My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
One of the most often asked question I receive from the non-Orthodox and from the marginalized Orthodox who did not grow up with the Traditions of the Church is “Why do we have to go to confession?” This question is usually couched with phrases such as these: “Where in Scripture does it specifically talk about confession?” “Why can’t I just confess to God myself?” “Why do I need an intermediary?” Hidden behind these questions are often the unsaid, but just as pressing to the person, questions of: “Will the priest talk to people about what I say to him?” “Will the priest use what I say against me?” “Will the priest look at me differently?
Let’s tackle each of these in turn.
“Why do I need to go to Confession?”
We might as well ask, “Why do I need to go to my annual physical?” “Why get my teeth cleaned once a year?” “Why do I need to sweep and clean my house often?” The reality is that without proper maintenance everything begins to break down, especially us. If I don’t go to a physical annually I run the risk of not catching life-threatening illnesses at the start when they are treatable. If I don’t clean my teeth, I run the risk of losing my teeth and inviting all kinds of illness into my body through my mouth. If I don’t clean my house, dust builds up and, in addition to looking dirty, it invites sickness, pests, and destruction. All of the same things can be said of a soul that does not go often to confession.
You may think that by not committing a truly heinous act that we are clean, but in the same way that the previous examples occurred, small incursions build up. The body does not need to be stabbed or shot to be in danger. The teeth do not need to be punched out to be in danger. The house does not need a hole in a wall to be in disrepair. We aren’t clean. We are not.
Romans 3:10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
We need to understand this basic fact. Let me show you an image. Picture a scale with two separate weights that are equal. On the one side is a large stone. This stone symbolizes a great sin such as murder or robbing a bank. On the other side sits a sack full of sand. While no single grain of sand weighs the same as that rock, taken as a whole, their weight becomes equal. Again, this destruction is the deceptively slow, but nevertheless, fatal progression of sin.
When we go to confession, whatever sin we offer to Christ is expunged from our record. What record? The record of all our deeds. “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Revelation 20:12). All of our sins are written in the book of our life. When we confess, every one of those sins is erased in its entirety, as though it never existed. When judgement day comes, I fear the terrible estate of my soul for all the things left unsaid.
When Thou comest, O God, upon the earth with glory, the whole world will tremble. The river of fire will bring men before Thy judgment seat, the books will be opened and the secrets disclosed. Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand on Thy right hand, Judge most righteous. – Kontakion of the Last Judgement
Where in Scripture does it speak specifically about confession?
The Sacrament of Confession is referred to in many places. I will give three examples before I list its direct order mentioned three times. Bear in mind that these are neither exhaustive or the only places it is mentioned
The Confession of King David to Nathan after the murder of Uriah
Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “Yes, but the LORD has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin” (2 Samuel 12:13).
King David, the author of the Greatest Prayer of Repentance Psalm 50(51), which is found in EVERY SINGLE SERVICE of the Orthodox Church, did not receive absolution or forgiveness until he confessed his sin to another person, the Prophet Nathan
11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:11-19).
a. What is Leprosy? It is a necrotic disease that slowly kills the victim as pieces of the victim die and begin to fall off.
b. What is sin? Sin is the origin of death (Romans 5:12), and like leprosy it kills the victim. This miracle presents us with ten men that were covered in sin.
c. When did the healing occur? On their way to the priests. This shows us that healing of our sins comes from our very first steps towards confession.
The Confession of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel According to St. Luke
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate (Luke 15:17-24).
This is the critical moment in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The moment of his repentance. Notice how he commits himself to confessing to his father, and, even though his father has embraced him, he still confesses.
The Institution of the Priesthood by Jesus Christ after the Resurrection in the Gospel According to St. John
22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
a. This is the moment that the New Testament shows us the Holy Priesthood. This laying of hands is seen within the Creed “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church) as the succession of Clergy from this time until today.
b. The very first task Jesus Christ gives his clergy after they have received the Holy Spirit is to forgive or retain the sins of the people. This is the DIRECT location in Scripture that we see this Scripture instituted by Jesus Christ. It is encapsulated in the Priesthood and seen as the most important element of that sacred office due to Jesus Christ mentioning Confession as the first responsibility.
The Command to confess in the Universal Letter of St. James
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
In the early days of the Church it is clear from this Universal Letter that confession was not even private. The Sacrament took place openly with everyone present within the context of the Liturgy.
The Command to confess in the First Universal Letter of St. John
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar, and His word is not in us.… (1 John 8-10).
St. John, the beloved disciple, encourages us to confess our sins. In both this, and the example of St. James, we cannot separate this Scripture from the understanding the Disciples would have had through Jesus Christ’s commandment in John 20:22-23.
“Why can’t I just confess to God myself?” “Why do I need an intermediary?”
The answer to these two questions is found within the previous quotations from Scripture, particularly the Miracle from the Gospel according to St. Luke and the exhortation of St. James in his Universal Letter.
Within the story of the Ten Lepers, we see an allegorical moment. These ten men are each covered from head to toe in a very visible manifestation of sin. They came to Jesus Christ and asked for mercy. Their healing took place on the way to the priests. Allegorically, we see this as an individual asking for mercy and healing from Jesus Christ. This is a critical moment! It should not be missed!
Just as the Prodigal son “came to himself” we too, come to ourselves and pray to God, our Heavenly Father, for mercy and forgiveness. If we do not have this moment, if we do not confess our sins to God in the privacy of our home or in the silence of our minds (Nous/Νους), then we are relegating the Sacrament of Confession to a magical spell, an empty gesture that is free of any repentance or humility. There can be no healing in that emptiness, nor change. Confession becomes empty and worthless.
