(Read 1 John 1:5-2:2)
In late November, the news broke. Tiger Woods, the world’s favorite golfer and positive role model for people of all ages and races, was having an affair on his wife of more than 5 years, Elin. Over the next few weeks, Woods disgrace grew as he was linked to having affairs with more than a dozen women. Since that time, Woods has taken a leave from professional golfing; he has lost many endorsements, and his marital future is uncertain. Just this morning, I read headlines that Tiger was leaving the treatment center he was at for the past several weeks in Mississippi, where he was being treated for sex addiction.
One of the craziest things about this whole scandal to me is how long it was going on. Tiger kept up his charade, he hid his affairs for years. During that time, no matter what success he had in golf, no matter that his wife gave birth to their two children, everything Tiger experienced was tainted by his secret life. When people live their lives in lies and in hiding, they destroy their relationships, their families, their careers, and any hope they had to live a happy, healthy and peaceful existence. The same is true for those who live in denial of their problems, for those who pretend that everything is fine when, in reality, it is not. When people live in denial, what they are really doing is lying to themselves, to the people in their life, and to God. They also forfeit any chance of enduring happiness, health and peace for themselves and their family.
The opposite of lying, hiding and denial is to admit the truth. Admitting the truth can be very difficult and painful for us when we have to admit that we have done wrong, that we are not perfect, that we have failed, that we have sinned. For one, we have to be willing to give up what we are doing; we have to be willing to change. We also fear being judged and rejected by the people in our lives. But without truth and honesty, real love and belonging and acceptance cannot exist.
In Christianity, there are 12 traditional spiritual disciplines 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. Today, we will look at the practice of confession.
To hide, 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. It heals us. There is a saying: The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Confession is one of those things the church does to help us heal.
So, what is confession? Very simply put, confession is being honest about who you are, about what you think, say and do in relation to your sin and brokeness. 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.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori said that for a confession to be 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 determine those thoughts and behaviors that are out of line with the ways of God, that disobey God’s commands to promote love, peace and happiness for all people.
(7 deadly sins: . wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony_)
By sorrow, Saint Alphonsus means that we should feel some regret, some sadness for the trespasses that we have committed.
By determination to avoid sin, Saint Alphonsus means that we have to want to stop. To be determined, we have to really know that what we are doing, thinking or saying is destructive and unhealthy for us and others; we have to be convinced it’s the path that leads to death, and we have to choose life instead.
One of the reasons I’m preaching this sermon today is because Lent begins in less than two weeks, and a big part of Lent is self-examination and confession. If we really want to enter into the new life, the resurrected life that comes on Easter morning, we have to be willing to look at the paths that we are on which lead to death. Confession helps us to move from death to life.
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 the one body of Christ, admitting that collectively we have all gone astray. Our sin is not just an individual problem, it is a collective problem that penetrates all of creation.
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 another person. Of all the types of confession, I believe this is the most powerful, but it is also the most scary and difficult. 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.
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 payer 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. [In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins have been forgiven.] 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).
This testimony confirms several ideas about the power of confession:
One is how life affirming it is to admit our sins and weakness, to admit our shame and guilt, and then, to receive acceptance and love from another person. To experience that type of unconditional, merciful love is one of the deepest, most profound feelings you can have.
Second, confession is the first act of a larger process. Confession is meant to be responded to with forgiveness. We confess, and then, we receive forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Scripture says: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Forgiveness is followed by transformation. For the individual life, forgiveness is a second chance that leads to us changing our ways. In the example of Tiger Woods, hopefully he will stop having affairs.
For the communal life, forgiveness is the beginning of reconciling and healing relationships. Maybe Elin will forgive Tiger and they can rebuild their life together.
As those in the recovery community know, you cannot begin the process of healing until you have admitted there is a problem. So “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).