The Joy of Repentance and Confession / Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip

With the dawn of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in the nineteen century, the world realized that human beings are an integral part of the entire created order. Darwin’s work also brought us to the realization that we are more of animals of a superior order which dominates other species. The cognizance of animalistic attributes within our species led many schools of thought and scholars who taught in them to conclude that our uncontrolled tendencies to fulfill the innate drives and aggressive attitudes are quite natural. Consequently, the traditional spiritual wisdom which inspires a higher purpose for the self and divine potential through discipline and spiritual exercises, became rather unpopular or non-existent.  It is in this context that we direct our thoughts to the calling of Christ – to become perfect as God Himself. It is in a context of animosity towards a spiritual life that we talk and teach about the need for sacraments like confession.

The early Christian community was fully convinced that, those who are initiated into Christ through baptism must grow towards His perfection.  Indian religious philosophy is also primarily based on an axiom that every evil act will leave a negative mark in the inner life or atman and that mukti or liberation from this karmic effect is the main goal of life.  Christian tradition highlights the importance of humans beings created in the image and likeness of God. It constantly  exhorts the believers to renew this identity through a life of constant repentance.  Jesus Christ being the perfect image and likeness of God helps us to become like Him walking besides and abiding within the believer’s heart. Confession thus becomes a medium of eliminating everything that stands against the light and wisdom of Christ the Eternal One.

The Bible and the teachings of the Fathers of the Holy Church are replete with references to the need and importance of repentance which bears the fruits of  sanctification, healing and true joy.  St. John teaches that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”(I John 1:9).  St. James teaches confession of sins as a preparation for healing (5:16).  The Bible as a whole emphasizes the need of a pure conscience for the true experience of life, in accordance with the will of God (Proverbs 28:13,14). Origen of Alexandria in third century has listed seven ways of obtaining forgiveness like baptism, the suffering of martyrdom etc.  He presents confession as  the seventh way:  “finally there is a seventh way of forgiveness, hard and painful though it is, namely remission of sins through penitence, when the sinner washes his bed with tears and tears are his bread day and night, and when he does not hold back in shame from declaring his sin to the priest of the Lord and asking for medicine” (Homilies on Leviticus, 24 as quoted in Confession:  Doorway to Forgiveness by Jim Forest , NY: ORBIS,  2002. p.23).

Public confession was a practice of the early Christian church.  Those who committed major sins like murder, adultery, blasphemy etc. had to keep themselves away from Holy Communion (Qurbana). There was extensive period of repentance. St. Basil says that, a murderer had to wait for twenty years to receive Holy Communion and fifteen years for a married person who committed adultery.  According to the canon eleven  of Nicene council, those who had forsaken faith during the persecution, had to repent and wait for twelve years before reintegration in to the Church for receiving Holy Communion.  Early Christians were not teaching a cheap grace and considered sin seriously as an illness not only of individuals but also of the Church, the body of Christ.  Thus major sins brought about a self-excommunication spiritually and literally for the early followers of Christ.  The early Christians understood that sin has a corporate effect. Hence even the private sin of an individual member had an adverse effect on the wellness and integrity of the entire Church and even the creation.  Thus it was necessary for the sinner to confess before the community which might lead towards his or her reintegration into the community. While undergoing severe persecutions during its early stages, the Church found its supreme joy and refuge in God. The Church was also compassionate to those who deviated from their faith in Christ. But when such people  repented publicly, they were accepted with love.  Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity as the state religion, the Church gradually began its descend from the focus of the Kingdom of God to the world. From around that time confessions became more of a confidential event and priests as representatives of the community began to hear the confessions of the penitents privately.

Understanding manifold benefits of confession, many of those who embraced Orthodox Christianity from other backgrounds have appreciated confession as a unique heritage we inherited from the past. For example Frank Schaeffer, the well-known author and movie director in US rightly says thus, “The Orthodox Church does not abandon its flock to be orphans, accountable only to their flimsy changeable feelings and consciences, unguided and deprived of the necessary discipline that comes from regular observance of the sacrament of confession. If some secularized “Orthodox” do not regularly go to confession it is because – to their loss- they willfully choose to not take advantage of their great inheritance” (Dancing Alone p. 228). The sacrament of confession is Church’s help to the penitent sinner for reconciliation, integration of his or her inner faculties, and thus a new start. The believer receives dynamic help through confession to avoid sins and to learn good habits and taste the joy of heaven.

