Frequently Asked Questions (of a theologian) is a weekly segment where a guest or myself answers a question that gets commonly posed to theologians. The basic idea is to take a theological question and offer an answer that is concise and useful for ‘everyone else.’ If you’d like to submit a question, and we’d love for you to, then please contact me.
A good friend of mine answers this week’s question. Kevin Bianchi and I met on the first day of school our Freshmen year at Malone and have been friends ever since. We both studied Bible and theology together there in Canton Ohio, and have been keeping up with each other via email and blogs ever since. I hope you will learn as much from his article as I have.
For many believers who do not come from a Catholic background, the idea of personal confession can seem foreign and a great deal unsettling. We can condition ourselves to view our spiritual life as a private matter that is designed to be protected by silence and private guilt. However, this silence, as Scott Hahn describes, begins to erode the contours of reality?? (Lord, Have Mercy, 3). The reality is that all of us are deeply broken and that brokenness first and foremost greatly affects our relationship with God and then bleeds into every area of our life and community. We can try to deny this reality, enacting, as philosopher Josef Piper labels it, falsification of memory??, but as we do this we begin to lose the true [salvation] narrative thread in our lives?? (Hahn, 9). What follows is justification of our own sin, bitterness, blaming others for our faults, breakdown of relationships, and becoming a destructive element in the community of faith. When asked, What is the wrong with the world??? G.K. Chesterton simply, but perceptively replied, I am.?? Here is the rub: Why when we are clearly in need of confession and reconciliation do we dismiss it? Or, why when we are continually drenched in sin do we refuse to discuss it with each other?
The roots of confession are found in the earliest Christian community as described in the pages of the New Testament. Saint John told his readers, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness?? (1 John 1:9). Saint James, containing perhaps the earliest examples of Christian theology and practice stated definitively, Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed?? (James 5:16). There is an important connection between confession and healing. First and foremost, confession of sin before God restores the fracture in our relationship with him. The nature of Gods redemptive intervention in our lives requires continual restoration and reconciliation. As stated above, refusal to come before God in humility and contrition begins to damage every aspect of our lives and can even, as St. James implied, cause physical deterioration. This is contrary to Gods desire. He desires to extend His grace and forgiveness at every opportunity and in every situation. By confessing, a verbal appeal, we become recipients of that amazing grace and limitless, extravagant forgiveness.
The second important aspect of confession is the benefit that is brought to the entire community. Sin, although committed individually, never fails to negatively affect those around us. We are by Gods design a community of faith that shares not only the blessing but the adversity that comes with following Christ. Our refusal to acknowledge the darkness in our souls will eventually come out in very dramatic ways with catastrophic results. This has been evidenced recently by Ted Haggard. From his own words, he was not telling the full story?? of the life he was living. What if he had been vulnerable enough to confess his sin, in true repentance, to another? What if he had been able to hear Christs words of forgiveness after the admission of his sins long before he let them overtake him? This is where the community aspect comes in. Once we have been assured of Gods forgiveness we can begin the process of being restored to the community of faith. This is why confession is not meant to be merely between the individual and God, but viewed as something that is vital to the spiritual vitality of the entire community.
The main point of confession is to not keep in shadows the things that should be brought into the light. For this we need each other. We need to verbalize it to receive the full weight and assurance of Gods forgiveness. It is a supernatural gift to have Gods ordained representative standing over you and proclaiming these words:
God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of His Son
has reconciled the world to Himself
and send the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from you sins
in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit