Confession in community is something I want to grow in. I am aware that there are limits to how much we can confess very personal sins and short-comings to a large group but I want to try to work on this area of my life. I also want to learn how to be more transparent with regard to confession in a smaller group. I think there is a connection between confession, prayer and healing. In fact, I suspect that this is something God is trying to teach all of us.


Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. –James 5:16

Could the act of confession be the means of grace in our lives? I suspect so. So why have I learned from my experience in church meetings that confession rarely takes place in the context of church gatherings? If God is offering healing through this means of grace, why not explore it further?

What is it that God is healing in us through confession? I’m wondering this myself. I think of the brokenness caused by lies I have believed; the burns that shame from failures hidden from others has seared onto my heart; the deafness learned from not hearing the words “you are forgiven”; the cancer of pride that consumes from thinking I don’t have anything that needs confessed; how my heart has grown stony, cold, and defensive from not communicating openly, from not practicing vulnerability, from not trusting God or the communion of saints.

Like most people, I resist showing my ‘bad side’ to others. There is also a side of me that is very cautious about sharing my own sins because I don’t want what I say to be used against me. Can you relate to this? What are the proper boundaries of public confession? What are some ways for Christian communities to practice confession as a regular discipline? How do we discover what sins we can confess in a large group setting and those best kept to only a few close friends? Regardless, I know that confession is a spiritual discipline and as we engage it we must confront our own pride and our tendency towards all kinds of sophisticated ‘cover-ups’.

We cannot force one another to confess. This rather misses the point. Confession, however, is not easy, and if I wait until I feel like doing it I probably won’t ever do it. I think it’s probably one of those things we can/should make a commitment to doing, as a starting place at least. This could occur between two or several individuals. In a larger context, we can also give space for this on a regular basis (which at GW we kind of are doing…at least, we are talking more about it) and hope that we will trust one another increasingly and allow each other to be involved in each of our healing.

In some ways, the problems we face today are not very different from the problems revealed in Genesis 2-3. Rather than confess our sins (which is agreeing with God), my tendency is to run away from God, hide and point the finger first blaming God and then blaming someone else. So how can I get beyond the habit of spiritual blindness? I am unsure but I do know I can’t figure this out by myself. I want to grow in this area because I see a connection between confession and healing and I want to be healed so that I am more free to love. I also see a deep connection between confession and trust, confession and true community, confession and self-respect.

I’ve found that confession removes this lie we believe that others are somehow more perfect, more “arrived”, that we are alone in our struggles and failures.  I think there is also something in giving words to things.  In giving words to fears, to failings, or whatever we need to confess; it becomes less of this ominous, foreboding, indefinable presence and becomes more bounded and identified.  We are able to look at it and say, “Oh, so THAT’S what you are.”

I think that there are probably different contexts appropriate for different things.  For most of us the practice of confession is relatively foreign and scary and certainly a new level of transparency that requires intentionality.  I think we can ask for safe opportunities/places/relationships in which to practice this, with an individual or a group.  In my experiences, even sharing small things with one person has given me greater courage to share more deeply and with different people.

What then is the role of leadership in helping others grow in this area of confession? I think our role is simply to intentionally find our way into the process. While leaders do set examples and while growing leaders do want to be more transparent, in the end, I think what everyone wants is for leaders simply to demonstrate their desire to grow in this area by making space for it to happen in the context of our community life. And I desire to make space because I desire to grow.

I appreciate the role leadership can take in finding our way into these processes, in making space for this. Sometimes I wonder, though, how much we don’t do because we’re waiting for someone else (a pastor, president, or whatever kind of leader) to start things. And this is not the fault of the leader; he or she is limited just like the rest of us. A good thing a leader can do is to give space for others to initiate and lead in spheres or topics that which energize or convict them. It’s unrealistic to think that any one leader could lovingly push a group in all the places needed, and lazy for the group only to wait for specific directives from leadership before pursuing growth. I know from personal experience that this is an easy mindset to embrace.

