One of the most powerful and healing aspects of the Orthodox Christian faith that one encounters is the sacrament of confession. That is, the admission and repentance of one’s sins before Christ in the presence of one’s priest. Ideally, these are sins that one has already acknowledged in some way before God, and prior to one’s entering into the sacramental act of confession. But often one finds that one’s sins are revealed even as other sins are confessed. Confession is not simply an obligation or a legal admission of guilt, but rather it is a “turning away” from the path of selfish, Godless worldliness towards the Kingdom of God in all of its fulness. We humans are meant to serve only one Master, and when we try evade that Master—our Creator and God— we fall into the trap of sin. It is by way of confession that we admit these sins and ask for forgiveness. In the sacrament of confession, we come to our priest having prepared ourselves by prayer and by self-examination, and we offer these sins up to God so that we might both put them behind us and that we night be healed of them.
This is not easy, or perhaps is only rarely easy. Many times, our pride, shame, guilt, anger or other passions prevent us from coming to Christ in the presence of our priest to deal with sin in our lives. We would much rather admit our sins to God in the privacy and convenience of our minds than have to admit our sins verbally in the presence of someone else. This is understandable, and while admitting our sins to God privately is good and right, it often does not allow us to find true and complete healing. We need to name our sins, and we need to do this in the context of a relationship with another person. We were not made to be isolated individuals, without context to one another. Rather we were made to exist in community, with all the joys and struggles and pains and rewards that such a life brings. When we name our sins, out loud and in the presence of another person who loves us and cares for us, those sins quickly lose power over us. We see them for what they are: they are like the demons in Matthew 8:28-34. As we see in this passage, the demons sought to evade Christ, even control his decisions. They sought to go into a herd of swine, and by doing this avoid their own judgment and destruction. Christ permitted them to do this, and yet they were still destroyed: the pigs bolted and ran into the sea where they were drowned. As our Church teaches, the demons ultimately have so little power that they could not even control a herd of pigs! Our sins, while they may be persistent and troubling, are powerless over us when we offer them to Christ in confession.
Confession is not an instant cure-all, but rather it is a regular remedy for us who are seeking after the Light of Christ. I offer the following words on confession composed by Father Thomas Hopko:
If We Confess Our Sins – Fr. Thomas Hopko
It is not enough for us to know our sins and to hate them. We must also confess them before God and man. We must acknowledge them before heaven and earth. We must expose them to the whole of creation in order to be rid of them from within our secret hearts. Confession is part of the spiritual life. Indeed, it is part of life itself. There is no authentic existence for human beings without it. And there is certainly no authentic repentance.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 Jn. 1:8-10)
Some say that there is no need to confess sins openly and publicly. They say that people can confess directly to God. Such an idea is total nonsense. Confession to God in secret is no confession at all. It is simply the acknowledgment before the Lord that we know what He knows! Confession by definition is open and public. If it is not, it is simply not confession.
When the people were repenting in preparation for Jesus at the preaching of John the Baptist, it is written that they were baptized “confessing their sins” (Mk. 1:5). This does not mean that they were telling God in privacy of their hearts what He already knew. It means that they were proclaiming the evils that they had done for all to hear. And when St. James commands Christians: “Confess your sins to one another!” he is not advising them to be aware of their transgressions in the secrecy of their souls. He is ordering them to reveal their wickedness’s to each other so that they might be healed (Jas. 5:16).
If confession is by definition the open and public acknowledgment of sins, why then do the Orthodox confess privately to their priests? Because the pastors do have the ministry of witnessing the confession and repentance of God’s people, and of officially sealing that confession and repentance with the assurance of divine forgiveness through the prayer of absolution.
The reason why people now confess to their pastors in private is because of the weakness of the body of Christians as a whole. Confession used to be public. It was done openly in the presence of all of the members of the Church. Anyone willing to confess in this manner today is welcome to do so. But it would most likely serve only to lead others into temptation rather than to inspire prayerful compassion and sympathetic collaboration in fulfilling the Lord’s commandments. When confession is done to the priest alone, it should be understood that it is to him as if it were to all. Or, to put it another way, it is to all—God and man and the whole of creation—in the priest’s person, as the head of the church community and the sacramental presence within it of the Lord Jesus Himself.
Great Lent is a time for confession. All Christians should make their confession during this holy season. A person who fails to do so is hardly a Christian. He is certainly not Orthodox.
In his spiritual diary, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov gives advice about confession. Advice is also found in the writings of Fr. John of Kronstadt, and in such books as Unseen Warfare and The Way of the Pilgrim. Christians should read writings of this sort to help them with their confession. Theophan the Recluse advised those preparing for confession to study the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) and the first letter of John, together with 1 Corinthians 13 and Romans 12 to 14. These, and other sections of the scriptures, focus sharply on what is expected of Christians in their daily behavior. Fr. Elchaninov writes that confession “springs from an awareness of what is holy, it means dying to sin and coming alive again to sanctity.” It begins with “a searching of the heart.” It moves to a sincere “contrition of the heart.” It expresses itself in the “oral confession of sins,” accomplished “with precision, without veiling the ugliness of sin by vague expressions.” It is fulfilled in the resolution never to sin again, although realizing that we will fall because we are not God. It is sealed by our subsequent sufferings to remain steadfast in our struggle against sin. Such confession is at the heart of our spiritual efforts, especially during the Lenten spring.
Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession. Wherefore be not ashamed or afraid and conceal nothing from me, but tell without hesitation all things which you have done, and so you shall have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us, and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of the things which you have to say. But if you shall conceal anything you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.