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 stray from this goal on a daily (if not hourly) basis. We drift away, fall short, and 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.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
What is sin?
Before we discuss the sacrament of Confession, we need to understand what sin means according to Orthodox theology. Unlike the legalistic approach of Western Catholicism, the Eastern 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”). Anything that causes us to falls short of the life God wants us to live would be considered a sin.
Concerning our sins, God’s Word gives a marvelous promise. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We are to bring our sins to God in repentance and receive that cleansing and forgiveness.
The Sacrament of Confession
Confession is a Sacrament, or Mystery, of the Church, a way in which we can experience God in His fullness 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.
The early Christian community had a specific practice in this regard: people would stand and confess their sins to God in the presence of the whole congregation. Indeed, Jesus encouraged His followers to walk in the light together, to confront problems corporately, to “tell it to the Church” (Mt. 18:17). Thus, James writes, “Confess your trespasses to one another” (5:16). But as time went on and the Church grew in numbers, strangers came to visit and public confession became more difficult. Out of mercy, priests began to witness confessions of sin privately on behalf of the Church.
Why confess to a priest?
The Scriptures clearly illustrate the authority Christ gave His disciples – and their successors via the laying on of hands (2 Timothy 1:6) – to forgive sins (John 20:23; see also Mt. 16:19). From the beginning, Christians understood that the grace of ordination endowed the shepherd of the flock with the discernment and compassion to offer guidance and remit confessed sins on behalf of Christ.
One clarification: we do not confess to the priest himself; we confess to God in the presence of the priest. You might ask, “But can’t I just confess to God privately? Why do I need a priest?” You most certainly can confess to God in personal prayer; however, there is no clear biblical basis for this practice. Even general confession occurs within the context of the Body of the Church. In His mercy, God provides the sacrament of confession to give us deliverance from sin and from denial. It is easy for us to pray in isolation yet never come clean about our sins or attempt to change. It is far more effective to confess aloud to God before a priest and benefit from his guidance and help.
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 to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Keep Reading: What Does The Bible Really Say About Confession?
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 God in the presence of 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 I 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.
How to prepare for Confession
It is important for us to set aside time to properly prepare for the Mystery of Confession. We do this through fasting, prayer, and reading and reflecting upon the Holy Scriptures and other spiritual writings/books. Perhaps the most important way we prepare to confess our sins is to actively contemplate what those sins are by reflecting upon the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and other teachings of Christ in which He teaches us what thoughts, words, and deeds He expects of His children.
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.
Read More: What Does It Mean To Repent?