Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Confession, Dandruff, and Tweed Sport Coats?

What is the role of confession in your relationship with God? I found a quote this week that said, “Confession is good for the soul only in the sense that a tweed coat is good for dandruff – it is a palliative rather than a remedy,” meaning that confession soothes and comforts, but does not fix or cure.

My experience with confession has been in basically two forms, silent and corporate. When I have prayed prayers of confession, it has either been just between me and God or in the context of a unison prayer in a worship gathering. I don’t remember ever truly confessing anything personal aloud in front of another person.

That’s not to diminish the power of confession in my own spiritual life, though. I have had moments alone with God in which my soul was bared completely and I emptied myself in God’s presence, truly confessing all that I was carrying. There have also been moments in which my heart has been broken by the words of a unison prayer as I experienced the power of speaking someone else’s words aloud together with my sisters and brothers in Christ.

But when it comes to talking about my own personal sin out loud in front of other people, my experience has been rather limited. I have no confessor. I feel like I might be missing something, but I don’t know for sure. The confessor can help give voice to the confession, can listen well and clarify and shape the confession, particularly if there is a deep enough level of trust present. Absent that trust, though, I suppose a confessor might just get in the way.

Of course, another aspect of confession involves confessing to the person who has been wronged. I remember when I was a kid and Mom caught me stealing a Matchbox car from the store. She made me go back in and confess to the manager, which absolutely killed me! But I never stole anything again, let me assure you of that!

When we confess to the person who has been wronged, we are not quite so sure if we will be forgiven as when we confess to God. In that sense, confessing to God is easier in a way; we are certain of God’s grace and forgiveness but are not certain at all of someone else’s. It is “safer” to confess to God than to another person.

But does that cheapen God’s grace, and thereby lessen somehow the act of confession itself? If I know God’s just going to forgive me anyway, I might as well confess, right? “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)

I guess the important thing is to remember that confession is only one part of repentance, which itself is only one part of salvation. As such, confession can be deeply liberating. Whether speaking the truth to God alone, corporately, or to another person, confession unbottles what’s going on inside you. It is a pressure relief valve, in a way. It doesn’t take the sin away, but it gets it out there so you are free to heal. It is one part in a process.

I love the line, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin,” in Charles Wesley’s hymn. Sin is cancelled (forgiven) by God’s justifying grace but still has power over us. Over the course of the way of salvation, sin’s power is broken by God’s sanctifying grace as we strive for perfection. Asking for forgiveness means first of all saying that there is something to forgive, in other words, confession.

So I guess I like the dandruff on a tweed sport coat image. You still are going to have to brush the dandruff off your shoulder, but you don't feel as bad as you would if you were wearing a black turtleneck. When you confess, you still have the sin, but you don't feel as bad as you would if you hadn't confessed it.

You know how sometimes when you have an argument with someone, the next time you are with them there’s a kind of tension in the room? The only way to break that tension so you can be in a good relationship with them again is often to address the previous argument, or “name the elephant in the room” as they say.

It’s like that with confession, too, I think. God knows you did it; you know you did it; and to break the awkward tension between you and God might necessitate saying out loud that which both of you already know.


Anonymous said...

There's a dude named Nate Larkin who started something called the Samson Society. He was a pastor who struggled with sexual addiction, and found the key to his own restoration started with confession. He developed this society based on honest confession in community. He recognized a tendency in his own life to never actually correct those things he only confessed privately. Confession gives us the opportunity to escape shameful feelings that bind us and to find true accountability. We have a chapter of Samson here, and I know it doesn't in and of itself change me. But it gives me support and courage to approach God with a real desire and starting point to allow God's work to begin.

Larry B said...

I grew up Catholic, and confession as it's done there is probably the one thing I miss most in the protestant church.

Patrick Moore said...

Step 5 of 12: "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." I don't trust people, so I pay someone called a therapist to confess to. The incarnational grace of God comes through other human beings hearing our stuff and speaking words of assurance over us.

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