Confessions About Confession, Part One

Timothy Sheridan

I've always had a problem with confession. Night after night, staring up at the dark ceiling from my bed, I took upon myself the exhausting work of trying to enumerate the sins I had committed over the past day and then attempted to conjure up sufficient sorrow for what I had done. Assuming that I reached the point at which I had recalled as many wrongdoings from the past twelve, thirteen, or fourteen hours, I would then try to feel the forgiveness that supposedly belonged to me. But the ceiling always stared back at me, indifferent. Was this torturous exercise-an effort most often not even Herculean, but half-hearted on my part-really what it meant to find rest in Jesus? I coveted physical and spiritual rest, but the yoke felt anything but easy and light. Many nights, I would forego at least some of this agony by falling asleep mid-prayer, giving me one more misstep to confess the following morning or night. As I lingered on the edge of sleep, there lingered with me the old twinge of guilt (more acute some times than at others), because I knew my nocturnal liturgy was really me hedging my bets. This was not what it meant to receive God's free gift of forgiveness.

When I became a Lutheran, it was hard to resist the temptation to crack an eyelid when my Pastor spoke the words of Absolution. It was a marvelous: objective, full, and free forgiveness of all my sins, accomplished by Christ and applied to me by His own Word. I half-expected to see some ray of glory emanating from the Pastor's hand as he traced the sign of my forgiveness in the air before him and us. I knew all the proof texts given in the Small Catechism concerning Confession and the Office of the Keys, but the horribly familiar gnawing was never far from me, even as I knelt in my respective pew.

Even though I would sometimes feel as though Confession and Absolution was just as transactional as my desperate nighttime prayers, I was struck by the marked differences between how the liturgy taught me how to confess my sins and how I had always confessed in private. First, it isn't really just my confession. The Divine Service doesn't allow for anything like an altar call during which members of the congregation would "do business with God," confessing the particular sins that ensnared them. Instead, everyone speaks the same words of confession without giving pause to verbalize the specifics. A general form of confession without any sweat, tears, or brooding introspection? At first, this practice seemed rote, insincere, effortless. But the effortless nature of Confession and Absolution is exactly the point. For us, our salvation is just that: we exert no effort, we do not climb the ladder of piety to gain the approval of God. Kneeling there every Sunday, hearing that I was forgiven simply because Christ, through His called and ordained servant, said so, was the beginning of my consolation.

But I still wanted to know how to better confess my sins daily, outside Divine Service. Article XI of the Augsburg Confession gave a great deal of peace of mind: "[I]n confession it is not necessary to enumerate all trespasses and sins, for this is impossible. Ps. 19:12, 'Who can discern his errors?'" (AC XI 2, Tappert p. 34). Trying to discern my errors was a huge part of my problem. Those nights when the ceiling would begin to swim with oncoming sleep, I would hurriedly pray something like, "Forgive me all my sins. Amen." It's not the same principle as corporate Confession. That mumbled prayer was just me covering my bases in a different way, but I wasn't sure how just yet.

Read Part Two of Confessions about Confession here.

Read Part Three of Confessions about Confession here.

Created: May 19th, 2015