by Joanie Butman
While visiting my parents last weekend, we were discussing my dad’s compelling desire to go to confession on a regular basis. The prior week my sister had agreed to take him to church for confession despite questioning what he could possibly need to confess at 91. She doesn’t know what I know about what goes on at The Farm! Curious, I asked him why he was so insistent. He replied that he was afraid he was going to die with unconfessed sins. I’m guessing unclean thoughts has to be one of them, based on his comment earlier in the night when we woke him from a nap. He was disappointed because he was in the middle of a steamy dream and shared that fact loudly for all to hear. His actual comment was more explicit, but I was advised that using a PG version for this post might be a wise choice.
Oh yes, he’s a character, and being in church does nothing to diminish his playful (often shockingly so) personality. He once told me his secret for finding dates was to wait outside the confessional to see which girl stayed in there the longest. He would then follow her and ask her out. I don’t think I’ll ever find out whether this was truth or fantasy. Either way, he clearly thought it through.
At any rate, when my sister arrived at church and found lines for the confessionals, she set my dad up on the shortest one and sat in a pew to wait. My father slowly inched to the front. Apparently, the distraught young woman who entered before him was making a lengthy confession. Exasperated, he called to my sister (echoing through the church), “Looks like I got behind a serial killer!” True to form, he rendered those in attendance speechless. Who knows how many Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s he was given for that little outburst. Maybe he had more than I imagined to confess – like lack of patience or tact.
Despite his impish ways, he is dead serious (pardon the pun) in regard to his fear of expiring with unconfessed sins. It saddens me when I hear anyone say they fear the afterlife. I think it makes Jesus sad as well, which is why He gives the command Be not afraid so often in the Bible (366 times, one for every day of the year and an extra for leap year). He came so we wouldn’t have to be afraid.
“Don’t you think you can rely on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for absolution,” I inquired? “Why do you think you need a priest as a confessor? Jesus is the only intercessor you’ll ever need, and you can confess to Him anytime and anywhere.” Old habits die hard I suppose.
God’s grace is a gift to all believers. It’s a freebie. It’s funny how everyone loves freebies - except when it comes to grace. It’s Divine SWAG.** Yet, too many are reluctant to embrace His gift, preferring to earn it on their own merit, which is impossible of course. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s an integral part of our relationship with Christ. If doing it in a confessional brings you peace, that’s wonderful. However, if not getting to a prescribed place at a prescribed time causes anxiety, agitation and fear, you’ve crossed a dangerous line.
As Christians, self-examination and confession is not something that’s done weekly or monthly. It’s a DAILY practice that leads to a strong and healthy relationship with the Lord. When we confess our sins, we are forgiven, our offenses are washed away, and our fellowship with the Lord is restored.*** Whether you choose to do it in a confessional or in the privacy of your own home doesn’t diminish its healing power.
That being said, I can fully appreciate the need for an earthly accountability partner. There’s enormous power in confessing and releasing one’s sins. It’s the first step on the road to healing. Ask anyone in a 12-Step program. Rick Warren explains in The Purpose Driven Life, “Hiding your hurt only intensifies it. Problems grow in the dark and only become bigger and bigger, but when exposed to the light of truth, they shrink. You are only as sick as your secrets. So take off your mask, stop pretending you’re perfect and walk into freedom.”
Sadly, my dad is not alone in his misguided belief that if he perishes with unconfessed sins, he will go to hell, or purgatory, where he will languish until we offer up enough prayers on his behalf, which brings up two interesting questions:
1. How will we know he’s there?
2. How many prayers are enough?
If his belief was true, there wouldn’t be many folks in Heaven. We all die with unconfessed sins - those we aren’t even aware we’ve committed. Guess what? Christ died for those too. Trust me, He knows more than we do about our capacity for sin.
If you share my dad’s fear, please choose to hold this verse close to your heart from Psalm 103, as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. The Good News of the gospel is that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) As I mentioned, Christ’s grace is available to all who believe. Even so, we have to choose to surrender to it and claim it for ourselves.
Have you chosen to pick up your Divine SWAG (Spiritual Wisdom and Grace) today?
*The Farm is my parent’s moniker for their assisted living residence.
**SWAG stands for Stuff We All Get, typically when attending an expo or trade show. You get SWAG when people at booths hand out free stuff. For our purposes, Spiritual Wisdom and Grace.