Monday, November 3, 2008

The Spiritual Practice of Confession

(Read 1 John 1:5-2:2)

Denial is the opposite of confession. Human beings use denial as a defense mechanism against trauma, pain and vulnerability. In the worst of circumstances, denial is necessary for survival. By denying horrific realities, people are able to endure situations which otherwise might destroy them mentally, emotionally, spiritually or physically. An example of denial used for survival could be a person who is living in a war zone. By denying the danger that continually exists around them, these people are able to continue on with daily life in a somewhat normal manner. Another example of denial used for survival could be a child who is abused from a young age. By disassociating themselves from the abuse they are suffering, they too are able to continue on with daily life in a somewhat normal manner, even though in both cases, reality is anything but normal or safe.

Denial in traumatic situations may be a survival tool to keep on living, but for many of us who are not in such dire circumstances, denial becomes a distorted way of perceiving reality that ultimately inhibits our ability to live full and rich lives with one another and God. At every age, people find themselves unwilling to admit certain realities in their lives. Instead of admitting our problems, we deny, refuse or hide what is actually going on in our lives. We mistakenly think we are protecting ourselves and those around us, but the truth is, all we are doing is bringing darkness and deception into our lives. Some examples of denial that are unhealthy are: pretending a relationship is fine, when in truth, something is wrong; pretending we are happy and satisfied, when in truth, we are unhappy and unsatisfied; pretending we are in control, when in truth, we are enslaved to something that is hurting us.

It is difficult to admit when we are weak or suffering or acting destructively; it is also difficult to admit when someone we know and love is weak or suffering or acting destructively. We are all terrified to reveal our failures, shortcomings, sins. In essence, we are terrified of being vulnerable when being vulnerable means that we are not perfect. But remember, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. When we try to pretend that we are perfect, that we are fine, that there is no sin in us, we lie. As the Scripture says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1: 10).

To lie and deny is to walk in the darkness, and walking in the darkness leads to death. As children of God, we are not meant to walk in darkness, but we are called to walk in the light, to live in the light. This is where confession can help us. Confession brings us into the light.

In Christianity, there are 12 spiritual disciplines, which are extensively written on, that are practices we can do to get closer to God and to one another. These disciplines or practices help us to become children of light. They help to make us holy and perfect us in love. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission and service. The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Each Sunday in November, we will examine a different discipline. Today, we will look at the practice of confession.

One reason for this is that confession is always recommended before taking Holy Communion. In Communion, we are united with God, and it is only fitting that before we come to that beautiful place of communing, we open ourselves-the good and the bad-to God. When we offer ourselves to God by confessing our sins, Jesus who is faithful and just, and who gave his life for us to save us from sin, forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. And then when we meet God in the Lord’s Supper, there is nothing that stands between us. Only mercy and grace and love surround us.

So, what is confession? Very simply put, confession is being honest about who you are, about what you think, say and do. The most basic prayer of confession says, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Confession requires self-examination so that we may acknowledge the truth about our selves, our lives, and our relationships.

St. Alphonsus Liguori writes, “For a good confession three things are necessary, an examination of conscience, sorrow and a determination to avoid sin” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. Pg. 151.)

By an examination of conscience, Saint Alphonsus means that we should search ourselves to find those things and places that are out of touch with the ways of God, that disobey God’s commands to be loving and show mercy. To acknowledge when we are slaves to sins such as greed, pride, wrath, sloth, gluttony, etc. To admit when we have hurt ourselves or someone else by what we have thought, said or done.

By sorrow, Saint Alphonsus means that we should feel some regret, some sadness for the trespasses that have transpired.

By determination to avoid sin, Saint Alphonsus means that we should want to stop, that we should really try to avoid thinking or saying or doing it again.

Confession can happen in at least 3 different ways:

First, there is the corporate act of confessing in Christian community. This is what we do most Sunday mornings when we say a somewhat general prayer of confession together. The prayer is intentionally general so that we can all relate to it in some way, but the important thing is that we come together as one body of Christ, admitting that collectively we have all gone astray.

Second, there is the private act of confessing to God alone. This happens in our moment of silence after the corporate prayer of confession, and also, this is probably what you most often do in your personal prayer time. You come before God in all honesty, and specifically admit your sins and weaknesses.

