All Christians seek to live their lives according to Jesus Christ’s teachings. He calls us to be God-like, to exercise righteousness, and live a life that pleases Him. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit we stray from this goal on a daily (if not hourly) basis. We drift away, we fall short, and we cave to the temptation of sin. To combat this sickness of the soul, Christ instituted the Mystery of Confession (sometimes called Penance). In this post, we explain what the sacrament of Confession is, why we need it, and how often Orthodox Christians should go.
What is sin?
Before we dive into the sacrament of Confession, we need to understand what sin means according to Orthodox theology. Unlike the legalistic approach of Western Catholicism, the Orthodox Church views sin more simply, as anything “missing the mark” or “going off course” (Hebrew: chata; Greek: hamartia, both of which also translate as “to sin”). In short, anything that causes us to falls short of the life God wants us to live would be considered a sin.
What is Confession?
Simply put, Confession is a Sacrament, or “Mystery,” of the Church, a way in which we can experience God in His fullness while still here on earth. When we sin, we damage our relationship with God and with the members of His Body, the Church. Sin ultimately alienates us from God, from our fellow human beings, and from our own true selves. During Confession, we acknowledge our sins out loud to God in the presence of the priest.
Why do we need to confess to a priest?
Saint Basil the Great refers to confession in the Apostolic Church (Acts 19:18) and concludes that “it is necessary that we confess our sins to those entrusted with the care-taking of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1) since even the first Christians “were confessing to the Apostles, who also baptized everyone”.
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One clarification: we do not confess to the priest; we confess to God in the presence of the priest. When we are sick, what do we do? We go to the doctor. We tell the doctor what is wrong with us, and the doctor gives us a treatment plan to help us heal. Often when we are sick, we try to heal ourselves. And we fail miserably, making things worse ninety percent of the time.
Through the Grace of God, the priest became a spiritual doctor when he was ordained. He is well-versed in the sicknesses of the soul that sin can cause. We look to him to guide us, to diagnose our sickness and help us to live a more godly life. He draws on the knowledge of the Orthodox Church and the Holy Fathers to provide you with a “treatment” for your sins, so you can walk away from Confession free from your guilt, absolved of the evils you have done. And then, you can strive all the more to live the life God wants you to live.
Why do we need to repent at all?
- Confession reconciles us with the Body of Christ.
When we sin, we distance ourselves from others emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically. After we confess to God, He wipes those sins away and allows us to draw closer to the family we have in Christ, the Church.
- Confession is cathartic.
Sometimes, when we need to get something off our chests, we go to a trusted friend, a parent, or a sibling. And after we say everything out loud to that person, suddenly we feel better about whatever it was that troubled us. Orthodox Confession works in the same way. After admitting our sins to the priest, we experience that relief that comes from “getting it off our chest.”
- Confession provides us with a diagnosis.
How can we know we are sick, unless we go to a doctor regularly to ensure that we aren’t? Frequent confession allows us to cleanse our souls of the evils we commit. The longer we stay away from the doctor, the higher our chances of becoming ill.
How often should an Orthodox Christian go to Confession?
Unfortunately, there is no cut and dry answer to this question. Most Orthodox choose to go to Confession during the four fasting periods, as these are customary times when we focus on spiritual renewal, almsgiving, and repentance. The frequency of Confession is often left to the discretion of the individual and his/her spiritual father. Typically, if you only receive Communion a few times a year or committed a grave sin (murder, adultery, etc.), Confession before receiving Communion becomes necessary for spiritual growth. However, as most Orthodox partake of the Eucharist on a weekly basis, you may not need to attend formal Confession before a priest as often.
As Orthodox Christians, we must always examine ourselves. We should partake in the Life of the Church as frequently as possible, as it is our way of communing with God in this fallen world. When Orthodox faithful confess our sins, we receive forgiveness from God Himself through the Mystery of Confession. We receive His mercy and His love, and we receive yet another chance to become the person God wants us to be.
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