Confession is an essential spiritual discipline. The primary need for confession is simple: that we might experience forgiveness. The witness of scripture is that a dominant desire in God’s heart is the desire to forgive.
Psalms are prayers. The Book of Psalms is, in fact, the prayer book of our Hebrew religious heritage. Many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of confession; and most of them have a dimension of confession within them.
Will you take a moment to pray with me some words from Psalm 19?
Eternal God, in your presence we seek to be mindful of who we are. “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:12-14).
Another psalm, Psalm 51, is one of the most familiar in scripture. Likewise, it is one of the most familiar prayers. Read Psalm 51:1-12 here.
In this psalm, King David’s prayer, we can see that he must have known about God’s desire to forgive. This psalm is a powerful witness of the awareness of sin and the need for forgiveness. King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” according to scripture, gave in to his lust and used his power to commit rape and adultery with Bathsheba and then to send her husband into battle so that he might be killed. His sins find him out and he can’t live with his sinful self. He cries out to God in contrite confession and desire for forgiveness.
It is clear not only in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament that a dominant desire of God’s heart is to forgive. The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery is a vivid witness. Read John 8:1-11 here.
When the accusing men bring the woman to Jesus, it puts Jesus in a “no-win” dilemma. If he elects to show mercy on the woman and free her, he clearly will be disobeying Jewish law; if he condemns her or does not intervene in preventing condemnation, he will be going against everything he has taught about compassion and forgiveness.
The problem is clear: sin and the need for forgiveness. Jesus expands the focus. He does not deal only with the sin of the woman; he forces the accusers to look at themselves. In both instances – the woman and her accusers – confession and forgiveness is Jesus’ aim. Look closely at Jesus’ action.
The accusers make their charge, but they are not prepared for Jesus’ response. They must have been speechless, immobilized by Jesus’ offer, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Jesus then bends over to write in the sand. Was he allowing the people some relief from their own engagement with him in order that they might deal with their own consciences? Or did he write something that probed even more deeply and burned more searingly upon their calloused hearts? Whatever it was, when he arose no one was present to condemn the woman, and Jesus announced to her his forgiveness and call to a new life.
In her book Learning to Forgive, Doris Donnelly offers a perceptive commentary on this action of Jesus. She says that he binds “the accusers to their sins to render them capable of repentance. On the other hand, he offers to free the accused woman from the weight of her shame and guilt by forgiving her sin” (p.114).
See how that confirms the witness of scripture: God’s dominant desire to forgive. For the woman and for the accusers, Jesus was offering an opportunity for confession and forgiveness. We could add witness after witness from scripture.
Confession as Response
Beginning at the point of our believing that it is God’s desire to forgive, confession becomes not a morbid discipline, not a dark groveling in the mud and mire of life, not a fearful response to a wrathful, angry God who is out to get us if we don’t shape up. Rather, confession becomes an act of anticipation, a response to the unconditional call of God’s love: the promise that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
“The blood of Jesus…cleanses us”: here we come to the meaning of the cross. Our redemption by Jesus on the cross is a great mystery hidden in the heart of God. To try to reduce it to a formula or penalties or priests and sacrifices of appeasement is to try to bring it down to a human level and always to miss a measure of its power.
It is necessary to note two truths in the way the cross is related to confession and forgiveness. One, the cross is the expression of God’s great desire to forgive. Not anger but love brought Jesus to the cross. Two, without the cross and the forgiveness that is the core of its meaning, confession is merely psychologically therapeutic.
One of the greatest barriers to personal wholeness and spiritual growth and maturity is our unawareness of, or unconsciousness of, our sin and guilt. John states the case clearly:
If we claim to be sinless, we are self-deceived and strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is Just, and may be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong; but if we say we have committed no sin, we make him out to be a liar, and then his word has no place in us. (1 John 1:8-10, NEB)
Self-examination and confession go together as one discipline. One of the primary purposes of this discipline is to keep us aware of our true condition. We are masters of the art of self-deceit. Or in another angle of perception, in many instances others see us better than we see ourselves.
What happens is rather clear. We know that there is a tension between good and evil within us, but we are fearful of dealing with that tension. We suppress our feelings. We begin to suppress the conflicts between our warring passions. When a sinful lust or desire emerges we push it under the rug of our consciousness. We do this so much that we lose track of the truth and to some degree numb ourselves to the conflict.
Behind our fear of dealing with the tension between good and evil within us is the false notion that to admit sin is to admit weakness and failure, to risk being accepted by others and even by God. I can understand how that may be so in relation to others. But just how this has come about in relation to God is a mystery. The heart of the gospel is the graceful forgiveness of a loving God. And, in fact, the essential for forgiveness and healing is confession. “If we confess our sins, he [Jesus Christ] is just, and may be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong” (1 John 1:9, NEB).
Naming the Demon
Look now at confession as a process of naming the demon. When we examine ourselves and confess, we need to be explicit and name our failure, our sin, our problem, our guilt, our pain, our broken relationship, our poisoned attitude, our rampant passion – name these specifically. There is healing and redemptive power inherent in the naming process. Rollo May, in his “Love and Will,” has written clearly and helpfully about this dynamic:
In the naming of the demonic, there is an obvious and interesting parallel to the power of naming in contemporary medical and psychological therapy. At some time, everyone must have been aware of how relieved he was when he went to the doctor with a troublesome illness and the doctor pronounced a name for it.
May goes on to share his personal confession:
Some years ago, after weeks of undetermined illness, I heard from a specialist that my sickness was tuberculosis. I was, I recall, distinctly relieved, even though I was fully aware that this meant, in those days, that medicine could do nothing to cure the disease. A number of explanations will leap to the reader’s mind. He will accuse me of being glad to be relieved from responsibility; that any patient is reassured when he has the authority of the doctor to which he can give himself up; and the naming of the disorder takes away the mystery of it. But these explanations are surely too simple…
Not that the rational information about the disease is unimportant; but the rational data given to me added up to something more significant than the information itself. It becomes, for me, a symbol of a change to a new way of life. The names are symbols of a certain attitude I must take toward this demonic situation of illness; the disorder expresses a myth (a total pattern of life), which communicates to me a way in which I must now orient and order my life. This is so whether it is for two weeks with a cold or twelve years with tuberculosis; the quantity of time is not the point. It is the quality of life. (pp. 172-73)
Until we “name the demon,” identify, clarify, and willingly state clearly our concern and confession, our confession will not be complete and will not have full healing and forgiving power.
Take a few minutes to reflect on this principle of “naming the demon.” Can you give a name (write it down) to something in your life that you feel guilty or shameful about, something you know is wrong, a destructive relationship or habit – something you have never specifically acknowledged?
Remember what we affirmed earlier: the cross is the expression of God’s great desire to forgive, and without the cross, confession is only psychologically therapeutic. There is positive value of confession simply at the level of psychological therapy, but our focus is greater than that. Confession is discipline for spiritual growth.
When we practice confession, with the love of God expressed in the cross as the dynamic invitation to which we are responding, our relationship to God changes. We do not remain separated, estranged, under judgment; we are accepted. This is an objective change in our relationship to God. There is also a subjective change, a change in us. We are no longer paralyzed with guilt. We no longer feel mean or ugly or dirty or powerless or sick of heart and mind. We are healed. We experience an inner transformation.
For Further Study:
- Learning to Forgive, Doris Donnelly, New York: Macmillan, 1979
- Love and Will, Rollo May, New York: Norton, 1969