, “How can I be sure that I am forgiven?” I can point to the promise that Christ himself gave to the church that it would be so.

        I’m interested in hearing how your thinking goes as you ponder what this means for protestants and for AG in particular.

      • Anna says:

        I’ll also say that I have offered individual absolutions (following a corporate time of confession) during Maundy Thursday worship, and people left the altar rail weeping to have had their pastor look them in the eyes and say, “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I declare all your sins forgiven.”

  2. Mary Jo says:

    Joshua,

    As a practicing Catholic, I can assure you the graces and wonder of partaking in the Sacrament of Reconciliation are bountiful. A non-Catholic friend of mine recently benefited after asking some of the same questions you pose. I would suggest you choose a priest in the Catholic Church, (like she did), you respect and go to confession. Simply tell him who you are, what you would like to do and why. There is a clearing of one’s conscious and preparation that should be done prior to your confession. A priest can supply you with the written materials that will aid you in this process and the follow up that ensues. There’s room at the table for all.

    I have found Confession to be an incredibly joyous and cleansing process that frees me to move on and guides my spiritual growth like no other. I used to be a lay youth retreat director with some religious. This was always the turning point in our three day retreats with high school students.

    It’s never too late to rescue the baby from the bathwater. You just have to dry her off and dress her as you see fit! If I can support you with further ideas, I would be glad to.

    • Mary Jo,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts and advice here. Would a Catholic priest really hear a Protestant confession? That’s encouraging. Ultimately, of course, I’d like to think about how confession can be a larger part of the whole Church.

      Along these lines, what websites or readings would you suggest for someone like me who wants to learn more about the theology and practice of confession?

      • Mary Jo says:

        Joshua, I too was somewhat surprised to how a priest would react to my non-Catholic friend’s request to go to Confession. She sat with him and told him the situation while I waited outside somewhat nervously. While I cannot speak for all Catholic priests, I just can tell you my friend did so and received a blessing from the priest afterwards. While the Sacrament of Communion is not open to all, a priest can listen and extend a blessing to anyone requesting it, I suppose.

        Regarding a website, I liked the presentation I found on http://www.fisheaters.com/penance
        Because I’m a cradle Catholic, I wasn’t quite sure what to refer you to at first. I found the above site by doing a Google search on The Sacrament of Penance and was surprised by the amount of information available.

        There is something very humbling about confessing to another human being out loud. Because it can be somewhat intimidating or even scary for many, Catholics have the option to confess sins face to face or to kneel down in a confessional and speak, but never have to see one another. A priest is not there to forgive or advise, but depending on the circumstance that may occur. We are required to say an Act of Contrition though and complete the penance the priest assigns.

        What is really unique is that one doesn’t have to have a warehouse of sins in order to take advantage of the graces available by receiving the sacrament. I never realized that until I was an adult and a friend of mine told me. I thought she was kidding, and sought out a priest to further explain the concept. Prior to that, I had thought of the confessional as a “sins only” sort of space.

        What is wonderful is that I have been able to appreciate those graces in my professional life which is involved in the criminal justice system. There I’m privileged to mediate and facilitate a conversation between victims and offenders of crime called Restorative Justice. The forgiveness and healing process that I am able to witness between the two parties is truly miraculous.

        It is wonderful you are seeking out ways to apply this biblical process in the whole Church. My goal is to further ways, both personally and professionally, where we as humans can all be restored and find our way back home. The world is in need of such healing and redemption is available to all.

      • Thanks for the information, Mary Jo!

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