It seems we give little thought to the actual meaning of confession/forgiveness as understood by Jesus and is perhaps the reason we too often find ourselves going back time and time again to behaviors that we’ve sort of confessed. It has been said that “bread is the first need of the body and forgiveness the first for the soul.”
In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to another? God is holy and sinless, God is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But another person is sinful as we are. The other knows from experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to another than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not real forgiveness?
Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only be the judging and pardoning Word of God itself. Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother (or sister, this was written in 1954!). Our brother breaks the circles of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sin everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment, It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.”
We like Bonhoeffer are Lutheran and the Lutheran view of confession is different than that of the Roman tradition because it is all about reminding ourselves, and being reminded by God, that we are not God. There is only one God. Our understanding of confession is also connected to the sacrament of Baptism and is almost sacramental in nature. When we think that our actions and works can make up for our sins, we are trying to be God in God’s place. When we decide that we have to name every single sin because our human sins are the focus of confession, and not God’s gift of forgiveness, we are trying to be God in God’s place. When we make judgements on people and tell them how bad their sins are and what they have to do to make it right before God, we are trying to be God in God’s place. The Lutheran view of confession does not allow us to try usurp God: only God can absolve sins and give life and salvation.*
Bonhoeffer so eloquently wrote, “What happened to us in baptism is bestowed on us anew in confession. We are delivered out of the darkness into the kingdom of Jesus. That is joyful news. Confession is the renewal of the joy of baptism.” So it feels like a good way to think about it, bread is the first need of the body and forgiveness the first for the soul. My focus on the Confession and Absolution will be more intentional in the future because it is not a rote exercise but a soul renewing gift.
*Hordern, Marja (2018) “The Precious Treasure of Confession and Absolution,”