“Why do Catholics use priests for confession, anyway?”
That was the random question that set me out on my research yesterday. But it wasn’t the question I ended up focused on.
For Protestants, the confession of sin is a largely individual and private ordeal. If you’ve sinned against someone, of course, you are supposed to make amends whenever possible. And the Bible discusses times when it is appropriate for believers to confess sins before the church. But for your general believer? Your run-of-the-mill liar or gossiper or slanderer or malicious thinker?
Well, we confess our sins to God in prayer on our own time.
That should be sobering. Shouldn’t it? To have to stand before the throne of a holy God who cannot tolerate impurity or anything less than perfection, to know you are standing on nothing more than the blood of Christ which permits the absolution of your sins, and to say, “I have failed, and I did not keep Your commands in spite of everything You are and in spite of everything You’ve done for me?” To know that the deserved blow that should have landed on you instead landed on Him?
But for a lot of us, confession isn’t sobering at all. It’s something we just sort of…do. Like showering. It is habit. It is flippant. As we go about it we lack, in some cases, a serious sense of shame, and acknowledge our sins in the same sort of way we acknowledge we bite our fingernails. “God,” we intone, “forgive me for my sins today,” which calls to mind a sort of amorphous black cloud of Bad Things We’ve Done while being vague enough to keep us all comfortable. Or maybe, cringing, “God, I sinned today…but You saved my soul and paid the price and so it’s going to be just fine!”
See, in my search for why Catholics used priests for confession I started thinking about what it would be like to confess to a priest, myself. It’s something I’ve never done. And I admit it made me uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that the thought of confessing my specific sins to another living, breathing human being is horrifying.
Just think about it. Think about having to admit – not even to a priest, but to any human, to any random member of your congregation – the worst thing you’ve done. Think about whatever act it is that makes you cringe: the thoughts you’ve had that you bit your tongue on but indulged nonetheless, your bloated sense of self and superiority, your deceptions, the malice and thoughts hidden in your heart. Imagine verbalizing them. Imagine having to show someone the you who is like that.
If it doesn’t make you sweat at least a little, you’re missing a sense of your own sinfulness.
And yet we take those things to God with far less shame than we might to another human being! Here, we say, I lied today, and I thought bad things about my neighbor, and I know You wanted me to give that man a ride but he smelled bad and I was worried about my car. I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time. We discuss the stain that but for the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ would send us to hell in the same way we discuss forgetting something on the grocery list. We lack a sense of the profundity of grace and of the wretchedness of our own lives; I don’t think we thoroughly get how much our sin falls short of what we are supposed to be and how much it offends God.
This isn’t to say that you need to spend days on days beating yourself up for a sin, or getting hung up on what a sinner you are. Guilt over forgiven sin is a tool of the enemy and it will trap you – there’s a whole other post I could write about that. What I want to advocate is that we realize the enormity of what is happening when we confess sin to God. That we understand what sin is: that it is repugnant, that it offends a holy God, that it is awful, that it carries a penalty so heavy we could never hope to pay it or bear it, and that our only escape from it hinges on that same holy God’s reckless, unfathomable, passionate love.
This is why in the middle of Lamentations we remember that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (3:22-23). It is only when we can truly grasp the nature of what we do when we sin, and what it means when God forgives us, that we can experience that wonder of renewal – over and over and over.
I started out researching exactly why it was that Catholics confessed to priests (an answer I did, indeed, discover!) But what I ended up with was another question:
Do I take the confession of my sins seriously enough?
No. I don’t. But from here on out I intend to.