Thursday, June 29, 2006

Confession: The Value in Moral Self-Expression

Ahhhh, the good ol’ practice of admitting we’re wrong. You know, as hard as it is, it actually feels kind of good once we do it. It’s not instinctive, and it usually takes a long time to come around to it. I’ve heard it said that criminals often begin to leave clues behind because secretly they want (need) to get caught. When they finally are caught, I don’t doubt that relief is the prevailing emotion. But confessing not only goes against our survival instincts and the more base aspect of our nature, but it also goes against the culture. Many social critics regard the “no fault” divorce as one of the greatest tragedies in wording, as it has allowed an entire “no fault” culture to emerge. All that complaining we heard from our grandparents about how no one is responsible anymore, or how all these silly lawsuits are making life more expensive from us stem from the frustration of watching the concept of “no fault” become en vogue.

In Protestant circles, I wonder if a renewed discussion on the merits of individual confession and forgiveness would make a dent in the “no fault” delusion. Given that the Roman Catholic Church continues to consider confession (Penance) a sacrament and priests offer stories of waiting 15 years for one person to come, perhaps it wouldn’t make a difference. But when Luther considered Confession and Forgiveness to be a mere extension of baptism and thus not a sacrament on its own, I wonder if he could have foreseen the way the Church would essentially abandon confession and eventually regard baptism in such high esteem that it almost becomes a superstitious event of universal forgiveness? If Protestants had never officially declared Confession to no longer be a sacrament, how different would our world be?

Again, Catholics officially retained the practice of Penance, but did Protestants influence them to think they don’t need it, either? It’s impossible to say. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is that it is very easy to believe the lie that we don’t sin, we can save ourselves, and confessing silently in our mind/heart is the same as confessing to our brother. It’s not. When we allow ourselves to confess to another person, we experience the true relief of admitting guilt as well as the security of community. With another person, and not just some vague conceptual God, we experience the sensation of admitting something we would prefer to be hidden, and still having that person accept us. It is a rare experience, possible only with a spouse or truly great friend outside of clergy, and one that goes against our tendencies to hide the things about ourselves we think will be the most damaging to our precious reputations.

That being said, I have only been to Confession once and it was a rather intimidating experience. The pastor was very good at it, and helped me find the balance of admitting appropriate guilt without beating myself up. I can understand why even the most practiced Christian (much less non-Christian) finds the confessional booth or kneeler anathema.

But not only is it largely ignored by individuals, the liturgy of my own Church is going against the concept of confession altogether. Having “successfully” replaced the practice of individual confession with a “Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness”, our new service books takes it a step further, where we provide an option instead of the “Brief Order”: “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” I understand the huge and profound importance of baptism, and I don’t want to neglect it in any form or fashion. And I do agree that forgiveness is an extension of baptism, etc. But when we get away from the confession of our nature, and instead turn worship into a gigantic celebration, what are we saying about God? Does God desire, or even need us to be honest about the way we fall short, or does he just want us to be happy that we’re baptized? Isn’t the possibility that we can take advantage of the gift of baptism with such a glorification of it worse than the “medieval” act of confession?

Finally, what has happened and what will happen as we get away from our own sin? I have heard that individual confession is gaining, very slowly but surely, in “popularity” again. Priests and pastors are encouraging it, and there are a few more takers than in years past. Good; the process of abandoning the lies we can easily slip into is the beginning of spiritual health. And this isn’t to say we go into the confessional booth to beat ourselves up, or to get beat up. Quite the contrary: we hear about the grace of God in an entirely new way, spoken to us as an individual by a priest or pastor who is acting in the stead of God. Given that many protestants and even some Catholics have never even experienced this once, I lament from time to time that Luther didn’t hang onto Penance as a third sacrament.

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