Holiness people optimistically believe that our spiritual lives can be impacted by the work of holy love to such a degree that old wounds, destructive tendencies, and long-buried sins can be healed, forgiven, and redeemed in the light of that love. We are a people not content to allow ourselves to remain as we once were; rather, we find ourselves deeply yearning for the work of the Spirit in a real and tangible way—both in us and through us. However, as pure as our intentions might be, we eventually find ourselves confronted with a problem. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” We deeply desire holiness, but we find ourselves continually warring against our flesh, choosing things we regret and acting in ways that cause deep hurt and remorse. So how do we reconcile who we are with who we are called to be?
Human nature often leads us to attempt to take matters into our own hands. It’s easy to believe that we can effort our way into better behavior and a holier life. Struggle and strength of will are the tools by which we try make our way to that holy land. There eventually comes a moment, though, when we realize we cannot do it through strength of will alone. The jig is up and we’ve been found out. Our strength falters, and our efforts come up short. We are left with our own inadequacies and a deep awareness that we aren’t enough. This moment of painful sobriety can be soul-crushing. Our friends in the recovery movement call it “rock bottom.” For so many, this moment is painful and deep. Left untreated, it has the potential to tear us apart. If we cannot effort our way to holiness, what are we to do?
The sacrament of confession, which has a long history of intentional practice by fellow Christians from other traditions, has rich wisdom to offer us in the Holiness tradition. Father Vassilios Papavassiliou writes, “Confession is our opportunity to be healed, to unburden our hearts in confession not only before God, but also before our neighbor.” As we think about holiness, it must be clearly stated that what we’re truly pursuing isn’t a better record of sins that we have avoided. Instead, we’re pursuing a whole, healthy, Christ-oriented life; a life of increasing love of God and neighbor. This beautiful and Christ-centered pursuit is the drive of the Christian heart. When we fail, shame can take root in our hearts and cause us to isolate and pull away. The lies of the evil one take hold, telling us we’re not worthy of love.
Father Papavassiliou continues, “I have known people who committed grievous sins and left them unconfessed for many years. They were contrite, they were penitent, they had repented and confessed their sins to God, but they had not come to terms with what they had done—they had not been healed—and they carried that guilt for so long! We need confession not because God needs to hear it; God knows what we have done. He sees and hears your repentance before you’ve gone to confession. You need to hear it. You need to say it. I believe God forgives us more swiftly and easily than we forgive ourselves. But we seek not only forgiveness, but healing. . . . As St. John Climacus writes: ‘A fresh, warm wound is easier to heal than those that are old, neglected, and festering, and that need extensive treatment, surgery, bandaging, and cauterization.’”
Confession practiced with the community of faith gives skin and bones to our redemption and, through the opening up of our hearts, allows the fresh, cleansing breath of the Spirit to renew and restore and redeem us—even, perhaps especially—in our most broken of places.
Such is the gift of confession. Practiced in a healthy way, and with someone trustworthy and wise, confession can be a divinely given gift that helps us to see the forgiveness already offered to us. Destroying the shame that is bred by isolation, confession helps us internalize the truth that God has already forgiven us. Confession practiced with the community of faith gives skin and bones to our redemption and, through the opening up of our hearts, allows the fresh, cleansing breath of the Spirit to renew and restore and redeem us—even, perhaps especially—in our most broken of places.
May we as holiness people have the courage to live the practice of confession in our everyday lives. May we find the freedom that comes only from being known and being loved in our knownness. And, as we are known and loved and forgiven and healed, may we be gentle and gracious with the failures of others. We all are in need of this perfect, holy love.