I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Pat Butler’s reflection “Confession: Naked and Unashamed.”
We use the word confession in different ways. We confess things we believe: we confess Christ. We confess ignorance: maybe about technology, when we don’t understand it as well as we’d like. Jesus made the “the good confession” before Pilate. And we confess sin, admitting we got things wrong. I confess I don’t always like that last one. When a Lenten devotional recommended confession as a discipline, I squirmed.
Abbess Christine advises us to lean into dissonance, however, which may hide treasures. So after squirming, I leaned in—in three movements.
Act 1: Location
Who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.—Psalm 19:12
Confession still evokes in me images of a dimly lit church filled with dark corners, flickering candles, and a feeling: foreboding. Ahead in the gloom, at the end of a long colonnade, the shadow of the confessional loomed.
Saturday confession was a staple in my religious upbringing. As a schoolgirl, I invented sins to enter that confessional—scarcely understanding the depths or tenacity of sin. Each week I wondered: was this the day I’d be exposed as a fraud, a liar, an imposter—lying in the act of confessing?
If I went regularly to confession, no one seemed to care how much I sinned. Rather than gouging out our eyes or amputating limbs to prevent sin—Jesus’ prescription—we trusted our rituals to straighten ourselves out. I was glad of it. Weekly confession was less grisly.
But eventually the ritual unraveled for me. “What’s the point?” I wondered. Confession seemed like sin insurance. Through weekly confession, I could sin continually. No need to change. Accepted as a “good” Christian, I was a poor human being, living in false ways of being.
Finally, I gave up the practice, disillusioned by its uselessness in breaking destructive cycles in my life, despite my best intentions. My true motives lay naked and ashamed before God. I left the pews filled with rank and file sinners, heads bowed. The tomb-like silence of the church, punctuated by the latch of the confessional door opening and closing, seemed a place of death.
Act 2: Dislocation
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.—Psalm 32:5
Decades later, I read about confession as a place of reconciliation. Without it, the author maintained, we lose our ability to stand before God. We hide, naked and ashamed, like our first parents.
The thought arrested me. I didn’t want to live like that. What would it be like to live naked and unashamed before God? I never returned to the confessional, but began the spiritual discipline of confession, with the help of Examen questions. Rather than overthinking, overanalyzing, or introspecting, I invited Abba Father to search me and try my heart. Was there any offensive way in me?
I was startled the first morning—challenged to confess fear. As I dug in, I recognized my childhood sense of foreboding. Was I still a fraud? I felt no conviction, just a need to acknowledge the fear before it overtook me. As I did so, the fear revealed its name—fear of God. Was it a sin?
The tension in my body and spirit eased and peace flooded in. I sensed God smiling, rubbing his hands together in delight, saying, “Good! Tomorrow we’ll talk repentance!”
Act 3: Relocation
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.—1 John 2:1
Our Advocate convicts of sin but also defends us. In my second confession, God convicted me of a sin the fear cloaked: believing the lie that if I confessed, I’d be condemned. The sin hiding in dark corners, generating fear, was exposed. Remorse swelled—with a cold-blooded decision of my will to change, to ask forgiveness.
Joy, relief, and lightness of being followed. No condemnation, only love, acceptance, and absolution.
Sometimes we need a confessional. Other times we need only our Father. Sometimes a trusted friend, prayer partner or spiritual director will do. There is strength in numbers, sharing, and community. There is humility in confessing our sins one to another.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.—James 5:16
Epilogue: Assurance of Pardon
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us . . .”—1 John 1:9
In two mornings, I learned two truths: confession helps us avoid sin—catching the little foxes that spoil the vineyard, that lead to sin.Staying naked and letting God cleanse. And confession is not repentance, which might come later or not at all. The word confession means simply to acknowledge. To name things.
Where we’ve been dislocated from the source of life, God relocates us to its full flow. His divine mercy is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love; he forgives, absolves, and restores. Confession takes courage, trust, honesty, vulnerability—living naked and unashamed—my birthright as daughter of the Most High God.