I’ve never really enjoyed going to the gym. As a lifelong athlete this may seem odd, but it is true. The obvious reason being that exercising is painful and difficult and I would rather be in a recliner eating a bowl of ice cream. The second reason being the awkward social construct of a gym. The gym is a place where we all gather to pick up heavy things, perform obscure and unrealistic physical movements, and then put the heavy things back where we found them. Alternatively, it a place where we can run and bike for miles without actually going anywhere all while staring at ourselves in the mirror. Not to mention that everyone is constantly analyzing everyone else in the gym to make sure they are performing their physical movements correctly. Regardless of these objections, people still flock to gyms across the world for one reason: it is good for you!
Which brings us to every Catholic’s favorite gym: The Confessional. If there is anything stereotypically Catholic, it has to be the sacrament of Confession. The sacrament that everyone loves to promote yet hates to do. Similar to drinking kale smoothies, plucking nose hairs, or doing crossfit, we all imagine the glorious benefits of these actions but when the time comes to act, we immediately regret our previous decision. It is so good for us but it sucks so bad at the same time. It is so stereotypical because everyone knows that that is what Catholics do. You see it in movies and TV shows all the time… The main character goes into some drab, dark church building where he goes in the little box and confesses his sins. It is always portrayed so gothicly with ominous church bells dominating the score because that is how Catholic confession is viewed. Our culture seems to be so interested in this extreme and obscure act of vulnerability which I hear questions about all of the time. “Can’t you just confess your sins to God?” “Why do you have to tell the priest your sins?” “Do you really tell him everything?” “Isn’t that super awkward?”
Can’t you just confess your sins to God?
This is the most common objection to the sacrament of confession that there is. It seems to make sense theologically: I can pray to God and he hears me so why can’t I just ask him for forgiveness directly and he forgives me? It almost seems too easy. Most Protestant Christians (which I know many of you reading belong to this group) practice this informal, direct-to-God style confession so it needs to be addressed immediately.
I am a semi-frequent listener of Joe Rogan’s podcast which is one of the most popular podcasts currently around. His format is long form discussions with all different types of interesting guests. One of his frequent guests is Jordan Peterson, who is quickly becoming one of the most popular modern thought leaders. In their most recent discussion they spoke about discipline, personal honesty, and self-assessment. They spoke of the need for these things especially in the current self-esteem promoting and you-are-fine-just-as-you-are culture. Jordan Peterson, who is a professor of psychology and a clinical psychologist, said with personal honesty and self-assessment “you could be way better, you could be incomparably better across multiple dimensions and in pursuing that better that’s where you’ll find the meaning in your life.” He went on to add (I’m paraphrasing) that personal honesty and self-assessment teach people that they are not their problems or shortcomings and that the best way to overcoming vices is performing physical tasks to better yourself incrementally.
As I was listening to this podcast, I had to prevent myself from yelling through my car speakers to tell them that they were describing the sacrament of Confession! I’m sure that St Augustine was screaming through his facepalm as he figured this out well over a thousand years ago. It was so exciting to hear that two of the most popular, agnostic thought leaders of our time were describing the need for personal honesty, self-assessment, and physical outlet for your vices as a route to personal improvement. Their argument shows that the need for physical confession is written into our biology so it makes sense that God, the author of our lives, would provide a way for us to physically confess our sins.
In Confession, we are confessing our sins to God through a physical expression. We are our bodies as well as our souls, so God provides us a way to confess our sins with both our bodies and our souls. God knows that we are more likely to commit to something when we do something physical. We remember better when we write things down. We pray better in a posture of prayer rather than in a posture of sleep. We are more likely to remember something if we tell someone else about it first. God knows that we are less likely to sin again if we physically confess our sins.
Why do you have to tell the priest your sins?
