There’s no getting around it. Confession is hard.
The word evokes images of dark booths and dour priests, uncomfortable recollections of your weirdest peccadillos and terror at voicing your vilest sins. Maybe you even had to confess sin before your entire youth group or Church. Maybe you’ve even been shamed, controlled or manipulated using confession.
And, of course, that’s the reason most of us would rather substitute a forced march over hot coals or a Sunday nap on a bed of nails for true honesty with our Christian sister or brother: Confession is embarrassing. Confession can hurt. Confession can and has even been used for evil.
If you’re Protestant, you may also have got the idea that confession is just for Catholics, that it’s always done in a booth, and that the priest—kind but nail-bitingly meticulous—only absolves you after dragging out of you horrible, malicious little deeds you’re not even quite sure were wrong. Perhaps that’s why in the movies you never see someone coming in for confession every week. It’s always “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been half a century since my last confession.”
In spite of all of this, Christians have always thought confession was vital to our life together. St. Augustine, for example, said, “If you excuse yourself in confession, you shut up sin within your soul, and shut out pardon.”
That may seem harsh, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote a lot about confession, went even further. Because a break with sin means conversion, he said, “Confession is conversion.”
Why would these theologians say things like this? Surely they knew how painful confession could be! Is it really that necessary?
Yes, it is. Confessing our sin to one another is a big part of what makes the Church different than the world. When I sin, my church is supposed to mercifully, truthfully, lovingly help me turn back to the way of Christ. But If I don’t tell them what I’ve done, they can’t help me. Conversely, if I want to tell them, but they don’t want to hear it or don’t want to do the hard work of helping me change, I’ve got a tough road ahead of me. I’m going to have a very hard time following Christ at all.
We all like bullet points, so here are three that help explain why confession is so important for the Church.
Confession Makes Us Dependent On One Another in an Individualistic World
Christians are supposed to be known by our love for one another. We’re supposed to live life together and serve God together as the Body of Christ, the Church. The only way that’s possible is if we confess our sins—our addictions, our envy, our prayerlessness, all of it—to each other, depending on each other to help us stay on the path.
After all, the Christian life is tough enough that we’re not going to make it alone.
Confession Helps Us not Fool Ourselves About Ourselves
Actually, the Apostle John made this connection a long time ago. “If we say that we have no sin,” John wrote, “we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m really good at self-deception. If I’m regularly confessing my sins, hearing my sister or brother say “Your sins are forgiven,” I’m forced remember two of the most important things about myself: that I’m a sinner and that I’m forgiven, saved by grace through faith.
Confession Helps Us Forgive Others
If you know you’ve been forgiven, isn’t it more likely that you’ll be able to forgive others? The Scriptural writers thought so. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone,” Colossians 3 says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” That sort of forgiveness is only possible when there’s real confession of sin.
That’s why confession is part of who we are and what we do as Christians. If we need to set up a confessional in our church building, we should do that. If we need set hours for confession, we should do that. If we need to risk embarrassment, intense vulnerability and accountability, we should do that too.
Joel Looper is a teacher at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Texas and a Ph.D. student in Divinity at the University of Aberdeen.