A Deeper Look at Confession
Have you ever noticed the advertisement strategies of a number of products and services who used the catch phrase, “It will change your Life”. Certainly, we all welcome the changes that will help us with various ailments and pain. We, also, welcome changes when they come easy – just buy this product, subscribe to this newsletter, buy this book, or take this pill, and your life will be easier and better. And the implication of the visuals in these ads is that you will be beautiful, respected, loved, and the center of popularity.
However, we do not as easily welcome changes when they are prolonged, require self-reflection, or substantial effort. For example: how many pieces of exercise equipment go unused and end up at a Goodwill store? Lent is a time for us to take stock of our lives, and discern the real and lasting changes that will benefit us for our lifetime and beyond.
Lent is a period of forty days and six Sundays. The Sundays of Lent, like all Sundays, are Feast Days of the Lord and not days of fasting. The question is: how will you use the six weeks that remain. Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-Giving are the Pillars of Lent and they can truly change our lives. But these will have little lasting effect if our efforts are trivial or short-lived. I would urge all of you to view Lent, not just as a time of discipline, but a great opportunity for real and lasting change.
Much of what will be said today comes from Vinny Flynn's book, The Seven Secrets of Confession. From this I have gained a greater understanding of confession and have added my own thoughts as well. The book, while very thought provoking, is an easy read, and well worth your time. There's also a DVD on this that you can order online and a talk on Formed.org. So, let's begin.
The Nature of sin
To really understand confession, we need to understand sin, specifically what sin is, what it does, and what it does not do.
What Is Sin?
Sin is defined as an offense against God. Sin sets itself against God’s Love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, and a revolt against God. Sin comes from a love of self, a contempt for God, and a self-exaltation, which is diametrically opposed to the humility and obedience of Jesus, who is the ultimate model for our salvation.1
Sin is, also, an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor, caused by a perverse attachment to certain attachments. Sin wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”2 .
Sin and Charity
As all of you know, the Church classifies sins as either mortal or venial.
Hopefully, given this definition, there is little doubt remaining about the grave seriousness of sin, the threat it causes to our spiritual life, and the potential damage that it causes to ourselves, and to society. Whether a sin is classified as mortal or venial, it's important to know, and commit to our conscience, that there's no such thing as an insignificant sin. Some sins are more dangerous and destructive than others, but all sins have destructive consequences.
Sin damages the charity in our heart and our relationship with God. With a venial sin that charity subsists in a weakened state. In a mortal sin it destroys that charity and breaks our communion with God. This occurs, not because God turns away from us, but because we turn away from Him.
Sin is powerful. Left unchecked, it can destroy our lives and cause the loss of our salvation. But, the one thing that sin cannot do, no matter how serious our sin, is take away God's Love for us. His Love is all encompassing, eternal, and unchangeable. And, His Love never fails. There is nothing we can do, no sin we can commit, that can diminish God's Love for us.
God Our Father
“God is not just our creator, but our Father; and you and I are not just casual or accidental creations. We were Willed to exist, Fathered into life … He chose each of you. He wanted you born. He loves you differently than He has ever loved anyone else, and He wants to father you, leading you on a personal journey to the holiness that will fill you with joy and enable you to be with Him forever.
Christ calls each of us, not merely to avoid major sin, but to seek God with all our hearts. At every intersection of our lives, every big and little point of decision, God the Father gives us the grace, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond in accordance to His Will for us at that moment. To fail to respond is sin - sin that pulls us off the personal path to holiness that He has chosen for us. It’s a refusal to be fathered by God.”3
We can see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father, in the parable, is an image of God. The two brothers represent us. The younger son goes to his father and asks for his inheritance. In the Jewish culture, and ours, this is a seriously disrespectful act. However, the younger son is more interested in financing his premeditated sins, than being in the presence of His Father's Love.
