“Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
The grace of the gospel confronts us with the hard truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are – You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are. . .you do not have to go on lying to yourself and to others.
When we think of confession we think of the Catholic Sacrament. We might go as far back to the Middle Ages to the abuses of the selling of indulgences. We might not know much at all. In the past in the Catholic Church, it looked something like this: A parishioner would come to the priest and begin with a recitation of sins (confession). Then her or she would make an expression of sorrow with an Act of Contrition, and an agreement then to make some satisfaction for their sins by accepting their penance, and resolving to change their ways (conversion).
Why confess? Bonhoeffer believed that in confession there takes place – a breakthrough to community and a breakthrough to the cross. It is a breakthrough to community because sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them.
A breakthrough to the cross occurs, as well. Bonhoeffer believed the root of all sin is pride, superbia. I want to be for myself: I have a right to be myself, a right to my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. Confession in the presence of others is the most profound kind of humiliation. It hurts, makes one feel small: it deals a terrible blow to one’s pride. To stand there before another Christian as sinner is an almost unbearable disgrace. By confessing actual sins the old self dies a painful, humiliating death before the eyes of another Christian. Because this humiliation is so difficult, we keep thinking we can avoid confessing to one another – and that’s precisely the reason we should. We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we are afraid of going to the place where Jesus can be found.
In Christ, the love of God came to the sinner. Every pretense came to an end in Christ’s presence. This was the truth of the gospel in Jesus Christ: the misery of the sinner and the mercy of God. The community of faith in Christ was to live in this truth. That is why Jesus gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in Christ’s name. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
When he did that, Christ made us into the community of faith, and in that community Christ made the other Christian to be grace for us. Now each stands in Christ’s place. In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend. Thus the call within the Christian community to mutual confession and forgiveness goes out as a call to the great grace of God in the congregation.
Sandra DeGidio teaches her Catholic readers that there is a third part to the Rite of Reconciliation: first conversion, then confession, and finally, Celebration. Celebration makes sense only when there is really something to celebrate. Each of us has had the experience of going to gatherings with all the trappings of a celebration – people, food, drink, balloons, bands – and yet the festivity was a flop for us. For example, attending an office party can be such an empty gathering for the spouse or friend of an employee. Celebration flows from lived experience or it is meaningless. The need for celebration to flow from common lived experiences is especially true of sacramental celebrations.
What we need to help us feel more comfortable with the idea of celebration in relation to Reconciliation is a conversion from our own rugged individualism. If all the ultimately matters is individual autonomy, then forgiveness and reconciliation – which are designed to foster and maintain community – are of little importance. Let’s face it – there is something about believing in a super-hero God from whom we have to earn forgiveness that makes us feel good psychologically. It’s harder to feel good about a God who loves and forgives us unconditionally – whether we know it or not, want it or not, like it or not. In the face of such love and forgiveness we feel uncomfortable. It creates pressure within us that makes us feel we should “do something” to deserve such largess – or at least feel a little bit guilty.
Gregory Jones, the dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, agrees with her. In his book, Embodying Forgiveness, he tells the story of psychiatrist Robert Coles, who went to see a devout Roman Catholic friend who had been hospitalized with cancer. One on of Cole’s visits to the hospital, he found his friend quite angry. A priest had recently been to visit and had wanted to knw how the patient was managing to “cope”: The priest processed “In popular American culture,” he writes, “therapy has become a substitute for the gospel.” He recognizes the need for therapy in human lives, but not in place of our theological journeys. As Christians, we have increasingly secularized our own language. We have tended to adopt nontheological language to describe Christian theology and Christian life. For example, instead of baptism, we talk of “getting the baby done.” Instead of sin and grace, we talk about “accepting that you are accepted.” And instead of practices of reconciliation, we talk about “managing conflict” or “coping with difficult people.”
What we can do about the unconditional forgiveness we receive from God is to forgive as we have been forgiven.