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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Community of Confession

I grew up thinking faith was private, sin was private, and confession was definitely private.  I can't begin to recount how many times I heard that the Catholic Church had it all wrong.  A priest could not forgive sins.  If confession was happening between people, it didn't even count.  Confession was all about telling Jesus you were sorry and then getting on with your life.  Well, I'm not so sure that's the way it works, anymore.

I was surprised to find that the Catholic sacrament of penance actually has four parts!  I was having a hard enough time dealing with confession, but let's add contrition, satisfaction, and absolution to the mix, while we're at it...

Contrition is the first step.  You have to be sorry, but not just flippantly.  You have to be so sincerely sorry that you hate the sin, regret it, wish you hadn't done it.  I think this is the kind of sorry that hurts, and then in addition to this grief over sin, you have to want what is right.  You have to want God, and you have to believe that grace is going to cover this thing.  I just have to be honest.  I don't think most of us get past contrition on a regular basis.  We can get so bent out of shape about confession without ever even getting to that point.  And by "we", I guess I mean "me", because I can only speak for myself.  But let's just say we get there.  In most Protestant denominations, contrition fulfills the requirement for forgiveness.  It's over.  done.

Confession exposes us.  I think that's what is really at the heart of our disdain of confession.  Even writing about it in a public forum makes me a little bit nervous.  Will someone read between the lines?  Will I get "caught"?  I wonder if refusing confession is more about pride than anything else.  It certainly seems that we are terribly concerned about being open, honest, and transparent.  It's so much easier to create facades and build walls, only allowing others to see the perfect people who we wish we were.  Confession requires community.  That can be difficult to navigate.  You can't confess to just anyone.  It's not an off the cuff kind of thing.  This is deep, often painful.  It can only be done intentionally, in relationship.  And let's face it, sometimes relationships that run that deep are pretty hard to come by.

I think we might be more comfortable calling this accountability, from a Protestant point of view.  I have to be honest, though, I'm not sure that really cuts it.  I can't begin to tell you how many times I have had someone say to me, "I want you to hold me accountable," only to get angry when I've tried.  I also can't tell you how many times I have said to someone else, "I want you to hold me accountable," only to realize that I actually don't.  Even for someone who is dreadful at lying, and I am, dishonesty is sometimes the easiest route. 

But let's just say, again, that we get there.  Let's just say we find another human being, or even a group of people with whom we can be real.  Confession begins to happen, and then we are left with a need for satisfaction.  In essence, this is the part of penance where we make things right.  In the Catholic Church, it appears that this is often accomplished through a series of spiritual disciplines.  Well, how amazing is that?  What better way to turn from sin than to fill our lives with things that draw us closer to God?  I love that part!  But, I have to tell you, the idea of satisfaction also caused me to consider the necessity of making things right with others who have been hurt by our sin.  That's more difficult, because it creates the need for more talking about it, more doing something to bring restoration, more relationship.  As an introvert I stop and think to myself, "How much relationship can I handle?"  Maybe it's better just not to sin.  Oh, wait...

In all seriousness, though, making things right can be exhausting.  Believe me, I know this firsthand.  Even so, it's worth it, and I think it might possibly even give us a glimpse into the redemptive work that God is doing in the world. 

Which, is really what living sacramentally is all about, right?  It's recognizing that God is doing something and then joining God in that work.

In the Catholic tradition, it is my understanding that the priest is the one who bestows absolution, but it doesn't appear to be quite the way I imagined it as  a Protestant.  From what I can understand, the priest prays and essentially says, "May Christ absolve you".  I feel like I have been misled to believe that Catholics seek absolution from a priest, when really they seek absolution from God, just as Protestants do.  It is true that the priest then absolves the penitent person from any consequences his or her sin might require, within the church.  I think we, as Protestants, could learn something from that, as well.

And what does God do?  God redeems... and redeems... and redeems...

What a process. 

I set out to answer some questions, and now I think I just want to ask some, myself.  Such as:

How can I better incorporate this kind of confession, this kind of penance, into my own life?

Where are the safe communities in which to practice confession sacramentally and corporately?

And, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, (will you) have mercy on me, a sinner?" (The Jesus prayer, parenthetical, mine).



  1. To think about confession from a sacramental point of view, it is a *means of grace* to us when we confess. We extend the grace of God to one another in confession and we receive the grace of God when we confess to others.We believe that God is very present in the confessing and in the subsequent forgiveness and restoration. In fact, when we extend and receive forgiveness, we are rehearsing for the Kingdom. So, confession is, in a sense, eschatalogical in that it calls the eschaton into being. We say that "this is the way things look in the Kingdom of God" when we confess and when we receive one another's confession.

    And, of course, we have not done well with this in the Church of the Nazarene. Much of this, I assume, comes from our tendency in the 20th century to think that the entirely sanctified Christian has no need of confession. But even if one has no willful and intentional sin to confess, we certainly can confess for the "things we have left undone," as well as confessing for the community and our corporate sin. In our confession, we also model this for those around us. Our children learn that confessing is a regular way of being in the ecology of faith formation. We must restore the practice, allowing it to propel us further into holiness:

    Lord God,
    we have sinned against you;
    we have done evil in your sight.
    We are sorry and repent.
    Have mercy on us according to your love.
    Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin.
    Renew a right spirit within us
    and restore us to the joy of your salvation,
    through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    1. Rich - I really liked these two lines in your comment:

      "We believe that God is very present in the confessing and in the subsequent forgiveness and restoration. In fact, when we extend and receive forgiveness, we are rehearsing for the Kingdom."