How can the Church being the Bride of Christ and the Mother of each of its children be apathetic about the distorted or lost relationship of its progeny with Christ her Bridegroom? Confession demonstrates the love of God through His Bride – the Holy Church. It is a loving invitation for a joyous reconciliation and fellowship with God.  The so called prodigal son in the parable left the company of his loving father and went away for securing pleasures and success. When he was left utterly unsuccessful and  experienced scarcity of  even the basic amenities of life, he decides to turn back to his father. We and our postmodern culture are no different from this prodigal son. We have turned away from God and are governed by the narcissistic selfie culture founded upon the sand of greed and pleasure. Our lives are spent on attainment of illusions. The acquisition of money, power and pleasures which are  the marks of the secondary greatness of life is overemphasized in this world-view. Confession is the rejection of our love for illusions and fantasies. It is regaining our potential to love selflessly. We need to become more aware of our lack of commitment to the peace and  justice of the world and integrity and  health of creation.    It is thereby a turning back to reality and truth.  The way Jesus portrays  the great  joy of repentance through three parables of lost son,  lost coin and lost sheep as recorded in St. Luke 15 is noticeable here.

New age spirituality is rooted mostly in self-help techniques focused on seeking solutions that fit one’s own fancies.  Self-help gurus try to motivate  us to create a paradise of health and happiness through positive and creative thoughts. Revamping of thought patterns towards good and positive aspects of life is the  language of the secular world as a substitution for repentance. Movement towards God through a life of repentance is not merely moving to a positive thought – but it is the very movement to the source and fullness of life. Repentance finds its roots not in the self but the creator of the “self”. Hence it becomes a holistic renewal and healing of the self. It is God Himself that draws us to such a life of repentance. Our prayers have to move from the realm of seeking worldly needs to seeking a heart that yearns for God himself thus paving way for true repentance.

We live in a permissive world where standards to distinguish ethical and unethical have almost become invisible and non-existent. Substances like marijuana have attained legal status in some countries; adultery is no more found in the list of crimes by judicial systems; divorces and single parenthood are considered as the new norm. Ethics is looked upon as a matter of convenience and profit making. Concern for freedom from  legalism and the pain of criminalization of everything pleasurable has led us to develop a culture of  permissiveness to unbound liberality. This sort of an adoption has led us to an inner darkness that we have started to call as the new light. Superficial assessments lead us to believe everything is alright with us but when we assess our lives in depth especially in the light of the Wisdom of Christ and the life of the Church, we are granted the revelation of our deep and grave fractures found in our very existence.

It was in the presence of Jesus that people like Zachaeus could see the gravity of their spiritual poverty and deprivation leading him to a path of transformation. Microscopic dust particles are seen and understood when a stream of light   enters a dark room. When the Divine light of Christ enters our dark lives, we acquire the spiritual vision to see and realize our innermost brokenness and hidden sins. It is this light of Christ that also becomes the healing balm that wipes away our sins with His grace and our two drops of tears – the outcome of  repentance and confession. Reading passages like Leviticus 19,  St. Matthew 5-7,  Galatians 5,  Romans 12 and 13 ,  Ephesians 4 etc., are of great assistance as we prepare for confession.  Contents of the Gospel as a whole makes us capable of repentance.

When we proclaim our own ‘self’ as the gold standard for the analysis, medication and healing – we put ourselves in harm’s way.  A viral fever or cough or hemoglobin deficiency may be a lesser illness compared to cancer or heart diseases.  Ignoring even trivial aliments also could prove hazardous when they are not treated well and not treated in time by the experts who know the treatment methodology.  If we fail to address our sinful attachments responsibly and seriously, they can ruin the beauty and joy of life.  Fathers of the Church like Dorotheos of Gaza, repeatedly ask us ‘not to allow a passion to harden into a habit’.  They interpret verses like ‘blessed is he who shall dash his infants against the rock’ (Psalm 137: 9) as an advice to destroy the sins onto the rock which is Christ, while they(sins) are in their infancy. It is easier to uproot an unwanted plant while it is a sapling. When it grows into a large tree, uprooting it becomes way more difficult and strenuous.  Prayerful preparation for confession helps us overcome the evil viruses of sin at its very outset. We might educate ourselves constantly but it is an imminent examination that aspires  us to study intensively. We try to keep our house clean at all times, but a special event or a visit from an honorable guest encourages  us to increase the standards of our cleanliness and upkeep of the house. Likewise, even if we try to lead a Christian life to the best of our ability, it is the sacrament of confession that gives us an opportunity to assess our life thoroughly and renew our Christian discipleship deeply. Like St. Augustine, before his repentance, we might be seeking life in the valley of darkness.  The pursuit of happiness in fallacious places leads to loss of  the joy and fullness of life.

