What follows is the text of a class from a series on Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on November 8, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS.

This evening’s talk will be about the Sacrament of Confession. As we approach the Nativity Fast, it’s good for us to think again about all the things we’ve been looking at over the last few weeks—Christian living, Prayer, the Eucharist, and now finally Confession and next week Fasting. And as we enter into the period of the Fast, we can focus our attention in a fresh and re-invigorated way toward our walk with Christ.

Any talk about Confession begins with a discussion about sin and repentance. Confession is all about repentance. And repentance is all about turning from sin. As we mentioned in last week’s discussion, one of the greatest struggles in the spiritual life of a Christian is to preserve the Grace and Life of God within us. When we fail to be good stewards of God’s grace, when we fail to give ourselves to Christ and struggle to be more and more like Him (by His grace)—when we fail God in any way we separate ourselves from Him. Any sin separates us from God, and the root of every sin is in our not giving ourselves entirely to Christ. In not loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The horror of sin is not “Oh no, I broke the rule.” The horror of sin is that we separate ourselves from God and from life and from humanity when we fail to live up to what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. St. Nektarios (who we commemorate today) says “we do not only distance ourselves from God when we sin, but we also become His enemies.” “Sin” is understood Biblically as missing the mark. Not being perfectly what we were created by God to be. Repentance is given to us to destroy sin. We don’t only repent for our actions, we repent for our un-natural state of living outside of communion with God and our fellow man. When we repent, metanoia in the Greek, we change direction. We move from missing the mark and living outside of Christ, to focusing on the mark and striving to enter into union with God and one another.

So repentance is not an emotional response to sin—you should begin to see a pattern over the last several classes, genuine decisions in the spiritual life are not based on emotion, but on will. I want to focus on Christ and to be perfect, therefore I repent and change direction and head to towards Him. And if God wills it, may I be granted contrition of soul and heart for my sins. May I feel the burden of my sin. Feeling guilty and bad about ourselves is not part of this cycle of repentance. In fact, it often keeps us from true repentance to beat up on ourselves about out sin because then we feel better somehow, we’ve suffered and made a sort of reparation for our sins. So instead of turning to Christ for healing for our infirmities, we employ a sort of psychological torture technique and we feel like we’ve repented. But repentance is a decision that we make to turn to God, which may be accompanied by godly sorrow or not. The sorrow that is proper in repentance is sorrow that we’ve turned from God, that we’ve hurt our Lord and our fellow human beings.

The Saints tell us that the Christian life is a life of repentance. We constantly need to re-focus on Christ. To re-orient ourselves toward Him. We constantly fall short, so we’re always in need of repentance and forgiveness. There are really two ways to come to the point where we can offer true repentance. One is wholly by grace, and the other is also by grace (without the grace of God we can do nothing) through our ascetic struggles. We can come to repentance Charismatically—by a sudden conversion that fills us with the life of Christ and brings us to the point of continually offering repentance to God. We see this in the lives of many Saints-notably St. Paul, who converts and then goes into the desert for 3 years, or St. Mary of Egypt, or St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. Seeing the face of Christ reveals our shortcomings to us and then all we can do is repent and offer worship to God. The second way man comes to repentance is by far the more common way, which could be called the path of desolation. When we feel existentially the chasm that we create between ourselves and God by our sin. When we see how far we are from God, and realize what that means—that we’re headed toward an eternity of rejecting God. When we feel this separation from God, it leaves us empty, and scared, and we realize that we need immediate and radical change, radical repentance, in order to draw close to God and make ourselves receptive to His grace. Then we can offer the radical repentance that the Christian life requires. St. Silouan says that the demand of repentance seems like more than we can bear—we have to turn to God so fully that we become nothing so that God can mold us into what He wants us to be. The Saints would rather die than sin against God.

So now we’ve come to actually talking about Confession. Confession is properly referred to as the Mystery of Repentance. Confession is part of our life of continual repentance that we offer to Christ. That’s why we had to start by talking about repentance—Confession makes no sense unless we understand Christian repentance. So, now we’ll very briefly look at Christ’s giving of the Sacrament of Confession in the Holy Scripture, and end with a discussion of the operation of grace in the Mystery.