      We really do invite the God-who-is-already-there to become more present and real both to us and to those we confess to when we engage in this sacrament, or at least sacramental way of being and living.

      If we are rehearsing for the Kingdom/making more real and present God's reign even now when we practice confession, I wonder what that says about us when we do *not* regularly engage in confession ourselves, refuse to hear another's confession, or never get past 'I'm sorry/It's OK/Let's pretend we like each other' to the depths of penance that Lisa walked us through in her post? Do we not lessen God's reign now, and become less prepared for the fullness of the Kingdom in the future?

      I want to be the kind of person who, through confession and sacramental living, is not only personally living into the Kingdom both now and in the future, but who is helping others along on that same journey, in community.

      Thanks for these thoughts!

    2. These are really good thoughts. I think it is especially important to consider what it means that something is a "means of grace". Do we *really* extend the grace of God to others like we should? I would venture to say that we don't, at least much of the time. Perhaps this is why confession is terrifying to so many people. What if we confess and grace is *not* extended to us? I think it's possible that we have a desperate desire to receive the grace of God, but we're afraid we won't, at least, not from other people. This is one reason that absolution was fascinating to me. From what I can discern, absolution is a given in the Catholic Church. I didn't read anything that said the priest has a choice to make about whether or not to extend grace to the penitent. As followers of Jesus, I don't think we have a choice, either. And yet sometimes we withhold grace. This is disturbing.

      Also, I think you've definitely hit the nail on the head regarding the Church of the Nazarene and corporate confession. We've talked about this some, but perhaps it goes back to our definition of sin. We don't *need* to confess, because we're holy? How arrogant is that? And so, thank you for this prayer. I'll join you in it.

  2. Grace is present in confession. It is both received and given in the context of community. If we are not willing to participate in the community of confession that can we really be the Kingdom that God wants us to be? We struggle with that. Great thoughts Lisa.

    1. Thinking about this in view of the Kingdom of God is really important. I liked what Rich said, above, about confession being a part of rehearsing for the Kingdom and what Phil said, above, about being less prepared for the fullness of the Kingdom if we refuse confession. I think every choice we make takes us in one direction or the other. If we're not willing to engage in Kingdom activity, now, how disappointed will we be at the eschaton, when the Kingdom is built on vastly different principles than we imagined or practiced?

  3. L.
    I told you the other day that I feel majorly vulnerable chiming in with my thoughts because I feel like I’m speaking among the highly educated and I’m just a layman trying to learn the thoughts of those who have spent time dwelling on such topics as repentance….

    Amen when you said, “Confession exposes us!”

    I think this is a great question: "Where are the safe communities in which to practice confession sacramentally and corporately?" Would you define corporately? Because when I think of corporately, I’m thinking it means groups of 8-1,000 people. Surely, everything does not need to be confessed corporately, yes? How do we decide what should be confessed corporately? And what corporate settings? And what needs to be confessed before God only and if necessary confessed privately with the other person/people involved with the sin?

    Do we as a church teach how to give mercy? We do teach that we are to forgive but do we teach how to give mercy and go on? Or do we hold onto the knowledge of others sins and not truly forgive? Do we teach to not gossip in the name of 'prayer requests' after learning about others sins?

    Richard says, “In fact, when we extend and receive forgiveness, we are rehearsing for the Kingdom. So, confession is, in a sense, eschatological in that it calls the eschaton into being. We say that "this is the way things look in the Kingdom of God" when we confess and when we receive one another's confession.”….
    First I had to look of the definition of eschatology:
    1. any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.
    2. the branch of theology dealing with such matters.

    This makes me ask, “Will we sin in heaven and need to ask forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others there too?” Somehow, I thought that once we arrive in heaven we will see the whole picture and heavenly life will go smoothly! Is this not so? (L., here is another blog post topic!)

    1. Debby, these are such good questions. First, I think I would say that "corporately" simply means "in community". When we were pastoring Illuminate Peru, we often met with LTGs (Life Transformation Groups) of 2-4 people. I would consider confession happening in those groups as corporate, although I am sure there are others who would argue that the groups were too small. I have trouble with that argument, though, if you consider Matthew 18:20, which, sort of ironically, comes at the end of a passage about sin.

      I'm going to try to dive a little deeper into these waters in my Thursday Theology post, this week, talking about Article of Faith #5 and the various ways that different traditions of the church view sin, altogether. If I don't touch on the rest of your questions about corporate confession, there, please follow up with me again!

      In regard to extending mercy and grace to one another, I actually don't think we do that all that well. I have experienced this, in my own life, as the recipient of mercy and grace, recently, but I have had many more instances in which this did not happen, and I have to admit that there have been plenty of times when *I* did not extend mercy and grace to someone else. I think there are some really important aspects to forgiveness and reconciliation that we tend to ignore. This concept may need another post all its own, as well.

      I have indicated, to Rich, that he might want to jump into the conversation regarding your question about the eschaton. I will also definitely work through a post about this in the near future.