Genuine repentance is the greatest catalyst that draws the grace of God towards us purifying our very being.  The purification of our  inner senses leads us to identify the selfish and dark personal agendas of our hearts. If we can cut the top of an ice cube floating in a dish of water, that portion of the ice which was submerged till that moment will move upwards. Repentance about certain things in humility brings to surface other variants of sins hidden and submerged in our consciousness. Confession serves as a pruning to make us more productive according to the will of God (cf. St. John 15:2).

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book Coming Closer to Christ  describes a unique experience of a confession he had before a priest who was not a disciplined man. That priest became a drunkard after seeing the ship in which his wife and children were sailing was bombed in a war and drowned. Then Anthony Bloom explains his experience thus, “But, as for this man, I went to confession to him at a moment when our parish priest had been put into prison by the occupying powers of France. I made my confession and he stood over me crying, not drunken tears, but tears of real compassion. And when I had finished my confession he said to me: ‘You know who and what I am. I am unworthy of hearing your confession and should not say a word of advice, but I will tell you one thing. You are still young. Struggle not to become what I have become, not to fall as low as I have fallen. Here is a passage from the Gospel which is an answer to your confession. Take it with you and forgive me for not being able to give you better advice.’ This is the greatest advice I ever heard. Not because of the passage of the Gospel, but because of the way in which this man spoke.” This is not to justify the immorality or indiscipline of priests.  But the point is that if a person seeks forgiveness and desires to change, God is there with a compassionate heart to use anybody to convey His grace.  The penitent is always saved by grace and the abounding love of God.  Self-justification and continuation in one’s sin is the greatest deterrent to the decent of  grace.

A Priest serves as a witness in the sacrament of confession. He witnesses the penitence of the sinner as well as the dawn of grace and mercy for the renewal of repentant soul.  It is Christ Himself who bestowed the authority to forgive sins to His apostles (St. John 20:23) and later the apostles passed on this authority to the bishops and the bishops to the priests. The mere repetition of sins committed is not the mark of a true confession. Hence the priest can sometimes not give absolution unless there is genuine repentance. When a person confesses that he had cheated a friend or taken his property by force, such a person may be asked to first return the stolen property back to its owner before receiving absolution.  During the confession in some Orthodox Churches,  the penitent shares his shortcomings and sins in the presence of a priest while facing the icon of Christ. Moral greatness of the priest who witnesses confession is not the secret of the success of the confession. It is the genuine feeling of repentance and trust in the mercy of Christ on the side of the one who confesses that matters. It is not a well prepared list of sins but a truly contrite heart that we have to bring to confession.  Alexander Schemmeman the great liturgical theologian of Orthodox Church of America rightly says, “God does not forgive, unless the man desires a better life, makes the decision to fight his sins, to begin an ascension towards God.”

The entire purpose of the incarnation was the redemption of the created order. The life of Christ was aimed at holiness and fulfillment.  He wants us to make us like Him. He continues to help us in our movement towards Him.  It is our unconfessed sins that hinder us from our true growth and potential to become like Christ.  Our efforts based on our isolated thoughts and perspectives are not powerful enough to sanctify. The communion with God and His holy Church is what gives strength and grace to our efforts to rectify our spiritual failures. This is the reason why sacraments play such an intensive role in our spiritual life. As St. Jerome rightly observes, “if the sick man is ashamed to confess his wound to the physician, medicine will not cure that to which it is not applied” (St. Jerome , Commentary on Ecclesiastes , Ref. 1375, in The Faith of the Early Fathers , trans.  W. A. Jurgens , pp 196-197).

The Holy Church feeds, washes and educates its children with love and care as a mother. When a child comes home after playing outside, the mother first gives a shower and then food to the child. Likewise Jesus washed the feet of his disciples before instituting Holy Eucharist and giving them communion.  He was actually cleansing them of their arrogance and pride.  When Jesus was about to wash the feet of Peter, he was a bit reluctant to accept it and after a while Peter asked Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his hands and head. Jesus gives a very insightful reply to this: “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet ..”(John 13:10). Here ‘bathing’ can be understood as baptism and ‘washing’ as confession. As we eat after taking shower or at least hand wash, Holy Eucharist follows our confession.  It is through repentance one  becomes worthy of receiving the Holy Eucharist, which is the provision for our  journey in this planet.

May we be drawn to a life of constant self-examination that leads us to constant repentance and thus may the Spirit of God lead us to the fulfillment of our purpose here on Earth- to Become Like Christ. May the peace of Christ fill our lives and all that we engage in for the glory of His Holy Name.

(A Revised version of the article published in ‘Holy Confession’ published by Bodhana Publications of St. Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary in 2019)