Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23
I had previously thought I might one day write a post about confession. With Conciliar Anglican's recent post on confession, it seemed like the right time to share a few thoughts on the subject. If you're unfamiliar with the Anglican view of confession, check out the post at Conciliar Anglican's blog.
Confession is a fairly new spiritual discipline for me . . . one that I’ve practiced only for the last couple of years. I think of all the spiritual disciplines, this one might initially be the hardest to put into practice. I think for most people, the very word “confession” makes them react negatively. We tense our faces, shake our heads and would rather not be confronted with that word. Confession? Why in the world would I want to confess my sin to someone else? As long as I confess to God, isn’t that enough? I guess that question really begs another question: Who is confession for?
Confession isn’t a practice that helps God know our sins. He already knows every sin we’ve ever committed along with every sin we will commit. That’s not news to him. Confession is really for our own good.
I remember my first confession with my priest. It was only a couple of years ago. I spent some time a few days before our appointment thinking about all the things I wanted to confess. Sins from years ago. Some more recent. All of them a reminder of what a great sinner I was (and am). I made quite the list (and no I’m not sharing it with you). There were things on that list that I would just have soon not mentioned.
And so, the day arrived and my priest came to my house and we went into my office/prayer chapel. He opened the prayer book and we began.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.
What a great prayer. The rubrics call for both the priest and penitent pray this prayer together lest the priest forget that he too is a sinner, saved by grace. I couldn’t have agreed more with a prayer especially this part: “For I know my transgressions only too well, and my sin is ever before me.”
I then followed the prayer book’s prompting and said: “Pray for me, a sinner.” My priest then responded with this prayer:
May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy.
Again, what a great prayer. He prayed that my heart would be enlightened. I would remember all my sins AND God’s unfailing mercy.
Scripture was then read as a reminder of my sin and God’s grace.
Then, I was asked by my priest to confess my sins “with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and Redeemer.”
The prayer book provided this prayer for me to say:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially, I confess to you and all the Church...
And this is where it gets hard. It was time to name my sins one by one.
And so I started going down my list I had written. Every sin I could remember. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t hard. It WAS hard. After all, I’m confessing all this darkness that has invaded my heart for years. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I’d rather my priest not have heard me say those things. But here’s what happened. Once those sins were named in the presence of my priest and in the presence of the Lord, I was relieved. All those things that had been hidden in the darkness had been called into the light. It was out in the open. For me, that was a freeing experience.
I was then asked a very interesting question: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?”
What timing! I’ve just named all kinds of sin . . . and then I’m asked if I’m willing to forgive others their sin. How could I not? Grace has been shown to me. Huge amounts of grace. I too must extend to others the same forgiveness that I’m seeking.
“I forgive them.”
My priest then responded:
May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and of faith, strengthen you with all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.
Next, the most powerful moment of the evening came. My priests laid his hands on me and prayed these words of absolution:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wow. There was never a moment in my life where the gospel seemed more real.
It was fitting that my priest then prayed these words:
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
Thanks be to God.
No truer words did I ever say. I was so thankful for this act of confession and the comfort that it brought me. I was able to name the sins that had haunted me and hear the words of forgiveness. For me, that was truly transforming.
So, confession really is for us. It’s for our own good. We can lay the burden of sin down and walk in the light of his grace. It’s a wonderful practice. You should give it a try. I think it’ll change you. It has me.