I’ve been asked more than once why Catholics confess sins. Normally the question adds “to a priest”, because the questioner is wondering why a priest has to be involved but what often gets overlooked is why we confess sins in the first place. Why we confess sins deserves its own examination.
All humans inherit a sinful nature; a tendency to sin (concupiscence). We see this in Romans 3:23. However, not all have actually sinned. Mentally handicapped, children, etc do not actually sin. We all inherit our sinful nature, it’s universal, but our actual sins are intensely personal; they are ours. It can be very tempting to only focus on our sinful nature and gloss over our actual sins.
For example, it’s easy to admit I’m a sinner if I only consider my sinful nature. It’s easy to admit because you’re a sinner, too. We all have a sinful nature so you’re no better than me and I’m no worse than you.
If asked “Why are you a sinner?” the answer is “because the Bible told me so”. I’m not acknowledging that I, Dan, am a sinner but I, a typical human, am a sinner. See how abstract this is? See how I deflect all responsibility for my actual sins? See how it ignores the reality of my actual sins?
Confessing my sins, on the other hand, forces me to come face to face with the reality of my sins. Confessing requires an examination of conscience. This is where a person, in prayer, considers their actions and considers if the action and intent behind it was sinful. This allows me to say “when I screamed at the driver who cut me off this morning, I sinned”.
Now I realize I, Dan, am a sinner because of my free action; not just in nature only. In other words, my sin becomes real and concrete, not abstract and vague.
We see this in other places. I can say I’m out of shape but it’s abstract and vague. If I go for a run and get winded after one block my out of shapeness becomes concrete and real. I can say kids starving in Africa is bad but it’s abstract and vague. If I see pictures or video or even go to Africa and really see what starvation looks like it becomes concrete and real.
I can say I’m a sinner because I have a sinful nature but it’s abstract and vague. If I say I’m a sinner because I talk about friends behind their backs my sinfulness becomes concrete and real. This transition is extremely important to make.
First, how can I be sorry for a sinful nature? How can I be repentant for being sinful when I inherited it? This is like apologizing for being human or having brown hair. I can’t apologize for these things; they just are.
On the other hand, I can be sorry for and repent of the concrete, actual sins I commit because with God’s grace I have the ability to do better next time. I am sorry I belittled my child and pray I will never do it again. I cannot be sorry for being born a human with a fallen nature. Knowing actual sin makes repentance possible.
Second, my understanding of the tragedy of sin increases. I can see firsthand that when I am sarcastic with my wife it hurts our relationship and my relationship with Christ. I can see the damage sin does in my life and the world around me. The horror of sin becomes real.
Third, I can more effectively avoid sin. Now that I see the consequences of sin; I will desire more to avoid it. Also, knowing what actions and intentions are actually sinful I know what I need to avoid.
Fourth, I may judge people less. As long as I only think of my sinful nature it’s easy to judge others when I see their actual sin. “Oh, I’m a sinner but I wouldn’t do that!”. When I know my actual sins then I’ll be painfully aware that I’ve probably already done worse than that.
Finally, I know I need a savior. This is by far the most important reason. As long as I think of my sinfulness in a vague sense then I only need a savior in a vague sense. I will be tempted to feel I don’t need Jesus. After all, I’m not that bad, I’m no worse than anyone else. I’m tempted to look at what Jesus can do for me and not what he has done for me.
On the other hand when I know my actual sins my need for a savior becomes obvious. When I see an action as sinful and then realize that I’m powerless to resist that sin it becomes crystal clear that I need a savior desperately! When my sin becomes real my need for a savior becomes real.
This is only one of the reasons why Catholics confess their sins. There are other reasons why we confess to a priest but I hope this shows how important confession, and the required examination of conscience, is to our relationship with Christ.
Always remember, of course, that when we discover how terrible we actually are; Jesus is always ready and willing to forgive us. No matter what our actual sin may be he died to forgive it. This Lent, and always, please take the time to make a good examination of conscience and face your sin. Then, give it to Jesus through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.