The sacrament of reconciliation is often misunderstood. Do you have questions? Here are a few common “why?” questions, answered.
why do I have to confess my sins at all? a good god wouldn’t hurt me.
We confess our sins because all sins draw us away from God, and some sins sever our relationship with God. This is about restoring relationship, and we have to want it: God respects our freedom to “walk away” by choosing sinful acts. He does not want us as slaves, but friends (John 15:15): he will not force his mercy on us.
Besides the truth that God is infinitely good, God is also just. He will let the consequences of sin stand unless we want to reconcile with him and receive his mercy. Look at it this way: if a friend hurt you and left your presence, even if you wanted to forgive him, your relationship could not be restored unless he returned to you. Confessing our sins is how we return to God. We have nothing to fear because of his goodness, but we must take that step to return through confession.
We hurt ourselves in not returning, and an eternal rejection of God’s goodness means a living a life of despair, darkness, and pain—a painful reality that is only occasionally uncovered on this side of death. We should want to do whatever is necessary to avoid that. Life without God is painful in ways we cannot fully describe, but more importantly, life with God is beautiful and good! And the Lord wants us back! We simply need to make a concrete act of return in confession.
Why do I have to confess to a priest?
Because Jesus set it up that way. The sacrament is rooted in Scripture, the word of God, and specifically the words of Jesus himself:
Matt 16:18-19 "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Matt 18:18 "Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
John 20:21-22: Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he has said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."
BUT when the priest is hearing your confession, he is acting in persona Christi, which means in the person of Christ. The priest is not forgiving your sins. Jesus Christ is! The priest is ordained by the bishop, the successor of those original apostles of Christ, to bind and loose. But the forgiveness comes from Jesus himself.
Beyond the true graces received, there are at least three practical advantages to confessing to a priest: one, the priest will often offer you spiritual advice moving forward. Two, if you are not sure whether something is a sin, you could ask. Three, saying the sins out loud make it clear to you that you have actually confessed your sin to the Lord, and not just “thought about it.” There are a lot of venues these days where people are encouraged to speak aloud their wrongdoing. Be sure to speak it to the one who can offer the most healing for your repentance!
Is there any sin beyond god’s mercy?
If you confess the sin, no. Mercy is the nature of God’s generous love for us.
If you have had an abortion, God wants you to receive forgiveness and sin no more. If you have had a sexual relationship outside of marriage, God wants you to receive forgiveness and sin no more. If you have bullied someone, or gossiped maliciously, God wants you to receive forgiveness and sin no more. If you cheated your employer, God wants you to receive forgiveness and sin no more. If you yelled at your children, God wants you to receive forgiveness and sin no more. No wrongdoing that you regret and want to confess is beyond God’s mercy.
What you need is the will to repent by confessing your sin. You have to want to not do it again. Even if you think you can’t avoid this sin, if you want to stop, that is enough. The grace of confession will help you resist, and the priest may have suggestions to help you avoid that sin in the future.
what if I am too embarrassed to say these sins out loud?
People often find it helps to write down the sins before going to confession, so when you confess, you’re reading from a sheet. You can destroy the sheet afterward. In any case, you don’t need to belabor it at all or get into vivid detail. Just name the sin, and if you can, how many times you have committed it. People are sometimes embarrassed to say the word masturbation; instead, you could say “a sin against purity.” If you are confessing viewing pornography, it’s wise to name that as such, so better advice may be given. There are many technological supports to avoid pornography that may be suggested.
will the priest ever speak of the sin outside of confession?
No. Period. Never. Even if a court asked him to reveal what he knew, he would not. A priest who speaks of a sin shared in confession is excommunicated.
what if I don’t know what to do?
The priest will help you. There is usually a “how-to” sheet in the confessional. You can also look at the How to section of this website.
won’t the priest think horribly of me?
No. They have heard it all. They are grateful you want to return to God. If you find this hard to believe, read this beautiful blog post from a priest about the beauty of hearing confessions as part of his priesthood.