Confession (Part 1)

The Sacrament of Confession (Part I)

Written by Fr. Michael Shanbour

As I write this, two American astronauts are preparing to take the daring step of being strapped to the top of a rocket, filled up with millions of gallons of explosive fuel, and riding it into orbit around the Earth. Who knows, by the time you read this, it may have happened already. But right now, they are making the final set of preparations. Imagine that was you strapped atop that rocket: you’d want to make sure EVERY detail was covered and that every preparation was made with nothing missed.

As monumental an event as the launch will be, you and I take an even more monumental step every time we approach the Chalice and accept to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Astronauts traverse a few hundred miles to reach the edge of space, but you and I walk toward the Chalice, open our earthly mouths and receive Heavenly Food. This is the most awe-inspiring and audacious act a human can do.

So if it’s that huge of a step we take–much bigger even than Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind–how do we prepare for that?

One of the main things we can do is the spiritual examination and healing act known as Holy Confession. It’s too easy to avoid Confession because the inherent difficulty of it, but when we understand how powerful it is, and how important it is to preparing to approach Christ in the unique way we do in Holy Communion, the importance of it convinces us to overcome our fears and hesitations.

The following is Part 1 in a two-part article, in which Fr. Michael Shanbour lays out the what, where, when, who, how and why of Holy Confession. I hope all will find it helpful in their own preparation to (hopefully soon!) reenter worship in church, and to receive once again the holy Gifts of the Eucharist.

1. What is the Sacrament of Confession?

Confession is part of the process of “repentance” — which is the essence of the Christian life.
Repentance is a change of heart usually with corresponding changes of behavior or attitude.

Repentance includes at least the following: 1) Awareness; 2) Sorrow and Contrition; 3) Confession; and 4) Struggle to Change. It may often include making amends or a penance (see below). Without Confession, repentance is incomplete.  Confession is a verbal acknowledgment of “falling short” of what we are called to be.

2. What is Sin?

The word “sin” (which has so many terrifying connotations in our society) means simply “to miss the mark.” The Greek word, taken from the sport of Archery, was used to designate missing the target.  To sin is to miss the target of what we are created to be. In this sense, to put grape juice in the gas tank of a car is a “sin.” Cars are made to run on gas, and we are made to run by the Grace of God in our hearts. The act of putting grape juice in the car misses the mark of how cars are made to run. To do anything that puts something other than the Grace of God in our hearts/minds/bodies miss the mark of how God made us to work.  Sin is therefore not merely an immoral act…it is not merely something we do, it is something we are NOT doing too…it includes not becoming what we are called to be! And according to the Scriptures and Church Fathers we were created to be clothed in the Light and Grace and Power and Love and Joy of God. God created us to be everything that He is…except by Grace (not by nature). Unless my mirror is not working properly, and my face is glowing with Light (as Moses’ did), then I am missing the mark.  Sin is a condition…a condition that will cause malfunction — in the case of the car, a condition of the gas tank and in our case, a condition of the heart. The car engine will malfunction on grape juice and we will malfunction when separated from God. Sin is a state of the heart; it is the darkening of the heart. (Repentance is the act of cleaning out the heart).

So, if someone snubs us and we feel that passion of anger or indignation or resentment or worse welling up inside us, it is a sign that our heart is still sick — not completely filled with God’s love — and we are missing the mark.  There are different ways of missing the mark. There are different sins, and there are different manifestations of the same sin, with greater or lesser degrees of consequence. Consciously ignoring someone, giving someone a dirty look, hitting someone, and murdering someone, are all a product of the same sin — anger or hatred.  The seriousness of each is different, but the condition of the heart in each case is similar or identical.  This is why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘Thou shalt not commit murder…But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement.” (Matt. 5:21-22) The thought of murder is the same sin as physical killing, and every murder began with a thought…a thought that was not restrained or confessed. This is why Jesus said that all sins and all thoughts come “out of the heart”: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries….” (Matt. 15:19).  So we have all sinned, and every sin in thought is a sign of our heart’s sick condition and a potential sinful act.   Remember St. John says in his first Epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

3. Is the Sacrament of Confession essential? Why is it important?

It is a commonly held personal belief (actually a Protestant belief) that Confession with a Priest is not necessary. “Why must I confess to a Priest…I tell God in private?”  First, it is very important to understand that we Orthodox do NOT confess “to” the Priest. (This is a Roman Catholic understanding). We confess TO God in the presence of the Priest. The Priest is both a representative of the whole Church and a witness to the true condition of repentance in us, that we are truly desiring to be reconciled to God.  Next, the Scripture tells us to confess: St. James’ Epistle says to “Confess your sins one to another.”   Also, the Gospel tells us that St. John the Baptist was baptizing people as they were “confessing their sins.” King David confessed (to murder and adultery) in the presence of Nathan the Prophet (and only after being confronted by him).

– There are other, often very common-sensical reasons that the Church has always had a “public” form of Confession. (In the early Church, sins were confessed publicly to the whole church gathering before the Eucharist began).

– God already knows our sins…confession to God is not really confession properly speaking. We should however confess our sins to God daily…this is part of repentance.

– Telling our sin to another person makes it “real.” How many times have we only finally gotten relief for a guilty conscience after confess out loud? Most of us realize that when we have a problem we need to talk to someone, we need to get things “off our chest.

– We often need help and encouragement to confess and face our sins. Most of us recognize the value of going to a psychologist or counselor in order to figure out our attitudes and behaviors.

– Confession makes us accountable. If we confess to God privately, but have not declared our sin to someone else, there is much less sense of accountability. Its much easier to repeat our sin.   For this reason it has been “popular” off and on in Protestant circles to have “accountability partners”…people with which you confess and who encourage you to remain faithful.

– God ACTS in Confession. Confession is a Sacrament by which GOD acts. In every Sacrament of the Church GOD acts. (In the prayer of absolution the Priest says: “May that same God forgive you…through me, a sinner…”). He does so “through” the Priest, the successor of the Apostles who has the responsibility to guard the Faith, to preserve the integrity of the Church and the souls of Christians.  Jesus Christ acts through His Church, and through those ordained by the Church.   Remember after His Resurrection He said to the Apostles: “Whosoever sins ye remit they are remitted, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” He says in another place, “Whatever sins ye remit they are remitted in heaven.”

– The Grace of God is given in Confession. There is an incredible and undeniable power and grace in Confession. The Sacrament is more than what we might see with our eyes. A drinking fountain that is not being used does not look refreshing. But turn the knob and water gushes forth. It is the same with Confession. Great Grace is imparted to those who take advantage of this Sacrament. Some remarkable and extraordinary “miracles” have been known to happen in Confession…miracles of release from burdens, ephiphanies, something said which pierces the heart and effects change, etc.  It is not so much that God gives the “authority” to the Priest. Rather, He works in His Church through the Priests. His grace and power are available and accessible in and through the Church, Her prayers, Her teachings, Her whole life and atmosphere.