A third type of confession is an inter-relational act of confessing to a trusted friend. Of all the types of confession, I believe this is the most powerful. For one, it’s specific. One confesses what is truly one’s very own sin. And second, we bring to the light and to true flesh and blood what is weighing us down. This is not easy. Often, we feel so ashamed of ourselves, and we fear others will judge us. But this is also why it is so freeing. Once you confess, and the person you confess to does not reject you, but forgives and embraces you in the name of God, it is like a great weight being lifted off of your shoulders.

All three types of confession are good and necessary, especially the third kind, which many of us are hesitant to do because it makes us so vulnerable and brings your once dark secrets into the light of day.

Listen to this testimony by Richard Foster, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. He writes about an experience he had when pastoring his first church:

“I longed for more power to do the work of God. I felt inadequate to deal with many of the desperate needs that confronted me. There had to be more spiritual resources than I was experiencing. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘is there more you want to bring into my life? I want to be conquered and ruled by you. If there is anything blocking the flow of your power, reveal it to me.’ He did. Not by an audible voice or even through any human voice, but simply by a growing impression that perhaps something in my past was impeding the flow of his life. So I devised a plan. I divided my life into three periods: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. On the first day I came before God in prayer and meditation, pencil and paper in hand. Inviting him to reveal to me anything during my childhood that needed either forgiveness or healing or both, I waiting in absolute silence for some ten minutes. Anything about my childhood that surfaced to my conscious mind, I wrote down. I made no attempt to analyze the items or put any value judgment on them. My assurance was that God would reveal anything that needed his healing touch. Having finished, I put the pencil and paper down for the day. The next day I went through the same exercise for my adolescent years, and the third day for my adult years.

Paper in hand, I then went to a dear brother in Christ. I had made arrangements with him a week ahead so he understood the purpose of our meeting. Slowly, sometimes painfully, I read my sheet, adding only those comments necessary to make my sin clear. When I had finished, I began to return the paper to my briefcase. Wisely, my counselor/confessor gently stopped my hand and took the sheet of paper. Without a word he took a wastebasket, and, as I watched, he tore the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces and dropped them into it. That powerful, nonverbal expression of forgiveness was followed by a simple absolution. My sins, I knew, were as far away as the east is from the west.

Next, my friend, with the laying on of hands, prayed a prayer of healing for all he sorrows and hurts of the past. The power of that prayer lives with me today” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 149-50).

There is so much truth and beauty to this testimony that Foster gives us. First of all, choosing a worthy person to confess to is important. I highly recommend confessing to an actual person about your specific sins and brokenness, and if you do, pick someone capable and worthy of the task. That person should also be convicted of their own sins and brokenness, and understand that it is in Jesus’ name that they are offering forgiveness to you.

Which brings us to the second important lesson we can learn from Foster’s witness. Confession is always followed by forgiveness. Confession is the first act of a two-step process. We confess, and then, we receive forgiveness, always and only because of Jesus. Jesus gave up his glory in heaven to walk as a person upon this earth. He gave his whole life for us so that we would understand just how much God loves us. We are redeemed, no matter how great our sin, because of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us.

The truly transformative part of confession is not our confession at all. Yes, self-examination and admitting our mistakes is important for our self-awareness, so that we will not make those same mistakes again. “Self-examination allows us to become people who are at peace with ourselves, and who can therefore make peace with others” (Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast. Pg. 99), but the true power that we receive in confession comes not from our understanding, but from God’s forgiveness.

“Confession might begin in sorrow, but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 153).

We grow more truthful, more compassionate, and are freed from the very sins that have been holding us in their grip for so long.

The third and last lesson for today that we can learn from Foster’s testimony is that confession does not end even with forgiveness, but comes full circle in our healing. They prayed for healing at the end of Foster’s confession, and Foster felt power from that prayer that set him free from his past sins.

We exist in the valley of darkness until we confess. Upon airing our dirty laundry and opening up honestly to God and neighbor alike, we find ourselves once again in the light. Light pours into our souls when we stop hiding. And in the light, God is free to forgive us and heal us so that we might become changed people, better people, new people.

Thanks be to God who listens to us, forgives us, and heals us because of our Lord Jesus Christ.