“Why can’t I just confess my sins to God, alone? Why do I have to talk to a priest about them?”
You’ve probably heard, and maybe even asked, these questions about Confession. It’s a sacrament that is misunderstood by many people, including many Orthodox. Growing up as a Baptist, I didn’t understand the role of Confession. I thought that people confessed because they didn’t trust that God could forgive them, that they could somehow only receive pardon from a priest instead of from God.
Once I became Orthodox, in my teens, I discovered that this warped vision of Confession was based on my own misunderstanding about sin. Subconsciously, I had seen sin as breaking one of the rules of Christianity’s long list of dos and don’ts. But the Orthodox Church doesn’t see sin as the breaking of a rule, a violation that needs a pardon. Instead, it sees sin as sickness that needs healing.
So our whole approach to Confession and healing from sin becomes less about “who can pardon my sin” and more about “what spiritual medicines has God given us to heal?”
Confession is one of the gifts that God has given us through the Church. So let’s look at three common misconceptions about Confession, and the Church’s answer to each.
1. “Can’t I just pray to God by myself?”
Yes, you can! We have a God who desires an intimate relationship with each of us. There is no longer any dividing wall between us and Him (Ephesians 2:14). He has torn the curtain that once separated the Holy from His people (Matthew 27:51). We no longer need Israelite priests to atone for sin through sacrifices, because Christ offered Himself for all of us (Hebrews 7:27, John 3:16). Now, we can approach God the Father directly.
Each day, we can approach God and ask forgiveness for our shortcomings. Like we talked about in “Three Things that Make Faith Personal (Yet Not Private)”, our personal spiritual lives work together with the spiritual life of the community. Just as we are called to ask forgiveness from God and pray our personal prayers at home, we are also called to come to Confession and to pray together in the Liturgy. It isn’t “either, or” when it comes to personal repentance and Confession; it’s “both, and”. The two build off of and support one another.
For our daily personal repentance, we have the blessing to use the prayers of the Church from prayer books, the Psalms, and our own words spoken to God from our heart. One of the great psalms of repentance is Psalm 50 (51). Steve talked about this psalm and how it helps us get in the right spirit for Confession.
Repentance should be a daily part of our lives. Like we discussed last week, forgiving others and asking for forgiveness are the results of living lives of honesty and self-reflection. When we take this process seriously, living each day to grow closer to Christ and to those around us, it’s easier to be more aware of our sin and to trust in God’s mercy.
And since self-reflection is so important, we need to be sure we see ourselves clearly. There are a lot of lies we tell ourselves over and over again, without realizing it. We try to balance between humility and self-deprecation, pride and healthy self-esteem. So when we’re alone praying to God about the sins we struggle with, it’s all too easy to focus on some things and ignore others. We might not have the vision to clearly see where our struggle really lies and why we keep repeating the same things time and again.
So yes, we can talk to God directly. Yet we also need help to fully examine our hearts. We need someone more experienced than ourselves to guide us back on the path to Christ.
2. “Ok, but do I really need to confess my sins to a priest?”
“After all, doesn’t God forgive me when I confess my sins to Him directly?” Absolutely, but repentance is more than simply asking for forgiveness; it is about a real change in our life and a return to God.
It’s easy to make promises to God in the quiet of our own rooms. Promises that we later break. Confession helps us to open up, like opening up a window that we have kept closed for far too long. When we come out of our isolation and shed light on our struggles before another person, we’re able to see ourselves more clearly in the light.
Scripture reminds us that our repentance isn’t really a private affair. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). There’s something special that happens when we open up to someone we trust. We don’t go to just anyone to talk about personal things, and that’s why we don’t confess to just anyone in the Church. We speak with a priest because he’s trained to guide us back to the path towards Christ. He is trained to listen to us without judgment and to give us the advice we need to make lasting change in our lives.
It’s recommended to go to Confession with one priest (like we have a primary healthcare provider), so that he will better know how to help you in your personal struggles. If you aren’t comfortable with that yet, just find a priest you are comfortable with and make an appointment with him.
Aside from being a time for pastoral advice, Confession is a sacrament. It’s a moment when God gives us grace in a unique way, through the prayers and blessing of a priest. Because we don’t actually confess to a priest. We confess before a priest. The priest facilitates our connection to God rather than offer grace or healing by himself.
3. “Ok, so when should I go to Confession?”
That’s a hard question to answer in the abstract, without knowing a person directly (and that’s why having a spiritual father is such an important part of our lives in Christ). Yet what’s clear is that when we’re sick, we go to the doctor. When we feel burdened by our actions or thoughts, we go to Confession.
Different traditions apply this rule in different ways. In some Orthodox countries, it’s common to go to Confession once a week. In others, people usually go during the fasting periods of the Church, especially during Lent, Dormition Fast, and Nativity Fast. We go to Confession during fasting periods because these are times of increased vigilance and focus on our relationship with God and with those around us.
However often you end up going to Confession, depending on the advice of your spiritual father, keep this in mind: Confession is like getting a health check-up before a sports season, cleaning the house before an important visitor comes, or getting a haircut before going to see family you haven’t seen in a while. They’re things we might not want to do initially, but the results pay off and we’re better off in the end.
If not taking Communion is like running a race without food or water, then not going to Confession is like ignoring the doctor’s office when you have a life-threatening disease. Confession is something each of us needs, and probably more often than we’re getting it. And it works together with personal prayer and repentance, not in replacement of them.
Do you regularly go to Confession? If not, what keeps you away? Does fear or pride keep you from the healing grace of Jesus Christ?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.