Perhaps one of the most unique gifts the Catholic Church has to offer is something that is not even on the radar screen of most other Christians; the sacrament of confession. After Peter testified that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” the power to bind and loose was bestowed on him: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19). Jesus gave this power to all the apostles after His resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23).
At this point I must clear up a very common misconception about Catholic confession. Please take a good luck at the above picture of a man in a confessional booth. Do you see who is listening to the man’s confession? You won’t see a priest, but you may notice a faint sketch of the Lord Jesus. Catholics believe that when a person goes into the confessional, he is confessing his sins to Jesus, not to the priest. The priest is there in persona Christi—that is, in the person of Christ. (Remember if you hear it in Latin, pay attention—it’s important!)
- When the priest hears confession and gives absolution, Jesus is using his ears and lips. As embodied spirits, we need to know that Jesus hears our words. Most priests will tell you that they have little recollection of what they hear in the confessional. It is a grace that Jesus gives the priest not to be burdened with someone else’s shortcomings. And remember: the “seal of the confessional” means that your confession of sins remains a holy secret.
- Jesus also knows that we need assurance that our sins are truly forgiven. Once again, we should not be thinking about the priest when we hear the words of absolution. The priest has the joy of declaring, by the binding and loosing power bestowed by Jesus at his ordination, that the person’s sins are indeed forgiven, and his soul is again white as snow.
- Jesus knows that we sometimes need help, encouragement, counseling, and specific advice on what do to next. He uses the priest’s voice to speak to us.
Now, as an evangelical, I believed that I was a sinner. I could quickly recite to you Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God,” and I John 1:9, “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” I readily confessed that I was a sinner.
But here’s the kicker. If you were to ask me, “OK, Melanie, name your particular sins,” I would begin to flounder. While I theologically confessed myself a sinner, I actually viewed myself as a pretty good person. As a result, I’d have a really hard time articulating what my particular sins were. One priest joked with me when I couldn’t think of anything, “Well, Melanie, I guess we can sign you up for sainthood.”
This is the genius of the confessional. A person has to actually think about and then articulate his particular sins. This was so revealing to me. I realized that unless I did that, I would never know what needed to be improved. Remember, the goal is true holiness—not just having my sins covered, but really being changed. “A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit.” (Ps. 51:12).
So that still left me with the question, “OK, how do I know what my sins are?” One thing I really love about the Church is the fact that they have done their homework. Sin is carefully defined and fleshed out. I love that. To be considered a sin, an act or thought must meet three requirements. First, the action must be objectively wrong or evil. Second, you must know that it is wrong or evil. Third, you must freely choose to do the wrong or evil action.
So how does this play out? Let’s start with emotions. Emotions are not sins. They just are emotions, feelings which motivate action. They pop into our hearts and heads uninvited—some are welcome and some are not! But, how you respond to an emotion may be sinful. For example: you are furious with your sister because she borrowed your best sweater. Being furious is just an emotion. But the sin happens—or not—depending on what you do with your anger: striking out to get even or forgiving the offense. Here is another example: a man is tempted by a sexy woman. Temptation is not a sin. It is just a temptation. But, your response to the temptation, either in thought or action, will determine if you have sinned. Was your action wrong? Did you know it was wrong? Did you freely choose to do the wrong action? All three requirements must be in place before a person is held accountable for a sin.
So, how do I know what is objectively wrong or evil? The answer is found in Scripture and Tradition. A person prepares for confession with a thorough “examination of conscience.” This can be done in a guided way by reflecting on the meaning and scope of each of the Ten Commandments, and then carefully considering where one has fallen short. Learning how to make a good confession is a skill worth learning, and the Holy Spirit is there to help you each step of the way.
Another bit of genius about confession is that you can articulate only your own sins. You cannot get into the confessional and list the sins of your spouse, or describe how rotten your friend is, or rail against the unjust actions of another. You can only talk about how you treat your spouse, how you responded to the hurt of your friend, or how you handled the injustice.
I can honestly tell you that the confessional was one of three gifts the Lord gave me to save my marriage. (The other two were NFP and poverty). At a particularly low point in our marriage, I wanted out. I was just so sick of being unable to solve our problems. We had seen a number of marriage counselors—five or six? (One wouldn’t see us a second time, and another dismissed us half way through a session.) I wanted out, but I couldn’t figure out what to say in the confessional about why I wanted to end my marriage that would not be sinful. I just couldn’t think of anything—and I spent a whole summer trying! Believe it or not, this sacrament saved my marriage. We have now celebrated 31 years of marriage—with many more good years than bad. Give me the confessional over the marriage counselor any day!
Can God forgive sins in any other way besides the confessional? Of course He can! There is a saying, “God is bound to His sacraments, but He is not bound by His sacraments.” If you go out to the woods and shout your sins to the trees, God could very well forgive them. He is not bound by His sacraments. But He is bound to his sacraments and has promised to forgive sins in the sacrament of confession. When you hear the priest absolve you, you should leave confident that your sins have truly been forgiven. Whether you feel forgiven is beside the point. Remember: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” While Christ can forgive sins anywhere and at anytime, the confessional is the means He provided to make sure we keep a “short list” of transgressions. And, with the counsel of a good priest and the healing grace bestowed by Christ in the sacrament, we can make some real progress on the path of holiness that leads to heaven.
The Catholic Church frequently impresses me with the beautiful balance in all of its teachings. Here is an example. There are two ways to go astray in regard to the sacrament of confession. One is “scrupulosity,” thinking, “I’m so wicked. God could not possibly forgive me.” Some people jump to absurd conclusions, like this one: “I stepped on an ant, and God said, ‘You shall not kill.’ I am lost!” Scrupulosity leads to despair, and despair is the sin of doubting God’s mercy. The opposite extreme is “presumption,” thinking, “I’m not worse than anyone else. God is so loving He won’t ever punish me.” Presumption leads to pride, and pride is the sin of refusing to let God be God. Now it is true that God loves each one of us more that we can possibly imagine, and it is His greatest joy to have us live with Him eternally. He has given us everything we need to return to Him, including the ultimate sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. But God is also holy, and He cannot let sin into his heaven. Sin separates us from God, and sin is the ultimate misuse of the great gift of free will. God sends no one to Hell. Those who end up in Hell have only themselves to blame.
Jesus gave us the sacrament of confession as an essential tool for restoring broken relationships with God and with one another, and for growing in personal holiness. I wish all my Christian brothers and sisters would come to appreciate the worth of this amazing treasure.
Melanie Frei was an evangelical Protestant missionary to Hong Kong with her husband Tom, pastor and seminary professor. But when they studied Scripture and Church history, the two of them decided to leave their ministry and enter the Roman Catholic Church. Melanie is the mother of three incredible young adults and three awesome grandchildren and is also a substitute teacher in the Tomah Area School District. Her favorite ministries are leading Bible studies, music and pro-life work. For fun, Melanie is a total fan of BBC dramas and Regency romance.