Recently I rediscovered a prayer of confession (I think it’s from the Book of Common Prayer) that a friend and I had spent some time with a couple years ago, and it’s been something I’ve been thinking about and praying. I’ve found it to be a useful tool in thinking about confession, and in giving words to it, and in doing it. This is part of the prayer:

    Most holy and merciful Father,

    I confess to you and to the whole communion of saints
    In heaven and on earth

    That I have sinned by my own fault

    In thought, word, and deed;

    By what I have done and by what I have left undone.

    I have not loved you with my whole heart, mind, and strength;

    I have not loved my neighbor as myself;

    I have not forgiven others as I have been forgiven.

    Have mercy on me, Lord.

    I have been deaf to your call to serve as Christ served us.

    I have not been true to the mind of Christ.

    I have grieved you Holy Spirit.

    Have mercy on me, Lord.

 — Anne Wilson & Keith Wasserman



Filed under Wrestling with issues of perspective


  1. billy duraney

    Keith and Anne –

    Praised be Jesus! I hope all is well with you. I really enjoyed this post, because it brings up some interesting issues regarding something that is practiced often (albeit often begrudgingly) in my own Church. I would like to take the opportunity to put forth a brief description of some Catholic teachings on Confession in direct response to some of the points raised in this post, perhaps to answer some of the questions you’ve asked or to inspire further thought about this important and largely neglected area of Christian tradition. (p.s. since i don’t know who wrote which parts of the post, i will refer simply to a generic “you” as the author. hopefully this isn’t confusing.)

    To begin with, I’d like to address a pressing issue for people about the Catholic tradition of Confession: the fact that the Church “makes you” go. You yourself mention that “We cannot force one another to confess.” This is true, just like we cannot force one another to become Christians: love and worship of God, if not freely given, is neither love nor worship properly speaking. What I mean to say here is that when the Church requires Confession for certain grave sins, this is to be interpreted in the same way as when She requires Baptism for entry into the Church. She doesn’t force anyone, but instead recognizes that God has set up certain institutions on earth by which He desires praise and petition be rendered to Him. Which brings me to my next point:

    You say “Could the act of confession be the means of grace in our lives? I suspect so.” This is precisely the view that the Church takes, which is why Confession is called a sacrament in the Catholic Church. It’s not just that we happen to confess our sins and then God happens to decide to forgive us and give us grace to avoid future sins. Instead, when we confess even our small, day-to-day sins and struggles, the Sacrament is really a means by which God grants us grace.

    Perhaps the biggest difference between Catholic Confession and the Confession that you are describing here – and perhaps people’s biggest hangup about Catholic Confession – is that fact that we confess to a Priest rather than to a friend or to a group of people. Obviously, being a Sacramental Church, the Catholic notion of the Priesthood is a little different than most Protestants’ idea of a Pastor (at least those with which I am familiar). So when I go to Confession, I recognize that the Priest, in the Sacrament, is acting “in persona Christi” (which is a Latin phrase we use meaning “In the person of Christ”). In other words, the Priest is the visible minister of Christ Himself, to whom I am really confessing my sins.

    Yet the fact that a Priest hears my confession (as opposed to just any Christian, who is also a minister of Christ in a way) is important in Catholicism, because Christ explicitly gave Peter and the Apostles the power to forgive sins. In Matthew 16:19, Our Lord says “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” and in John 20:23, he tells them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Indeed, the quote from James which you give in your post occurs in the context of James admonishing his brothers and sisters to call for the “elders” (Gk: “presbyters” => Eng: Priest) in times of need because their prayers forgive sins.

    Obviously the fact that the sacramental nature of Catholic Confession requiring a Priest also solves the problem of which sins to reveal in which contexts. Priests are bound by what is called the “seal” of Confession, which is to say that they cannot reveal to anyone that a person has even been to see them for Confession under penalty of excommunication. This allows the penitent to be confident in revealing all his sins to the Lord at once, rather than trying to discern which ones to tell which people.

