On Confessional Life

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As a high act of worship, the congregants stand to recite the liturgy of confession. I too stand and mouth those generic words out loud: . . . we confess that we have been unfaithful . . .  we have worshipped other gods . . . we have served our own self-interest. . . .  Afterwards, the pastor offers an assurance of pardon from God, so we can enter worship. To ritualistically pray a collective confession is relatively easy, if not innocuous. But the Bible trains us to take confession seriously: I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord. (Psalm 32) Augustine, a thousand years before Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” posits a greater apodictic existentialism: fallor ergo sum – I err, therefore I am. We take confession seriously because we take our sins seriously. A confessional life is a significant discipline of religious life because we humans all share a flawed nature.

In that flawed human nature, we are also trained to confess our sins before others. To cope with our infirmities and maladies, the Bible counsels: confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5) In “Life Together,” Bonhoeffer concurs that a person without confessions is alone in his loneliness. But when a person confesses her sins before others, she enters her community’s healing forgiveness and acceptance. Our confessional life experiences the presence of God in the presence of others. Liturgical confession may be relatively easy, but a deliberate self-confession is excruciatingly not. Many things can go awry. How much to reveal and what to conceal, the balance between transparency and social propriety, that divide between emotive sensibility and discursive verbiage are nagging cautions. Besides, not everyone in the group has the sufficient maturity, empathy or humility to hear our confession. Some will disapprove, reject or criticize us, worst, counsel us. Yet, as vulnerable as self-confession is, there is no better way to a more meaningful one another. To truly experience life together, unctuous spirituality must give way to the vulnerability of self-confession. Living with others requires it. When with one another, to draw near, we confess: I have erred. . . I need help. . . I am wrong. . . I am sorry. . . I don’t know.

Self-confessional before others is difficult. We prefer an easier form of confession. I call it our  other-confessional. (Words like gossip, insinuation, criticism, rumor, ridicule make good synonyms) Unlike self-confessional, other-confessional is mindlessly intuitive, weirdly enjoyable, and fraudulently self-validating. Perhaps that is why we all have been there and done that. When with others we tendentiously relish out loud others’ sins. Masked behind disingenuous guises, we confess others’ annoying personality traits, stupid life choices, unhealthful behaviors, inadequate sociability, broken relationships, embarrassing malfeasance and dark secrets. To this deformed confessional life, Jesus draws a ludicrous image of a silly man who walks around with a large log protruding out of his eye, all the while calling a critical attention to a small speck in someone else’s eye. Fool, Jesus scolds, first, deal with your debilitating large log, then perhaps you will see more clearly others’ needs. (Luke 6)

Before God and in community, a confessional life is a grace-filled work of spiritual formation. It is a social holiness that completes our belonging with others. Other-confessional egregiously aggrieves others and shoves them away. It is always counter-communal. Self-confessional draws us closer to one another, and to God. The last bastion of self-righteousness, self-deception and self-validation is despoiled by self-confession. It agrees with others – I err, therefore I am.