It is a rare denomination in Christianity that does not make confesssion of some sort. Confession is the acknowledging and possibly recounting our sins against God and our neighbour, our transgressions, things done and left undone. “Sin” as a word is derived from an old term for “missing the mark,” when the arrow does not hit the bullseye. That kind of “sin” is obvious to all, but we all have secret sins, the little and sometimes big things that damage relationships and even our sense of self-worth. Both kinds of sins are confessed, the obvious and the secret, because God knows our hearts.
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.” God isn’t deceived. And our neighbours aren’t deceived either. They saw you speed through the stop sign at the end of the street; they always know more than you think they do, just as you know their so-called guilty secrets. There’s no escaping sin; even if you could hide it at the bottom of the deepest well, your own heart will know, and even the best of us have had those three a.m. moments, when the past comes to haunt our sleepless thoughts.
No one escapes sin, for we all make mistakes. When Jesus told us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, He did not mean we have to live without sin. The word “perfect” used to mean “completed,” not “without flaw.” Yes, God is always without flaw, always complete, always whole, and that is what we are to strive for, to be at unending peace with God. It is not at all likely we will see it in this life!
So we have confession. Week after week, day after day for those who have daily worship, we say our confession. It is a corporate confession to prepare our hearts to receive the love of God, to cover all the possibilities of our crimes and misdemeanors. We do forget the details sometimes, or the full culpability of what we have done just doesn’t hit us for a while. The Church has confessional prayers to help us remember that we are still creatures that are short of the glory of God, even as we receive Christ as Saviour.
Some churches have private confession as well as public confession.The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said of personal confession, “None must, some should, all may.” The Roman Catholic Church has the most formal mode of personal confession, anonymous if preferred, and expected. These days, few take the opportunity. The Anglican and Lutheran Communions have forms in their prayer books and books of worship, to allow for the possibility. It is not anonymous. Among the Orthodox, full private confession is still allowed, and is normative in some of the branches of the Eastern church. It is not anonymous, and some priests are gifted at not only hearing the confession, but using it as a teaching opportunity and a time of pastoral counseling, which is a good model for other churches.
And that brings us to penance. Penance is not expected after corporate confession, the usual Sunday confessional prayer when the priest or pastor pronounces forgiveness on behalf of the Lord, who assured us of His merciful forgiveness. : “He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins.” Penance is reserved for private confession, at the discretion of the priest. It is not a punishment. It is a gift made in return to God for His mercy, a time of learning and thanksgiving. It is not supposed to hurt.
Fasting is not considered penance, except in a general, corporate way. Abstinence from one thing or another might be assigned as a penance, but it should never be severe. It should be for the strengthening of the soul and for building self-discipline to resist sin. Repetitive prayers, acts of good works, and scripture reading are appropriate penances. A priest might assign abstinence from the sacrament for some; it used to be more common, but now is considered only for extreme offenses, until the sinner has fully realized their guilt, and desires to make recompense.
Penance is never self-imposed. A priest must not assign penance without pastoral supervision; the penitent should be able to talk to the priest about their spiritual struggles during penance, or it will not be effective. (The old lazy formula of ten hail-marys and twenty our-fathers falls here; it is mere rote for the priest and the penitent, and no one is much enlightened or reformed.)
Confession, if one’s conscience requires it, is often made at the beginning of the fasting seasons. It is a good time to do so, especially if one is burdened with a sense of failure and guilt. A priest should be able to sort out with the penitent what counts as sin and failure, and what is actually just circumstance. Not all failure is sin. Not all learning opportunities are because of personal fault. God does not want us to be self-flagellants, beating at our poor down-trodden spirits like mule-drivers.
Those called to make confession, do so with a heart willing to learn, to bend to God’s will. Do not look to be broken, nor look to be let off with excuses. Honesty is of the essence of confession. But God wants us to forget our sins after forgiveness, because He does.