    All this is not to say that one can’t or shouldn’t reveal some of his sins to others, especially those whom he has harmed most directly in his sins. I think that your discussion of Confession here really highlights the “communal” aspect of sin; i.e. even our most “private” sins, insofar as they hurt even one member of the body, hurt the entire body. When I sin, I always sin against God and the whole Church, and sometimes it can help us find healing to tell the rest of the Church (or at least some of them). I think you explain this really well.

    One of the most enlightening parts of this post, for me, was the comment you make about giving words to things and making them more real. I think this idea is at the heart of the great wisdom of God (as if I could understand the heart of God’s wisdom! ha.) in asking His children to confess their sins. If Jesus is the Word of God (Gk: “Logos”, cf. John 1:1), then God’s utterance is a total self-gift. Likewise, we who are in the image of God, are blessed with this effect, to a degree; our words are creative. Once something is said it’s “out there” and in a way no longer belongs solely to me. I’ve never thought about this in connection with Confession until now. It makes sense that by offering our sins verbally to Jesus, we are really making an offering, allowing Him to take our spoken sins and remove them, once we are willing to separate ourselves from them. Sadly, so many of us have grown so comfortable in our sins, or even identify ourselves with them, to the extent that having them taken from us is utterly terrifying. I really liked this insight.

    Thanks again for this great post. I have gleaned much from it that I have not even begun to mention here. I think I have developed a greater appreciation for this Sacrament which I practice, all too often without giving nearly enough reverence and awe to the absolutely ineffable love poured out upon me in it. I will end with another “Prayer of Confession” (we call it an “Act of Contrition”) which can be said within the Sacrament or at any time. There are a million versions but this is approximately what I usually say:

    O my God,
    I am heartily sorry
    for having offended Thee.
    I detest all my sins,
    because I dread the loss of Heaven
    and the pains of Hell;
    but most of all
    because they offend Thee O Lord,
    Who are all good
    and deserving of all my love.
    Therefore I firmly resolve
    to confess my sins,
    to do penance,
    and to sin no more,
    with the help of your Son,
    Our Lord Jesus Christ

  2. Paul Richard

    I believe it is appropriate for us to seriously consider public confession. The Church is the body of Christ and we are the expression of his glory, which, according to Exodus 34 is that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. The public confession, be it to two people or 50 people, is an opportunity to receive the forgiveness of the community but also of God.

    I was involved in a very personal experience of a public confession. A pastor of a local church had committed adultery. On a Sunday morning he tearfully confessed to his sin before the congregation. I do not know if this was a willing confession, or if he got caught and had to confess in the form of a resignation. Nevertheless, it was a confession and I perceived it to be sincere.

    Two things came out of this which were very significant to me.

    First, the congregation had a chance to expression their feelings of being hurt, and betrayed. Many cried over their hurt, but appropriately expressed this. The pastor needed to hear this. There was anger, but it was also appropriately expressed.

    Second, this pastor heard the congregation forgive him. Together we prayed for him, laying hands on him as he kneeled at the altar. We prayed for God to forgive him and to heal him, to restore him and his family.

    I believe the glory of God was displayed that morning in that congregation as the grace of God was extended to him. Though he still has a difficult journey of healing ahead, the first and necessary step of that healing has taken place.

    One of the reasons that I believe this kind of confession is so difficult is that we do not know what to expect from our brothers and sisters when we stand before them to confess our sin. This pastor was no doubt terrified of what he had to do, but it was the right thing. This is where a leader can really help. Providing the community with a framework for response lets them know what they should do when a confession is given and what to expect when the individual is in the place of making a confession. This will not necessarily make it easier, but it does remove some of the unknown from the experience.

    May God help me to grow in this practice of confession that I may abundantly receive of his grace and the love of the community!

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