Shortly afterward, he gathers his belonging and travels to a distant land, where he hopes his sins will not become known, and squanders all he has in riotous living. He turns his face away from the Love of his Father. He turns his face away from the love of God. He refuses to let God be His Father, and that invariably leads to sin. Sin causes man to glorify himself instead of glorifying God, and sin prevents him from enjoying fellowship with God because it separates man from God.
The younger son's lifestyle of sin does become known, but his sin does not diminish his father's love. However, it does cause his father great grief as he prays and waits for his son's return. And, it stirs up resentment in his older brother. “Man’s rupture with God leads tragically to divisions between brothers … Sin shatters the human family. Every sin has repercussions.”4
We are a communal people. We all have the same parents, so we are all blood relations. The psychologist, John Bradshaw once said, “There are no secrets in families.” “When we sin, we “disown” God as our Father. We reject our relationship as his sons and daughters. We injure our fellowship with others. In denying God’s fatherhood, we, in effect, deny that we are brothers and sisters. There is no such thing as a private, or victimless sin.”5
The sins of one affects us all, just as the repentance of one brings joy to all. Scripture says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”6 Imagine the joyous celebration in Heaven each time we go to Confession!
The Enumeration Approach
In the forward of his book, The Seven Secrets of Confession, Mr.. Flynn describes his experience with confession.
He begins in saying, “Let’s start by being honest. Confession was never my idea of a fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon. Or any other time, for that matter. Somehow, the prospect of telling another human being things I didn't even want to admit to myself wasn’t very exciting. It was always awkward, often difficult, and sometimes downright humiliating ... So, whenever I became conscious that I had committed serious sin, my guilt would prod me to go to confession.
This is what confession meant to me. I never thought of it as something to be desired just in itself. It was simply a means to an end, a way to have my sins forgiven so I could worthily receive Communion. Sure, sometimes I’d feel better afterwards, but I still wouldn’t have gone if I didn't feel I had to. There were even times when my regret for my sins was caused more by the thought of my having to go to confession than by any feeling of right or wrong.
Because of the limited understanding I had about confession, my whole focus was on sin, which to me simply meant bad behavior. It was when I was bad in “thought, word, or deed.” So I kept a list in my mind, a “grocery list” of bad thoughts, words, and actions. When there were too many items on my list, or when one of the items seemed too bad ... I’d gather up my courage and force myself to enter the confessional, hoping the priest wouldn’t know who I was.
[To me] God was only indirectly involved. Confession was between me and the priest. I’d rattle off my grocery list of sins and recite the little Act of Contrition prayer I had memorized as a child. The priest would then forgive me in the Name of God and give me a penance to do; and I’d leave the confessional with a sense of relief, knowing I was starting over and could receive Communion once again.
Was this all bad? Of course not. We need to have an awareness of sin and forgiveness. But my understanding of confession was so limited and narrow in its focus that it kept me from discovering the real beauty and value of the sacrament.7
I used to think of sin simply as bad behavior. It was when I thought or said or did something wrong. Gradually, I learned to think of these bad behaviors as offenses against God. Little offenses were “venial sins,” and they only bothered God a little. Serious offenses were “mortal sins,” and, in addition to preventing me from receiving Communion, they made God really mad at me. Confession, along with the penance that the priest would give me, was something I had to do to “make up for” what I had done … , so God wouldn’t be mad at me anymore.
Whenever I thought about confession, my whole focus was on sin, which to me meant bad behavior. I didn't go to confession on any regular basis. I went only when I realized I had serious sins to confess, and my main purpose for going was to get my sins forgiven so I could receive Communion. I don’t mean to imply that it was simply a cold, mechanical process for me. I thought I was being a good Catholic. At some level, I understood that my sins were offenses against God and, when I would recite the Act of Contrition, I meant it. I was sorry for my sins, and I wanted to try to do better. So, I’d go into the confessional with my little (or sometimes big) grocery list of sins, recite them to the priest, say the Act of Contrition, and receive absolution. Were my sins forgiven? Of course.
