I remember my First Grade teacher explaining the sacrament of Confession to us. She drew a smiling face on the blackboard (We used blackboards and chalk when I was young). She told us that when we were good, God was happy. Then she drew a sad face and told us that, when we sinned, God was unhappy. Then she drew another smiling face and told us that, when we went to Confession, God was happy again. That was not a bad lesson for first graders. The problem was that I continued to think of Confession that way for many years afterwards. Whether out of love for God or fear of Him, I did not want God to be unhappy with me, so I went to Confession. Confession was my way to change God.
What I needed to learn was that God does not change. Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. The Father in the parable does not change. He never stops loving his son no matter even when the son finds himself in the gutter. It is the son who changes and comes to his senses. The father does not change.
Confession does not change God. It is meant to change us. I invite all to approach this sacrament as part of our Lenten observance. As we prepare for Lent, some have asked the question: "How does one make a good confession?" Allow me to answer with the following five traditional steps for making a good confession and then add two steps of my own.
First, examine one’s conscience. In doing so, we should pray for wisdom and honesty.
Wisdom guides us in asking the right questions of ourselves. Some people begin an examination of conscience by going through the Ten Commandments. As much as this is a good way to start, it is not a good way to finish. These commandments are rules and rules usually only tell us what not to do. They seldom tell us the standard to which God calls us. We also need to include the Two Great Commandments in our examination: Love of God and love of neighbor. It is not sufficient to ask "Have I killed anyone?" We must also ask "Do I build peace in my family?" It is not sufficient to ask "Have I stolen?" We must also ask "Have I been as generous as God asks me to be?" The Ten Commandments give us the foundation. The Two Great Commandments enable us to see where God calls us to fully live our faith.
We need to ask the questions which come from both.
Honesty then helps us to see ourselves as we truly are. We have a great ability to be blind to our sins and faults. We can see the speck in someone else’s eye but fail to notice the beam of wood in our own.
I recall an elderly priest telling me that one day a man came to Confession and said that he had no sins. The priest asked the man, "Are you married?" Yes," he replied. "Do you have a job?" Again the answer was "Yes." The priest then asked:" Do you mind if I ask your wife and coworkers if you have any sins?" The man smiled and told the priest that obviously he needed to give more thought to his sins and that he would return in a few minutes.
Honesty helps us to see ourselves as we really are, both with our good points and with our sins. It is only when we acknowledge that we are sinners that God can forgive us. The only people Jesus became angry with in the Gospels were those who could not see their sins. The Lord cannot forgive those who cannot acknowledge that they need His forgiveness. Remember the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in the temple. The Publican beat his chest and prayed to be forgiven. The Pharisee told God all the good things that he was doing. Jesus said that the Publican, though a much greater sinner than the Pharisee, went home forgiven. The Pharisee did not.
Second, be sorry for our sins. Once we admit that we have sinned, God’s grace stirs us to remorse for our falling into sins. We admit we have turned from God and hurt our relationship with both God and neighbor.
Third, resolve to do better. True contrition for sins is more than an emotion of remorse for sin. True contrition means that we intend to live differently from now on.
If we have sorrow but no resolve to change, we are like me in the first grade thinking that Confession is intended to change God. Confession has to be more than telling God I am sorry. It is a firm and sincere commitment before God to live differently. This does not mean that we will never sin again. Human nature is too frail for that. It does mean that we will continue to try to live our faith.
Often we confess the same sins Confession after Confession. There is nothing wrong with this. It shows our drive to continue to confront our sins and, little by little, to grow into the person God calls us to be. It may take time to do this, and the grace of the sacrament of Confession is working to help us overcome our sins.
I remember for years taking a monthly allergy shot to overcome my allergies. For a long time it seemed that I was not getting anywhere. I knew that I had to take the shot every month. I was not aware that the shot was changing my allergies little by little until after some years the shot was no longer necessary. The grace of God can work within us step by step, sometimes without us being aware, in order to change us and help us overcome our sins, even the ones that seem most ingrained in us.
Fourth, confess one’s sins. We speak our sins in Confession to the best of our ability knowing that God forgives any sin we meant to confess and sincerely forgot to mention.
Fifth, do the penance the priest gives us. This may be a prayer or an act of mercy intended to remind us of God’s love and our resolve to live differently.
Finally, allow me to add two more conditions for a good Confession. I will write about these two in future articles:
Accept God’s forgiveness.
Pass the forgiveness on to others.
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Week.