The institution of Confession by Christ is seen most clearly in the Gospel book of St. John the Theologian. St. John writes “and when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remittted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Here, Christ is addressing His Apostles after His Resurrection. In modern day terminology we would say that the Apostles are being given the priviledge to hear Confessions and to determine whether or not to give Absolution. They can remit the sins, or not. The three “pieces” of Confession are all given to us in the New Testament. The hearing of Confession and Absolution are specified here, and Repentance is called for throughout the whole of the Bible. Even the actual act of confessing one’s sins to another exists in Judaism before Christ gives the power of Absolution to the Apostles. In Mark 1:4-5 we read that the people went to St. John the Forerunner, who “preach[ed] the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” “and were all baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Throughout Sacred Scripture, Repentance, Confession, and an Absolution of some sort, all go hand in hand. So what does Christ actually “give” to the Apostles in the above quote from the Gospel of St. John? Clearly the call to repentance had already gone out, and people were already coming to confess their sins. Blessed Theophylact writes that in Matthew 16:19, “understand that which binds or looses transgressions, namely, penance [and] absolution.” The Apostles, and through them all of the bishops and those blessed by the bishops to do so, are given the ability to Absolve men of their sins. The absolution, or prayer of forgiveness, is not the priest forgiving sins by the right of their priesthood. The prayer after confession asks that God forgive the penitent. And this is an important point—all forgiveness comes through Christ. The priest’s job is to determine if there is sincere repentance, and if not, to call us to repentance. Our sins destroy the bond between us and God, and us and our fellow man. This is why Christ tells us to confess our sins one to another. In the ancient Church, confession was done in front of the entire body of the Church, with the understanding that each of our sins hurts everyone—we are all members of the same body. So my illness has an effect on the entire body. Now we have confession just with the priest, who stands as the representative of the body. Back to the notion of binding and loosing—there is another understanding that the priest binds the evil one through the preaching of the Gospel, and looses man from bondage to sin in Holy Baptism. So our confession can also be understood as our accounting—have we lived according to the Gospel we profess to believe, and have we kept our wedding garment, our baptismal robe, unsullied.

When we come to Mystery of Repentance, two things are taking place. By God’s grace, we’ll receive the forgiveness of our sins. We’ll be reconciled to the Body of Christ, and made whole and new. The Saints teach that Confession is another Baptism, we leave from Confession as whole and pure and spotless as we were when we came out of the Baptismal font. Secondly, in the Mystery of Confession, God is working to reveal to us His will for our lives. As we prepare for Confession, we look back over our lives at the places where we’re falling short. And then in the Mystery, we confess these things to Christ in the presence of the priest. And the Fathers of the Church teach that the priest is there to act as a mouthpiece. The best way for man to discern the will of God is through prayer. St. Silouan taught “when faced with the necessity of finding a solution consonant with the will of God, [we must make] an inner rejection of all [our] own knowledge, [our] preconceived thoughts, desires, and plans. Freed from everything ‘of our own,’ [we] then turn our heart to God and prayer and attention, and the first thought that finds birth in the soul after such prayer we accept as a sign from on high.” But the reality is that most of us aren’t able to set aside our own wills in this way, to hear the voice of God. The danger is that we confuse our own desires that we can’t set aside for the will of God. So in the Church, God has provided another way, so to speak. In the Mystery of Holy Confession. It’s very dangerous for us to approach Confession as a conversation between ourselves and our confessor. Confession is not a conversation. It’s a Mystery, where God is at work healing man. So the job of the priest in Confession is to be sensitive. And if he’s inspired by God to speak, then he speaks. The priest should never speak in Confession anything other than what God gives him to say. But, even if the priest is not so careful, the Fathers of the Church teach us that if the person making the Confession is genuinely seeking to see God, to be healed, then God will reveal Himself and make His will known. It’s not all up to the priest, and it’s not all up to us. The action in the Mystery is God. Of course, it helps if we approach in the right spirit, and it helps if the priest is of the right spirit. God can move more freely when everyone is attentive—but God can reveal Himself however He wants to in any situation that He chooses. To end with more words of the Holy Elder St. Silouan—he says that during confession, the confessor prays to be enlightened by the will of God, and speaks from this enlightenment. But the moment “he meets with an objection, or even an inner resistance, on the part of his questioner, he does not insist, nor does he presume to affirm that was he was saying was the will of God…the Spirit of God suffers neither violence nor argument; [and] the will of God is too mighty to be contained or receive perfect expression in human words. Only the man who accepts these words of his spiritual father with faith as being pleasing to God, who does not submit them to his own judgment, or argue about them, has found the true way; for he genuinely believes that ‘with God all things are possible.’” The words of the Saints are often hard to understand, but at the root of it all is the very clear message that God desires our repentance and our salvation, and He will try in all ways to reveal Himself to us—it’s our task to be sensitive and receptive to His presence.

It’s only by God’s grace that He’s given us this Mystery of Confession. A place where we come to be healed, to be united with Christ, and to be given that fresh start in the spiritual life. A fresh start, as we began the evening by saying, that it’s then up to us to preserve. As we struggle in our daily lives to become ever more like our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, may the Sacrament of Confession be a constant source of forgiveness and healing for our souls.