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In the confessional at McDonalds
Posted by Clare
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Last week I sat in a McDonalds with a college student, listening to this stranger’s confession. I had spoken at a local college the week before and on the way back to my car this young man stopped me and asked if we could talk sometime. So, that day at McDonalds was “the same time”.

After less than five minutes he just came out with it, “I did something terrible six months ago and the guilt has been tearing me up. Do you think God will forgive me, when I can’t even forgive myself?”

I listened quietly to his confession and his attempts to make right his wrongs, including his heartfelt apologies to God and everyone else involved. When he finished I asked a few follow-up questions, then said to him in a priest-like voice, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He burst into tears and a half an hour later he was gone.

Confession and Forgiveness

I’m not Catholic, but I’ve always admired the idea of the confessional – one believer confessing to another. We, Protestants, have a knee-jerk revulsion to the belief that a Priest or the church can forgive sins. However, we do believe in the priesthood of all believers; therefore, when one believer confesses their sins to another believer, I think we can tell them with confidence, “Your sins are forgiven” and here’s why.

The Bible says this; “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9 “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:12 Therefore, while we ourselves are not actually forgiving anyone of a sin they’ve committed against God or another person; we can pronounce them forgiven because Jesus has pronounced them forgiven. We’re simply reminding them of Jesus’ promise of forgiveness if they or anyone is sincere in their confession.

Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “Our brother… has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” (Life Together, p. 116)

What makes a “good confession”?

St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote, “For a good confession three things are necessary: an examination of conscience, sorrow and a determination to avoid sin.”

Let’s go back to the confession at McDonalds. The student asked me two questions. “Will God forgive me?” and “How can I forgive myself?” The “will God forgive me?” was an easy one to answer because it was clear that this man’s confession met all the tests of St. Liguori’s definition. God has forgiven him.

Forgiving oneself is a bit more complicated. We’re not as good at it as God. It’s been my personal experience that I can more readily forgive myself, particularly in the area of a sin against another person, if:

1. I go to God and confess my sin with great sadness and without excuse.

2. I go to that person and sincerely apologize. (See last week’s blog December 17, 2012.)

3. I ask the offended person if there is anything I can do to mitigate the consequence of what I did, or to restore the relationship between them and myself.

4. I reflect deeply on what I did and how I might avoid ever committing that sin again to anyone.

Amping up our confession

Here’s the final and missing step for Protestants; when a sin is serious or habitual, I believe we ought to go to another Christian and confess it to them. I have no scripture reference to make the case; however, there is something about confessing to another person that is both deeply satisfying and terrifying.

There is such a thing as good guilt. It’s one way the Holy Spirit “convicts us of sin”. I’ve found the shame of my confession has often served to remind me whenever I’m tempted to sin again in the future.

A few weeks ago, I convened a gathering of three young men at our cottage for the purposes of confessional prayer. As these college students tearfully confessed to one another in prayer, serious issues, most for the first time in their lives, something happened. They felt free! In fact, when I thought we were about done, I tried to close out the prayer time and they wouldn’t let me. Confession has made them closer to each other and has convicted them to be far more serious about personal holiness than private confession ever did!

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other…” James 5:16a

I highly recommend reading Chapter 10 in Celebrations of Discipline, by Richard Foster for a more in-depth understanding on this little known discipline of confession.

Tomorrow is Christmas. Were it not for Jesus, confession would simply be therapeutic. Think about giving these gifts to Jesus tomorrow – your unbelievable gratitude and a good confession. He’ll love it!

Question: What’s been your experience? Have you ever confessed to another person a sin you did not commit against them – a private sin? How did you feel before you did that and afterward?

Following Jesus in Real Life


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Comments (6)
  1. Suzy Sammons said...

    Dear Clare,
    I have deep appreciation for how you express this view of confession. As a child-raised Catholic, the sacrament of confession was frightening, and in my experience, void of the joy of Jesus’ salvation. It was attached to “IFs” and never certain. My forgiveness was conditional based on the completion of prayers and actions commensurate with the offense, and the priest was the one who passed judgement. He was the one who decided whether or not I would be forgiven – without a breath about “CHILD, JESUS LOVES YOU!”

    I was in my 40’s before this news of God’s redemption, love, and scandalous grace would melt me into a puddle in a pew in a Protestant church.

    The beauty of the gospel in your voice is so different from all of that. I pray for the chance to share it every day.
    In Him,

    • Clare said...

      First off, you’re a way better writer than I am. I love the way you phrase your reflections.
      Growing up as a protestant, we thought Catholic confessions were a joke. We thought you could shoot someone and get away with saying ten, “Hail Mary’s” It was years later as I began spending time with a Catholic priest, sincerely wanting to understand Catholicism that I understood that most Catholics took the confession of sins seriously, and as you point out, with terror. I then felt bad for them that any person, like a priest could keep them from the joy of their salvation.
      This priest I met with gave me a book, “Catholic For a Reason,” by Scott Hahn. He’s a former Presbyterian, now a Catholic priest. He does a wonderful job of explaining what Catholics truly believe and why. I’ve since bought cases of them for Catholics I’ve met with who really don’t understand why they believe what they do. Interestingly, many then begin reading the Bible for themselves and end up in an evangelical church.
      Thank you for your thoughts. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

  2. Leszek said...

    Clare, what you shared about the common confession time with your college students, confirms a powerful truth – by confessing our sins to one another, we expose them and once they are expose (no more hidden in our life), they loose their’s power, their’s grip upon us. We are not only free and forgiven but enable to stand, walk and live free on!!! This is my experience of confessing sins to another person. Thank you for sharing this with us!!!

    • Clare said...

      Leszek, you have pointed out a truth which those in AA and other recovery programs have always known- “Secrecy is not your friend.” Thank you.

  3. Mike Holton said...

    Clare: I experienced confessing to a complete stranger…someone recommended to me…he agreed to meet with me and saw me begin to fall apart as I confessed. He listened with his heart, I could sense it. The was no judgement or condemnation from him. He suggested that I read the first four books of the New Testament and see if they spoke to me. It was a significant part of a door being opened to me. That man was you. Thank you! There are two other people I have confessed every thing I ever did in my life, to. Again, I experienced grace and compassion. How beautiful and inspiring to see that certain people have come into our lives at certain points in time and have impacted us for a lifetime. As for the guilt part, I learned that remorse is healthy, carrying the guilt for too long starts to drift towards self-absorption. I read that if we don’t forgive ourselves after we know we have been forgiven through Christ, we seriously pain the Holy Spirit. As much as I believe this, it does not take all the guilt feelings away and I feel bad about that. Perhaps some level of “healthy” guilt keeps us from slipping into mediocrity and taking things for granted. There is power in weakness.

    • Clare said...

      Mike, as they used to say, “You’ve come a long way baby!” From those dark days, you’ve always had a teachable spirit and you’re right that we never want to forget completely the pain of past sins, because they serve as warnings to us. Thanks for your wise reminders.

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