Project Canterbury

The Value of Confession
by Selden Peabody Delany
Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Milwaukee

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


It is a commonplace of moral theology that there can be no forgiveness of mortal sin unless the sinner has attained to real contrition. Contrition means sorrow for our sins flowing from the love of God. It is the virtue we pray for during Lent every time we say the Collect for Ash Wednesday: "Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness."

Most of us have been through the sad experience of receiving an injury from a friend. There is hardly any friendship that does not have to pass through some such unpleasantness. Of course such an injury from a friend must be followed by an apology; else the friendship cannot go on as it was before. An apology means both an expression of sorrow and an assurance of love. It would not suffice if your friend who had offended you simply came and said, "I did you a great wrong the other day." That would be simply a statement of fact. Neither would it satisfy you if your friend came and said, "I am going to treat you better in the future. I realize that my conduct the other day was at fault, and I will try not to let it happen again." The confession of sin and the resolve to amend are I not enough to constitute an apology. What is absolutely essential before the friendship ! can be renewed is that there must be an expression of sorrow and regret: "I am sorry that I offended you the other day." Moreover there must be in that sorrow the tincture of love. If your friend simply said he was sorry, and did not make you feel that he loved you and wanted to love you in the future as in the past, you would not feel that the statement was a sufficient ground for the renewal of the friendship.

The relation between the Christian and his God is to be looked upon in the light of a friendship. Sin breaks our friendship with God. That friendship can be renewed only as we renew our human friendships--by an apology. This apology must contain an expression of our sorrow for having offended God; and that sorrow must proceed from our love for God. That is true contrition; and without true contrition there can be no forgiveness of mortal sin.

Contrition has many counterfeits. There are other kinds of sorrow for sin than sorrow prompted by love for God. People are often sorry for their sins because they love themselves. They regret to think they could have fallen so low; they are disappointed in themselves. But that is not contrition. It is what theologians call attrition. Sometimes our sorrow for sin springs from the love of our reputation. People often regret bitterly having committed certain crimes, because they know that thereby their reputation has been ruined. Such is the kind of sorrow that usually comes to one who has been convicted by the state of some great crime. There is real grief in his heart, but that grief has no relation to God; he is simply lamenting that he has lost his good name in the community.

If we hope to obtain forgiveness of our sins from God, we must have real sorrow in our hearts arising from our love for Him. That does not necessarily mean tears, as it did with S. Peter, when the Lord turned and looked upon him, and "He went out and wept bitterly"; although in warm-hearted, emotional natures contrition does often lead to an outburst of tears. But tears or no tears, it must mean a hatred of sin. It must mean that we would rather lose our right hand than fall into that sin again; that we will do everything in our power to avoid that sin in the future. It will carry with it a sense that we are guilty of having offended against the wonderful love of God; a realization of our base ingratitude in having made such a return for all that God has done for us.

This necessary element of repentance is not easy to acquire. It is one of the chief arguments in favor of sacramental confession that it is a powerful aid in the development of real contrition. Confession does tend to deepen and intensify our sorrow for sin. It is not obvious at first sight why this is so. Let us first make sure of the fact.

The very act of telling another person of the wrong you have done helps to make you more deeply sorry for having done it. In this sense no one can deny the truth of the proverb, "Confession is good for the soul." Your child may have committed a grievous sin, and you may know all about it; but you would not feel satisfied that the child was sufficiently sorry for what he had done until he came and told you about it. The chances are that the child would be hard and unmoved until he came and opened his soul to you; and then, likely as not, he would burst into tears. Or suppose you discovered that a servant working in your home had committed a theft--had taken something from your room. Unless she confessed to you that she had stolen, you would not be convinced that she was really penitent, and you would not wish to keep her longer in your employ. But if she did come and confess to you, you would know she was indeed sorry; and you would be willing to trust her in the future. The same principle holds in the case of confession before a priest.

Now why is this? What is the psychological explanation of the fact that confession intensifies sorrow for sin? Confession to another human being gets the sin out into the light where you can see it and realize it in all its hideousness. By formulating the sin in words, you take it in, you cognize it, you pass judgment upon it, as you could not have done if you had not expressed it in human speech; and that helps you to be more contrite. It is a common experience that the expression of a thought or desire in words makes it more real; we often do not realize the true character of a desire until we put it in words, and then we marvel at it. The lover does not realize the meaning of his feeling for the woman he loves until he tells her about it; and then he finds he is living in a different world.

It is one thing to feel a vague sense of unworthiness and weakness; it is quite another thing to accuse oneself before another of definite sins: "I have told falsehoods ten times this month," or "I have forged a check for $100," or "I was intoxicated and struck my wife," or "I have stolen money from my employer." To hear one's own voice confessing such things into a human ear makes one realize, as nothing else can, the heinousness of one's offences against a loving Father. It helps to make one sorry "after a godly manner."

The laws of psychology should be respected by us as much as any other laws of nature; and let us not forget that the laws of nature are the laws of God. If we ignore the psychological law that contrition can be developed only by confession to another, and keep our sin to ourselves, we must be prepared to accept the consequences--a cold and hardened heart. The New Testament writers thoroughly understood this psychological law. S. James writes, "Confess your faults one to another," and S. John, "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'' In commenting on these words of S. John, Bishop Westcott says: "Confession is not only acknowledgment, but open acknowledgment in the face of men. Nothing is said by S. John as to the manner in which such confession is to be made. That is to be determined by experience. Yet its essential character is made clear by S. John. It extends to specific, definite acts, and not only to sin in general terms. The confession is concrete and personal."

By all means then find someone who will hear your confession. Perhaps you can go to your father or mother; or if married, to your husband or your wife. If this is impossible you might confess to a sympathetic friend. But why so studiously avoid the one man whom God has appointed and set apart for that purpose, your priest? He is required to respect the seal of confession; he is learned in moral questions; he is presumably sympathetic--within reasonable limits--or he would not be in the ministry; but above all, he has through his ordination what none of the others have---the power to give absolution.

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