Reclaiming the lost art of confession

Photo: Chris Liverani, Unsplash. Photo: Chris Liverani, Unsplash.

When God confronted the first man about eating from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam failed to confess and threw Eve under the bus. “The woman . . . gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). 

I had my own Eden experience not long ago when I discovered a prayer card — gifted to me by a friend — cruelly creased and tossed on the floor of our entryway. I asked our 3-year-old about it, and he didn’t miss a beat. 

“Aiden did it,” he said, incriminating a preschool buddy who has never been over and who certainly hadn’t paid us an impish visit in the prior half hour. “He came to our house, bent that card and left.” So much for truth as the best policy and confession.

My little son is hardly alone in this. I get the sense that in a lot of our circles, the entire biblical category of confession has come under suspicion. We’re not sure we believe in confession, probably because we don’t like all that comes with it — the humility, the questioning of the goodness and dependability of our fundamental instincts, the interrogation of our choices. The very idea of sin. 

One of the mantras of our age is “no regrets,” by which we claim a kind of dignity for even our moral missteps, for they have made us who we are. By this logic, if we had it to do all over again, we wouldn’t change a thing, much less confess it. 

All of which stands at odds with Scripture. “All have sinned,” says Paul (Romans 3:23). “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar,” says John (1 John 1:10). And James: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (5:16).

James locates confession within the church community, making his exhortation in the context of calling “the elders of the church” for prayer (5:14). Confessing our sins to God is good, but the brother of the Lord knows there’s something potent in baring our souls to another flesh-and-blood human being. Confess to one another. Pray for one another. We need the vulnerability and humility that come from trusting another disciple with the clammy shame of our deepest wrongs. 

According to James, we shouldn’t make our confession to just any believer. It’s got to be an “elder” — someone grounded enough to offer “the prayer of faith” that brings healing and forgiveness (5:15). The vulnerability of confession must be met by the gentleness of one who has journeyed long years with Jesus. And it’s not your spouse, if you have one.

James urges confession and prayer “so that you may be healed.” To confess a sin is to remove something of its power, cast a light on our misdirected drives and open the way for growth. The stinging wine of confession has to wash our wounds before they can be anointed with the healing oil of grace (Luke 10:34). 

In my experience, confession makes us transparent. It carves through our easygoing self-deception. We can’t know ourselves without confession. It’s from a true sense of self that we begin to pray truly as “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). 

We’ve lost the art of confession in part because the ritual moorings that might have bound us to it have come undone. The Anabaptist reformers booted confession’s sacramental form 500 years ago, but at least we had communal versions like the -council meeting where church members pledged before pastor and bishop that they were right with God and neighbor. Those iterations of confession have also mostly faded, leaving a meager evaporite of confession during the communion service. Whether that light-duty liturgical piece can endure is an open question. 

Perhaps we can begin to reclaim confession by examining ourselves before God. An introspective review of the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins will jog our consciences. 

After that, we can turn to a spiritual director or pastor. We can seek out a wise elder who knows how to listen and who’s acquainted enough with the low-rent warrens of the human heart so as to be unsurprised.

We have to start somewhere. To learn confession again is to take a step back toward Eden where our first parents walked with God and spoke to him as friends. 

Brad Roth

Brad Roth is lead pastor of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kan., and the author of The Hunger Inside: How Read More

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