Obviously, I’m not the only one who has experienced the “same list” syndrome. It seems to be a common problem. Why do we tend to keep coming back with the same list? There are probably a lot of reasons, including the reality of human weakness and the “inclination to sin” that the Church calls “concupiscence,” which remains with us even after baptism as we struggle to reach the holiness to which the Lord calls us.
[But] as one priest said, we shouldn’t get too depressed about our tendency to give in to the same weaknesses. 'After all,' he asked with a smile, 'you wouldn’t want to keep coming back with new sins, would you?'
But I think the main reason we keep returning with the same list is that we really don’t understand what Christ wants to do in the confessional. We go simply wanting our sins forgiven, not realizing that He wants to do much more. He wants to heal us of the attitudes, disordered desires, problems, and wounds that are causing us to keep committing those sins.”8
For myself, I can certainly relate to what Mr.. Flynn says. My experience is very similar to his. I'm sure many of us have similar attitudes and experiences. Often, our lists become so repetitive that we feel we could just as well make copies and mail them to the priest.
However, unlike Mr.. Flynn's experience, and I think this describes his view at an early age, I never had the sense that God was mad at me. If there was any distance between us, it was always because I pulled away from Him. I'm very envious of those who genuinely love the Sacrament of Penance. Yes, it's a Great Gift, a Gift beyond imagining: to be Redeemed by the Cross, have our sins forgiven, and to be restored into full communion with the God and the Church. Yet, what I find so discouraging, and perhaps we all do, is the lack of progress - the disappointment we feel in not being able to grow in what God wants us to be, and what He created us to be. This causes us considerable confusion and distress.
The Real Purpose of Confession
What then is the real purpose of confession? I think we all realize this, even though it may seem hidden. It is what our disappointment is really all about. The real purpose of confession is to be Ransomed, Forgiven, Healed, and Restored. Confession accomplishes all of this to a point. We are ransomed because Christ paid the price for us 2000 years ago. Our forgiveness is complete in absolution. Our healing is regained in God's grace. And, we are restored in charity to Full Communion and Unity with God.
However, there is still a very important something missing. Our sins are forgiven. We are all better now. But we are not all better! We are still wounded and weak. Confession cannot be like habitually putting a new band aid on an old wound. The wound itself must be healed. Christ says, “...do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, … pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”9
Forgiveness alone is just not enough, because our woundedness remains. That makes it too hard for us to avoid further sin. Confession is not meant to be a quick fix! It’s meant to be a process of healing and education that helps us grow, so that we don’t keep falling into and over into the same old habits of sin, only to find we are going to confession again with that same old list.
Forgiveness of our sins is absolutely necessary for our salvation, which is why we need to confess our sins. But we need to understand forgiveness is not the exclusive or final goal of confession. It’s the necessary first step in a process. God’s focus is not on our sin, but on our relationship with Him. He’s focused on our pain — on our woundedness. He knows what sin is! He knows that sin is misery, that it’s a sickness. He knows that we’re aching, and He wants to heal us, to restore all that has been lost.
Taking another look at the parable of the prodigal son. Having turned away from his father, the son … is ultimately reduced to complete poverty and hunger. But hidden beneath the surface of these material losses, lies a greater tragedy, “the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship .. But what he doesn’t realize, until his father runs to embrace him, is that mercy goes beyond justice; it is love poured out upon those who don’t deserve it.”10
Our healing and restoration needs to be a process of education, where we can discover the patterns and the root causes of our sins. We need to identify our woundedness We need to understand where there is still unforgiveness in our own hearts, and where we have not accepted forgiveness. The Church teaches us that Christ was like us in all ways except sin. That implies that He was like us in all ways except guilt. Guilt is a prime factor in our lives that cannot be overlooked. It brings up issues about which we are most defensive - issues that need resolution, and need to be overcome with heroic Christian humility.
