I originally posted this back in November of last year. In the time since then, I still feel even stronger that confession is vital for our spiritual growth.
As I’ve been reading through St. Ephraim the Syrians’s Spiritual Psalter I’ve found myself a bit uncomfortable and uneasy at times. I recognize this as a gut reaction based on how I still process salvation and forgiveness. Ephraim has many Psalms that are down-in-the-dirt, nose-in-the-mud degrading from the first-person perspective, but they are also about admitting he’s the greatest sinner of all and pleading for mercy from God. Psalm after psalm follows this pattern of admitting all of his flaws in a hyperbolic fashion and then begging for salvation. However, David did the same thing in many of his Psalms (which St. Ephraim emulated) and St. Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 3:15). It’s very humbling but still a bit conflicting to me.
All of this made me uncomfortable because I failed to see the whole picture here. Grace is given freely from God and He does not withhold mercy from those who seek it. The Church IS the body of Christ, first and foremost. In the Church, salvation isn’t restricted. In fact, it comes through more avenues than I could possibly count. It’s in the sacraments. It’s in baptism. It’s in the Eucharist – but most of all…it’s in our personal repentance, for as we draw near, He’s ready with open arms (Jam. 4:8). However, our personal repentance is not always personal. Another scripture in James:
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16, NKJV)
When I read St. Ephraim, I need to remind myself of one thing – Ephraim had a spiritual father most assuredly, Ephraim would at least have confessed his sins to someone whether an elder or priest. Ephraim pleaded and begged for forgiveness, but there are also Psalms of gratefulness at the abundant grace of God. Between psalm A and psalm B, Ephraim wouldn’t have been anxiously twiddling his thumbs, waiting for God to speak. His psalms showed he was confessing to God first and then we can assume he was most likely going to his spiritual father, confessing his sins and receiving absolution. He most assuredly received peace that this forgiveness was a done deal…multiple times, but above all he received healing. It’s a lot like going to a Doctor and having the doctor stitch you up and bandage you so full healing can begin.
This brings me great peace for a couple reasons: 1) It shows that even in our darkest times, confessing our sins is necessary to receive a peace that surpasses all understanding and to drill God’s love into our hearts and minds. Maybe some people can gain that without confessing their sins, but I know that I cannot. God gives us spiritual liberation through confession. The confession is the plateau of repentance. Hallelujah, that we have such a grand ending to our striving for holiness! 2) The church is an organism and Christ works through his people. We shouldn’t disdain one another’s power to forgive each other’s sins, but we should celebrate that God uses His people….His Body…to bring a physical, direct peace to us.
Confession is another expression of the Incarnation because it’s the physical, “fleshy” side of repentance. Yes, the work happens in our heart but it is manifested in the physical realm. Mirroring Christ’s love for us by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Christ Himself, in His person, spoke the words “I forgive you” and it made the Pharisees shake with fury (Mark 2:5). A physical manifestation of a spiritual reality -that’s what confession does for us.
Praise God for His magnificent grace! Amen.
Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life…. On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. (Didache 4:14, 14:1, [AD 70])