“Do you want to come in and see the confessional booth?”
Father Adrian had been such a gracious host, allowing my class of ninth grade Bible students to explore the ins and outs of his sanctuary. The majority of them had grown up in Protestant traditions and had never set foot in a Roman Catholic place of worship. An air of mystery surrounded those “foreign” practices, objects, and places like the tabernacle where the host was kept for the Eucharist and the confessional booth where parishioners would confess their sins to a priest.
To be honest, it was the first time that I had set foot in a confessional booth as well. Though I had attended mass numerous times with my Catholic brothers and sisters, the confessional booth remained a mystery until Father Adrian “pulled back the curtain” – both figuratively and literally. Looking back, I am thankful for the grace I have been shown on this journey by those who genuinely seek to connect beyond our differences.
In my tradition, confession is no less important than in Roman Catholicism, though it is typically more personal in nature. More often than not, I will confess my sins in a time of private prayer, laying my soul bare before God and trusting that Jesus’ sacrifice will forgive me and restore me to fellowship with the Divine. Less frequent are the times that I confess my sins to another person. This personal confession, however, is only part of the story.
The narrative of scripture is focused on full reconciliation and renewal of human beings. To be reconciled to God is only the beginning. The Bible teaches that I must also be reconciled to the people I have harmed and from whom I have been alienated as a result of my sin. It teaches that I must also be reconciled to a broken creation that has been impacted by my sin as well.
In the book of James, we read, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” There it is – right there in ‘ole pesky James. Right there next to rejoicing in trials, being doers of the word, showing your faith through good works, and taming the tongue, James calls us to confess our sins to one another.
The celebrated novelist and pastor, Frederick Buechner, once wrote, “What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.”
We long to know and be known and yet, this kind of knowing seems to be quite low on the list of priorities for most people. Consider how much time and energy is expended trying to manage our appearances. We live in a world of Photoshop and Instagram filters. We manipulate digital likenesses of ourselves to cover up those parts deemed unsightly or somehow less than perfect. We seek to project an image that others might like and/or find attractive. We cover up blemishes and selectively censor the events of our days, highlighting (or even exaggerating) successes while ignoring failures.
I heard one commentator observe that the majority of adult costumes bought this past Halloween were used solely for social media posts. The purchasers had no real intention of wearing them anywhere. Some even hired professional photographers to come to their home to take “spontaneous” shots so that their social media posts project the right image. Even our “candid” shots are not as candid as we would like people to think.
The danger comes when we start playing these tricks with our spiritual lives. Truthfully, we all have things in our past that we would like to hide. We have all made mistakes and carry within our hearts a certain amount of shame and regret. We all have skeletons that we would like to keep in the closet. Many of us live in fear that these secrets might one day be exposed and our illusions of perfection ripped away.
This is why confession can be a powerful tool. Confession becomes the moment we willingly remove the mask and stop pretending to be someone we are not. When we come to God in confession, we are not informing God of anything new. Instead, we are merely agreeing with God already knows to be true. When we come to others in confession, we cease the attempts at manipulation and spin. Daringly true and honest confession can be a time to reveal our true selves to another person – an increasingly rare feat in such a superficial world.
Confession can be a time to remember who we really are and who God really is. It can be a time to receive and to share with another person the grace of God so richly lavished upon us. True and honest confession brings an end to our feeble attempts at “sin management” and marks the beginning of true healing – for individuals, for relationships, and for our world.
Rev. Steven Norris