Very often you hear the question, “Why do I need to go tell my sins to a priest? Why can’t I just go to God directly?”
There are many wiser and holier people than me who have handled this subject. My intention is not to speak over and above them. Instead, I will speak of why I need the sacrament of Confession. You may not have the same experience as I have had. But here I will speak to those who are at the same level of spiritual struggle as myself.
Let me say that I do understand the distaste for going to the sacrament. It requires an interruption to the normal flow of the day. Often there are lines that require us to wait in uncomfortable silence. Finally, we enter a small room and have to say out loud the worst parts of ourselves, the parts we would be mortified to say aloud to anyone else.
However, all of these seeming negatives are part of the reason the sacrament is so valuable for someone like me.
I feel the constant urge to excuse my sinfulness. My temper, lust, greed, laziness, pride, and envy assail me every day. When I give in to my vices, I try to console myself by saying, “Okay, I was too lazy to go to Mass this morning, but I’m not that bad of a sinner. I went yesterday, so I’m overall good.” Perhaps none of us formulate these thoughts in those explicit words, but I would imagine that many justify or excuse some of their sins.
But all sin is bad. There can be no compromise on this. When someone goes through cancer treatment, one of the first questions that the patient asks when the treatment is finished is “Did you get it all?” That is because if even the smallest part of the cancer is allowed to remain, it will grow and destroy the patient. The same is true with sin. This is the spiritual meaning behind the herem from the Old Testament, where the Israelites were ordered to kill all of the inhabitants of a given place. Evil, if it is allowed to remain, will grow and corrupt you.
While I should always take time in my daily life to pray to God for forgiveness, this is in some ways too easy. Going out of my way to God’s house, I am acknowledging that my sin requires serious attention. By humbling myself, I can be open to feeling the reality of my sin.
As human beings, sometimes we need to say out loud what is hidden in our hearts. Our secrets are often a burden and there is a cathartic relief in giving voice to them. Fr. Larry Richards once said, “People pay therapists hundreds of dollars for what they can get in the confessional for free.”
But I want to get to the crux of why I need to go. Besides the obvious effect of God’s merciful grace, Confession helps me with the most essential Christian virtue:
We must be forgiving people.
All of us have been hurt, sometimes by those close to us and those we love dearly. And yet, even these hurts we are called to forgive.
But how can we forgive those who have betrayed our trust? How can we forgive a person who wounded us so deeply and broke our hearts so callously?
Because that is what the Lord has done for me.
When I go to Confession, I experience the deep humiliation of someone who must own up to how sinful I am. Jesus loves me so much that He gives everything, even His life on the Cross, just for the chance that I would accept life with Him. Even as I write these words, I reflect on all the ways I have failed today at living the way He asks. When I go to the confessional, I find myself repeating many of the same sins over and over again, feeling great sorrow over the fact that I keep returning to the same vices.
And yet, Christ never withholds His forgiveness.
If He will always forgive me for my sins and failings, how can I not forgive others?
When people stop going to Confession, the spirit of our age begins to creep into the soul. We live in a world where we are quick to signal our own virtue by condemning the sins and faults of others. How often has the digital mob of cancel culture stirred into a flame the rage and fury? I believe this is often fueled by a need to set ourselves up as the moral betters who can condemn those morally worse.
But this is the opposite of the Christian message. Remember the parable Christ told:
He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
If I stop going to Confession, I know I will turn into the Pharisee who is so supremely convinced of his virtue. Or at the very least I would make excuses for my sin and compare myself to those who I would deem “beneath” my forgiveness. But I need to be like the tax collector, to humble myself before God and say out loud my faults. I need to take ownership of my sin and see how unworthy I am for the great forgiveness that God gives me.
When I see that, forgiveness flows from me. I have had students vandalize my car and libel me on social media. I forgive them.I have had friends turn their backs on me and betray me. I forgive them. I have members of my family say things that tore my heart so deeply that I cried myself to sleep. I forgive them.
I can forgive because of the forgiveness I receive constantly from the Sacrament of Confession.
Copyright 2021, WL Grayson.