Call the doctor
Why do we confess our sins? Because we need a doctor – the Divine Physician. We are still wounded and weak. We have lost so much: our strength, our innocence, possibly our health, and our likeness to God. We need to be not only forgiven, but healed and restored.”
Christ’s forgiveness of man’s sins is only the first and very necessary step toward our complete healing. As the Catechism points out, “God’s forgiveness initiates the healing. … He has come to heal the whole man, soul and body; He is the physician the sick have need of.”11 His Grace heals, sustains, and with our permission and cooperation, reorders our lives.
The Sacrament of Penance is also referred to as the Sacrament of Mercy, and the The Tribunal of Mercy. "Pope John Paul II refers to it as 'a Sacrament of Enlightenment … a precious light for the path of perfection.' And Pope Benedict XVI is even more specific, in the healing and restoration aspects of the Sacrament, stressing that the priest is not just there to grant absolution, but is “called to take on the role of father, spiritual guide, teacher, and educator.”12
Thus, we need to discern, with Christ, and in Christ, where we are not at peace, where we are angry, depressed, discouraged, anxious, bitter, or resentful? Why are we so focused on ourselves? What areas of our lives, our thoughts, our desires, have we not yet given over to Jesus as Lord? What are we too embarrassed, or to afraid, to talk to Jesus about? Why we don't want to see Him? In what ways are we not responding to what God wants us to be, what He wants us to do? We need to realize that every action either strengthens our relationship with God or weakens it. And, our deeper sin may be that we not focused on God at all”.13
In the confessional
However this type of analysis is not appropriate in a penitential service type confession line, as there is a need to be brief. Thus individual confessions are recommended. Pope John Paul II explains, “In the sacrament of Reconciliation we are all invited to meet Christ personally. He stresses that this is why individual confession is so necessary, because it provides each of us with the opportunity for a more personal encounter with the crucified, forgiving Christ'”14
The Path Ahead
To better understand ourselves and prepare for our individual confession, there is much we can do on our own. A nightly Examination of Conscience is highly valuable. We need to analyze our weaknesses, and get to the roots of our woundedness This can be a lengthy process even while we continue to go to confession with our lists. Our list will still include behaviors, but our primary focus needs to consider anything that seems wrong in our relationship with God or others. The key is to persevere, making progress one step at a time.
Blessed Luisa Piccarreta, in the messages given to her by Christ, said that if we wholeheartedly ask to live in God's Divine Will, then everything will be accomplished for us by Christ. If, for some reason, we fall out of His Will, all we need to do is ask again. And, don't worry if you are in a sinful state. Just because we may have sinned a few moments ago doesn't mean we cannot seek to live in His Divine Will now.
Then, at an appropriate time, seek the power of the Sacrament, and confess your sins to the priest, who hears your confession 'in Persona Christi' - in the person of Christ. 'In the person of Christ' means that the priest, by his ordination, is granted Sacred Power. He speaks with the very voice of Christ.” Jesus told St. Faustina, “When you approach the confessional, know this, that I Myself am waiting there for you … So it’s not just the priest who hears your confession; and it’s not the priest who acts in your soul. It’s Christ”.15 Our confession allows Christ to repair wounds to ourselves, the wounds of others, to wounds to the Church, and to all creation. Who would have ever imagined the power unleashed in our confession!
So, where do we go from here? The heart of it is this: sin is an act where we turn our face away from God. We go our own way, and refuse to let God be our Father. Our standing with God is not so much about our sins, it's about our relationship with Him. We need to go beyond the mechanical do’s and don’ts. We need to seek a greater union with God, and embrace the love, healing, and restoration that Christ offers. We need to completely place ourselves in His Hands, respond to His Grace, and act in His Divine Will. As Our Blessed Mother said at Cana, “Do whatever He tells you”.
Questions for Reflection
Suggestions for Determining the Root Cause of My Sins