ON HOLY CONFESSION

by Fr. John Maxwell

 

Sin forms a barrier between God and man. Isaiah declared this when he said, “Behold the Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59: 1-2). The Psalmist expressed the same sentiment when he said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18).

Sin also builds walls between people. The weight of sin causes couples to separate and even divorce. Friendships are disturbed if not broken through its commission. Trust is destroyed, loyalty violated, and love forgotten through sinful acts. In both the Church of the Old and the New Testaments, those who failed to repent were separated from the community of faith (Num. 16; Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5).

The remedy for such a condition begins with the confession of sins. The book of Proverbs declares, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper but whosoever confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). In the Old Testament confession was never exclusively a private affair between God and man. Rather we have evidence that confession was made in the presence of others. Lamak by confessing his sins to his wives limited his punishment (Gen. 4: 23-24 — see the LXX). The children of Israel confessed their sin before Moses and asked for his intercession for them (Num. 21:7). Barlaam confessed his sin before the Angel of the Lord (Num. 22:34). Achan confessed his sin before Joshua (Jos. 7:20). Israel confessed its sins before Samuel (1 Sam. 7:6). Saul confessed his sin before Samuel and asked Samuel for the pardon from his sins (1 Sam. 15:24). David confessed his sin before Nathan, and the prophet announced God's forgiveness to David (2 Sam. 12:13).

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are instructed by God to have Job offer up burnt offerings and pray for them for the forgiveness of their sins (Job 42: 7-10).

In the New Testament we are told in James 5:16 to “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” In the early Church, the faithful would confess serious sins publicly and receive forgiveness from Christ through the apostles and their successors who were given the power to bind (retain sins) and loose (remit sins — see Matt. 16:19, 18:18, Jn. 20:23). St. John writes about people who refused to confess their sins publicly, by making the excuse, “I have no sin.” “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:8-9) As the Church grew and became the preferred faith of the State, visitors, strangers and the less committed began to come to Church more frequently. In this situation, it became more beneficial to confess one's sins privately to God in the ear of a father confessor. In the Ancient Church not all priests had the right or were competent to hear confessions. Often an experienced monk, or nun, would hear the confession, provide spiritual counsel and send them to the priest for absolution.

On this question of going to the priest for confession, we should point out that the priest stands as a witness to hear the confession and to pronounce the forgiveness from Christ. The Greek formula for absolution is very clear on this point. It says, “Whatever you have said to my humble person, and whatever you have failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, May God forgive you in this world, and in the next.”

We may ask, why do we confess in the ear of a fellow man, and not to God alone? There are two reasons for this. One, all sins are committed against both God and man, and thus confession needs to be made to both. Moreover, Christians are members of one another. They belong to Christ's Holy Body. The sins that one commits affects the health of the Body. We, therefore, need to be accountable to each other and not only to God.

Two, we need to humble ourselves consciously before God and man and receive guidance and prayer from others. We need this guidance, first of all because most of us are very poor judges of ourselves. We may feel that we are doing fine when everyone else can see that we are not. Or we may feel like a spiritual failure when real progress is being made. We also need this prayer and guidance so that we do not fall into the dangerous spiritual condition of being self-willed. Such a state is manifested when one lives independent from the community of faith, isolates oneself by thinking that this can be handled by myself, tries to be their own spiritual doctor, or goes in their own direction. This state is the mark of a soul that has fallen into pride. The person, however, who humbles himself or herself by giving a full and honest confession, demonstrates godly sorrow and a sincere desire to live a life free from sin (2 Cor. 7:10).

It is a sad commentary that people will pay large sums of money to counselors, confessing, so to speak, their sins, and yet avoid the sacrament of confession, short-changing themselves from the blessing of being cleansed by Christ. It is pitiful that people love to confess their sins publicly on television and even delight in their scandalous lives, but have no thought of repentance. It is equally disconcerting that so many do damage to themselves and others by holding sins inside themselves due to shame, guilt or embarrassment, never receiving the inner healing and guidance which comes through a grace filled relationship with a spiritual father. In fact, St. James emphasizes this point when he says to confess “so that we may be healed.” (James 5:16)

Most of all, it is sad that groups like Promise Keepers or 12 step programs recognize the need for and fruitfulness in “admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” while many Orthodox fail to avail themselves of this forgotten medicine — the sacrament of Confession. May God give us the strength and courage this Lenten Season to avail ourselves of this spiritual medicine so that we may “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” (Heb. 12:1)

From The Dawn
Newspaper of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America
March 1998

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