I was thirteen and had just undergone the Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation. The head priest had performed the ceremonial prayer as I piously knelt in front of the altar. To my family and the congregation, this meant I was now a member of the church. To me, this meant I no longer had to go to Sunday School and could thus live my quietly growing agnostic life in peace. There was just one thing left to do - something I had been dreading for weeks now. I had to go to confession.
“What would you like to confess my son?” a bespectacled middle-aged priest leaned down and whispered.
“Umm…I don’t always listen to my parents, I guess?” I stammered into his ear.
“…Are you sure that is all you wish to confess?”
“…Very well,” I could almost hear him sigh. “Then your sins are forgiven, in the Name of the Father…”
I hadn’t thought much about confession in the 20 years since that awkward moment in my life. Sure, when I became a Christian, I began to confess my sins to God. But in, I suppose, partly a rejection of my Catholic upbringing, I didn’t see any reason to confess to anybody else. I disliked the idea that a priest would be the one granting me forgiveness, when I now knew that only God could do that:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” - 1 John 1:9
In short, keep it between me and God, and it will all work out.
Several events over the past summer have radically changed my perspective. I too have recently read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It has greatly helped me conceptualize what a true Christian community should look like. In the last chapter, he specifically addresses confession.
Bonhoeffer argues that there may be times when we go to God to confess, we may in fact still be keeping our sin in the dark. We are in danger of deceiving ourselves into self-forgiveness.
However, “a man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person” (Life Together, pg. 116).
As I mulled over these words, I met up with a few Christian guy friends from college. As we talked, we began to share our struggles with each other. I finally confessed some things that, though I had talked to God about them throughout my Christian life, I had kept locked deep inside myself for a very long time. It is hard to describe, but it all made sense then. I could no longer deceive myself, it was now out in the open. And in that moment there was freedom as well as something I didn’t quite expect - true brotherhood.
In truth, I kept my sin to myself because of my pride. I profoundly feared rejection. When I confessed, I instead found forgiveness and acceptance. James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Bonhoeffer admits it is possible to experience true confession and forgiveness privately before the cross, but God calls us to live in community. This means sharing the good and bad in our lives with each other. When we humbly confess to one another, it is an opportunity for healing as well as an opportunity to build the kind of trust and unity Christ wishes to see in His Body. I pray that we as a church can develop this kind of community because there is nothing quite so powerful as when a brother or sister says, “Yes, I am messed up, too. Let us go to Him together.”