Project Canterbury

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

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


It is a right instinct which makes us desire to be popular with our fellow men. The desire becomes dangerous only when it leads us to sacrifice principles for popularity. We would say there was something grotesque about a man who preferred to have everybody dislike him. It surely then is a legitimate question, what is the secret of popularity? Well, the thing is not so simple as that. There is no one secret. There are many qualities that tend to make a man popular. But there is one characteristic that we are sure to find in almost all men who are widely liked, and that is humility. They have a lowly opinion of themselves, their gifts, their ability, their importance.

Perhaps this is not so evident at first thought; but when the converse is stated, we see that it is true. That is, we do not like the man who is conceited, proud, and vain; the man who is always boasting about his good qualities or the wonderful things he has done. We may tolerate such a man, and we may admire his natural gifts; but we never become really fond of him. As a steady companion, he soon becomes very tiresome.

But humility is not only one of the secrets of popularity with men; strangely enough it is also a secret of popularity with God. God appears to be very much of the same way of thinking in this matter as we are. He does not look favorably on people who are conceited or proud. This is revealed in our Lord's parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee, when he went up to the temple to pray, prayed thus: "Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, nor even as this publican. I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all I possess." But the publican stood afar off. "He would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast and said, God be merciful to me a sinner." And this is the comment of Jesus: "This man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

Self-abasement then is the way that leads to exaltation in the kingdom of God. This does not mean a mock humility. It does not mean that we should always be telling people in an unreal way that we have many faults; or trying to convey the impression that we have a lowly opinion of our gifts and faculties, when in reality we are very proud of them. That sort of mock humility is easily detected. It produces a type of character we all thoroughly despise, the Uriah Heep type of character--the man who is always telling us how humble he is. Such a man once encountered a priest, who was reading his office on top of a London omnibus, and thus rebuked him before the passengers, "You come up here and read your prayers, where all the world can see you, like the Pharisees who prayed standing in the corners of the streets. But I say my prayers as the Master told us to do, in my own closet." "Yes," replied the priest, "and then you come up on top of an omnibus and tell all the world about it!" It is that sort of superficial humility, revealing a hard and invincible pride underneath, which has so often brought into disrepute the beautiful Christian virtue of humility.

Humility, like all virtues in the human soul, is the work of the Spirit of God. But God often uses indirect means to develop virtues in the soul. One of the surest ways of attaining to the virtue of humility is to make devout use of sacramental confession. For thereby we are compelled to face the truth about ourselves, and to acknowledge that truth to a fellow human being. It is difficult to see how one can do this without self-abasement and humility.

To face the truth about ourselves ought to make us humble. As we look back over the years that are past, we see many things that are not as they should be; and as we look within our souls, we detect many sinful desires and tendencies. We realize that we have often made egregious blunders; and that almost always when we have acted quickly and impulsively, we have acted wrongly. As we compare our actual lives with our ideal of what we ought to be, and above all with the great example of our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot but abase ourselves and acknowledge that we are miserable sinners.

But it is the disclosure of the truth about ourselves to a priest that is the most humiliating. If the confession is absolutely sincere, it is doubtful if it can ever be an agreeable exercise. It can never be pleasant to reveal our hidden and secret faults to another. This is especially true if the priest who hears the confession is one whom the penitent knows and respects, as is usually and ought to be the case. For think what a man does when he goes to confession. He lets a fellow man enter in and behold the interior of Ms soul. After that he can never hold his head high, nor play the part of the self-righteous Pharisee. Even if one has no mortal sins to confess, it is humiliating to take the trouble and pains to confess the little sins which are so damaging to one's dignity.

It is just this humiliating effect of confession that keeps so many people away from it, and leads so many to give it up as soon as they really begin to need it. Pride is very deep-rooted in the human heart; and under the guise of "a decent self-respect" it is widely admired as one of the distinguishing qualities of the gentleman. Nevertheless pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Whatever the world may think of it, pride does not pass current as a virtue in the kingdom of God. With God, "whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

Humility has never been highly esteemed in the abstract by the world; and yet it has always been a mark of the true followers of Jesus Christ. This is what we might expect from the beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and "Blessed are the meek"; also from the invitation, "Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly of heart." Humility is unfailingly a characteristic of the saints. Indeed humility is almost a necessary product of the old religion which has begotten and nourished the saints. For the old religion is a religion of authority, to which the individual must submit his private judgment; it is a sacramental religion, requiring the individual to make use of the common channels of grace, rather than seek help in his own way directly from God; it is a religion with a carefully guarded priesthood, whose powers come only through episcopal ordination, and may not be had by a man's simply calling himself a minister of God; and it is a religion which promises forgiveness of sins only to those who humble themselves by confessing their sins to God in the presence of a priest.

No doubt it would be maintained by those who do not believe in sacramental confession, that it ought to be just as humiliating to confess our sins to God as to confess them to a priest. That is true. It ought to be more humiliating. It ought to be, but unfortunately it is not. The average man has no feeling of shame in confessing the most horrible sins to Him who is a righteous Judge, "of purer eyes than to be: hold iniquity"; but shrinks from confessing the most ordinary sins to a frail, human priest, who is conscious of many sins and shortcomings of his own. This is probably because the average man has had so faint a vision of God. The great mystics, who have caught glimpses of His glory, would find it far less humiliating to confess to a priest than to confess to God. But few of us are great mystics. Before we can even enter on the mystic way, we must gain humility. One of the surest roads to the attainment of humility is the frequent and sincere use of sacramental confession.

If this practice has not had the effect of making us more humble, it is doubtless because we have not been absolutely sincere in our confessions. There must be a merci-y less exposure of the inmost secrets of our hearts. There must be no glossing over, no palliation, no hiding of motives, no holding back of the truth, no sparing ourselves from any humiliation. The priest who hears our confessions must know us as we really are in God's sight; even though we shall never feel like looking him in the face again. That thought--that they shall never be able to look him in the face again--keeps multitudes of people away from confession. But it were far better not to look him in the face again than to lose this opportunity of humiliation. Of course no priest worthy of the name would think any the less of his people for permitting him to see into their souls; he would only think more highly of them for having the courage thus to humble themselves.

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