You will doubtless say, “but isn’t Christ all forgiving? Isn’t saying ‘I am sorry’ at home sufficient?”
No, the moment of healing comes from the Sacrament. We must understand that sin is death. All voluntary sin. All intentional sin is mortal. “All unrighteousness is sin, yet there is sin that does not lead to death” (1 John 5:17). This is not a paradox or a lie. St. John the Theologian is referring to unintentional sin as that which doesn’t lead to death. Therefore, everything else is mortal. By right, we should have been executed for this crime on the spot. God’s mercy and love is evident by the fact that we have not been struck down. He, in his loving mercy, has given us time to repent and confess.
King David in his song of repentance reveals this truth to us. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 50:4). Despite his sin seemingly being against Uriah, whom David murdered, he is rightly pointing out that the real sin was against the Lord his God. “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (Psalm 50:14). Again, though the law of “bloodguilt” would require atonement through the death of the murderer, King David has established that he is talking about a higher concept, above just human laws. That “bloodguilt” is the just recompense for sin against God.
And yet, He spared us. That is mercy.
Yet the sin remains, chained to us until we confess it. This only takes place within the Mystery of Confession. Yes, it is embarrassing to talk to another person about our sins. It is humiliating. And our Lord humbled Himself to become man, and to die for us. Should we not endure a little humility for our good? After all, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). Would we rather our sins be publically announced on Judgement Day, while also being held accountable for them; or would we rather one person hear them and have them erased from existence forever?
“Will the priest talk to people about what I say to him?” “Will the priest use what I say against me?” “Will the priest look at me differently?
The answer to all three of these is “no.” Doctors, Lawyers, and Priests all have “Patient Confidentiality” built into their profession. Doctors have HIPA laws, Lawyers have “Client Privilege,” and priests have a sacred trust that has been bestowed on them. Both Doctors and Lawyers can lose their license to practice, but a priest risks much more than that. Not only are these “defrockable” offense that would cause the local hierarch to first remove the priest from ministry and then from the priesthood altogether, but these sins are beyond “hell worthy.”
We must understand that the priest is held to a higher standard than a layman. While a layman might sin out of ignorance and weakness, the priest does not get to have that excuse because in addition to the study that went into becoming a priest, the priest has been invested with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, first through his ordination and then second through the laying on hands for the second rank of clergy “Confessor.” This rank is not automatic and the hierarch must decide if the candidate for confessor is spiritually ready for such a task.
If, after so much investiture, the priest still willfully breaks this sacred trust, he will answer to God. Yes, he can repent and still find salvation as there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. But this is a type of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven for the sons of men. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-30). The fruits of repentance for such a tragedy would need to be great, and the tears shed for this heavy.
“It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2). Betrayals such as this would certainly cause a person to lose faith in the Church and walk down a dark road. The priest would be responsible for that destruction.
It is for this reason St. John Chrysostom trembled at the prospect of ordination: “For I fear lest if I took the flock in hand when it was in good condition and well nourished, and then wasted it through my unskilfulness, I should provoke against myself the God who so loved the flock as to give Himself up for their salvation and ransom.” And also, “But how dire is the destruction, and how terrible the fire which such a leader brings upon his own wretched head for every soul which is thus lost.” And finally, “Cease then to urge us on to a penalty so inevitable; for our discourse is about an office which needs the virtues of an angel. For the soul of the Priest ought to be purer than the very sunbeams, in order that the Holy Spirit may not leave him desolate, in order that he may be able to say, Now I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (St. John Chrysostom On the Priesthood).
The priest is terrified of the responsibility so he certainly would not divulge your confession. He fears the final judgement so he cannot ever judge you or look at you differently. The only way he would use your confession against you would be if he were an agent of Satan.
Therefore, have no fear of the priest.
When should my child start going to confession?
The earlier the better. I recommend Pre-School or Kindergarten. The sooner the child experiences this Great Mystery, the easier it becomes for the child and the sooner he/she experiences the benefits. The longer we wait the harder it becomes and the evil one places more guilt, shame, and trepidation to ensure we never confess.
How often should I go to confession?
At least once a year, but as with any sickness or need, we sometimes require more visits to a physician. I personally urge 3 times a year.
Around your Name day
I heard the priest in a sermon talk about my confession/Someone must have talked.
a. It is very easy to assume a sermon is based on your unique story, but oftentimes, our struggles are not that unique or special. Many of us struggle with the same sins and the priest may talk on these generalities. He would never refer to you directly or indirectly in a sermon.
b. Sometimes we think that if a friend knows our story, the priest must have talked. This is almost never the case. Our memories can be fickle and though we may adamantly believe the priest is the only person we told, it is very likely we told another person, or someone saw us, or overheard us. The likelihood of the priest repeating your confession, for the reasons listed above, while not impossible, is very slim.
c. The sad reality of human nature is that we believe the worst. Even if your priest has proven his whole ministry to be upright, kind, honest, and present; when someone spreads a rumor like this, oftentimes the entire community will believe it. Therefore, not only should you pray for your priest, but you should combat such rumors in the same way you would extinguish a grease fire in your kitchen before it consumes your whole house, lest the parish suffer irreparable harm from the evil one’s machinations.
I remain your servant in Christ,
Fr. Dimitri Tobias, Proistamenos