LENT: PRAYER, FASTING, ALMSGIVING AND CONFESSION
Let us now elaborate further on our spiritual “road worthiness”, namely, the confession of our sins. As usual, we are considering the threefold questions: What is confession? How not to confess? How to confess?
WHAT IS CONFESSION?
St. John writes: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2). When, unfortunately we sin and lose our spiritual “road worthiness”, we can fortunately be forgiven by God the Father, thanks to the sacrificial death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Regarding the fact that our “worthiness” in God’s sight is restored when He forgives and reconciles us to Himself, St. John explains once more: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-10).
Confession could be understood in two senses. Firstly, it means confessing our sins to God in our personal prayers; and secondly, it means going for sacramental confession (penance and reconciliation). An example of the first case is that anytime we pray the “Our Father”, we plead with God to forgive us our sins. That is, we acknowledge the fact that we have sinned, and so we ask God to forgive us. Similarly, anytime we sin, we can go on our knees to ask God to forgive us. This, then, should be followed by receiving the sacrament of penance and reconciliation especially if the sin committed is a serious one. St. John says that all wrongdoing is sin; yet he makes a distinction between the less serious sin, which the church calls venial sin, and the very serious or deadly sin, which the church calls mortal sin (cf. 1 Jn. 5:17). Whereas one could ask God, in his/her private prayer, to forgive his/her venial sins and be truly forgiven, he/she needs to confess the mortal sins at the confessional and be forgiven through this sacrament (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16).
Though it is God who forgives sins, He empowered the apostles and hence the bishops and priests of the church to administer the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. This is supported by the fact that on the evening of Christ’s resurrection He empowered the apostles to forgive sins: “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’” (Jn. 20:21-23).
HOW NOT TO CONFESS?
Let us now consider some obstacles to genuine confession: (a) an unforgiving heart (as we said when we spoke about prayer); (b) the lack of true contrition or repentance; (c) the lack of sincerity in confessing our sins (e.g. a person who has stolen a goat mentions only the rope by which he dragged the animal away); (d) remaining in the same sin while confessing (e.g. keeping a “relationship” while confessing about fornication); (e) the lack of humility to accept full blame or culpability for a sin, or trying to justify why one committed the sin; etc.
HOW TO CONFESS?
The pre-conditions for a proper (private or sacramental) confession are to ensure that we are free of the obstacles (mentioned above). Then, we should pray to the Holy Spirit to remind us of our sins (Jn. 16:8-10), to give us the humility of true repentance (cf. Lk. 18:9-14) and the grace of sincere confession. If the sin requires a sacramental confession, we should then go and see a priest. In a well-known gospel story, it was Jesus who healed the ten lepers, yet He told them to go and show themselves to a priest (Lk. 17:11-19). Similarly, He is the one who forgives us, yet He asks us to go and see the priest.
Those who have forgotten the format of sacramental confession should not worry; they should tell the priest about this and they will be helped step by step. After the confession, one should diligently perform the penance given by the priest in a spirit of gratitude to God and of sincere sorrow for the suffering and death Jesus endured for his/her sins.
We started these series of talks by employing the imagery of the fuel, servicing, insurance and road-worthy certificates of a car to illustrate respectively the roles of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and confession in the life of a Christian. For each of these, we looked at what is it, how not to do it, and how to do it. It is my prayer that as we reflect further on these issues, especially in this season of Lent, the Holy Spirit who helps us when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26-27) will supply us with the abundance of the spiritual fuel; that aided by the same Spirit of God our fasting this Lent and beyond will be truly the servicing (the removal of dirty oil and grease) of our souls; that the Spirit will give us the grace of true repentance, so that in confessing our sins, we will be made “worthy” in the presence of God; that the Spirit will renew in our hearts the image of Jesus anytime we meet the poor/needy whom we can assist; and that when we do assist them, the same Spirit will insure us for eternal life. Amen.
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis