Last year 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 sometime.”
After less than five minutes he just came out with it, “I did something terrible with my girlfriend 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 the girlfriend. 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 behind 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 Therefore, while we ourselves cannot actually forgive a fellow follower of Jesus of any 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 and evidenced by heartfelt repentance.
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:
I go to God and confess my sin with great sadness and without excuse.
I go to that person and sincerely apologize.
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.
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 other scripture references 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 years 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.
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?