This question seems to follow: I get that I need to physically confess my sins but why can’t I just do that in a room by myself? Then a confessional could just be a sound proof room that allows us to go make a good confession by ourselves. (1) that is super weird and unnatural (2) that is not biblical.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the need for a covenant mediator to intercede for us because of our sins. Abraham intercedes for Sodom (Gen 18). Moses intercedes for his people on Mt Sinai (Ex 32). It is through Moses that God gives specific instructions on how to ask for forgiveness of sins. The law shows that forgiveness is done through ritual sacrifice by individuals (Lev 4-5). God also makes sure to include a formula for forgiveness that involves confession and restitution, or penance (Num 5:5-7). Forgiveness of sins in the Old Law was clearly a physical act that was mediated through a covenant mediator.
However, these covenant mediators and the ritual sacrifices were insufficient. The mediators did not have the power to forgive sins and were punished for their own sin (Num 20:12, 2 Sam 12). The ritual sacrifices appeased God, but could not bring us back into union with Him. Luckily, God sent a perfect covenant mediator in His son, Jesus Christ, who became the perfect intercessor and the perfect ritual sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus on the cross forgives us of our sin, as true God, and brings us back into union with God, as perfect sacrifice and perfect sacrificer.
While on Earth, Jesus forgave sins of the repentant because he had the power to do so. On the cross, he forgave the sins of the repentant for the rest of history. Of course, due to His Ascension, Jesus is no longer with us here on Earth so we do not have the opportunity to hear those beautiful words “Child, your sins are forgiven.” These words are eternally spoken to all of the repentant throughout time. This invisible reality is revealed in the sacrament of Confession. (Reminder: a sacrament is an effective and visible sign of an invisible reality. Effective in the sense that it actually effects change.) The priest speaks the words, “I absolve you from your sins” which echo the words of absolution of Jesus himself and the change actually happens. We are forgiven of our sins. The Church, through the priest, provides us an eternal sacrament of Jesus’s presence and absolution.
The priest is extremely important for the forgiveness of sins. Firstly, for the reason we just mentioned; the priest is himself a sacrament of Jesus’s eternal presence and forgiveness. The priest is the visible sign for us that effects what it signifies (Jesus’s eternal presence). The priest then (sacramentally acting in the place of Christ) speaks the words of forgiveness which is the sacrament of forgiveness. SACRAMENT WITHIN THE SACRAMENT insert airhorn noise. We like to call that Sacramenception. Secondly, Jesus specifically gave this authority to forgive sins directly to His Apostles. In Mattew 16:19 Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom and says, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In John’s gospel Jesus appears to the Apostles after the resurrection:
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In both of these passages, Jesus clearly gives the authority to forgive sins to the Apostles. Additionally, in verse 22 Jesus breathed on them. The only other time we see this in the Bible is when God breathed the breath of life into Adam. This shows that Jesus is creating in them something new; a new priestly life. Priests, through their sacramental vocation, are given a new spirit breathed into them that creates an indelible mark on their soul. They are given the power in apostolic succession through the Church to act in the person of Christ by forgiving sins in the sacrament of Confession. So yes, we must confess our sins to a priest.
Do you really tell him everything?
The best answer is: you should. To make a valid confession you must not willingly withhold any mortal sins committed. The sacrament is a ritual sacrifice just as was prescribed in the Old Testament. However, we are no longer sacrificing animals. We are sacrificing our own pride, guilt, and shame by confessing all of our sins, especially the most embarrassing. In sin we do something we want to do but God does not want. In confession we do something that we do not want to do but God wants us to do. The actual confessing is a sacrifice and should be difficult.
Furthermore, we should confess everything because that is all we have to give. The cardinal virtue of justice says that we are to give God all that he is due. Well… he is due everything, even our sin. Our sin is the only thing that we can give to God of our own accord that he did not give to us in the first place. In confession we give God our sin and the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the one that is not confessed.
Isn’t that super awkward?
Usually… but no more awkward than your everyday trip to Lifetime Fitness.