What do we confess in confession?
The most important thing that we say in confession has little to do with what we say. The most important thing is what is in our heart, or the condition of our heart in confession. When we come to confession, many words are not necessary. In fact, many words generally only muddy the water and reveal a mind that is not settled, but is rather still self-justifying, still trying to “get a handle on it” as though you could actually fix this problem yourself if you could only just figure it out.
The most important thing to bring to confession is a broken and humbled heart. A broken and humbled heart God does not despise, the Psalms tell us. A broken and humbled heart expresses itself in simplicity, with few words: few words with much meaning.
There is no figuring it out in confession, but there can be revelation. In fact, so long as we continue trying to figure ourselves out, we will run in circles. As dogs chase their tails, human beings chase their thoughts. Around and around and around. The same arguments, the same frustrations, the same dead ends. Around and around and around. We have to stop running. We have to stop chasing. We have to admit, we have to confess, that we will never catch it, we will never figure it out—and even if we did, even if we did figure out why we sin in the many broken ways we do, still then, there would be nothing we could do about it. Catching her tail, the dog only bites herself.
But if we let go of the convolutions, if we stop chasing the thoughts and give up, if we just sit down and cry, then something begins to melt in our hearts. Then we feel the pain of our brokenness, the deep sadness of a broken heart, a heart that we cannot control very well, a heart that lusts after what we don’t want and hates what we long for, a heart that is broken. This is the beginning of self knowledge. It has absolutely nothing to do with figuring out. It has very little to do with psychology. It has almost everything to do with seeing, admitting and accepting that you are indeed broken. This is the beginning, this is the beginning of humility. And humility is the beginning of becoming like God.
When God revealed Himself to mankind, He revealed humility. This is what God showed us about himself when He revealed Himself to mankind, this is the quality that most defines God for us: love revealed by humility. This is how God reveals Himself: Not by power. Not through justice. But in Humility. God, who is whole, took on himself that which is contingent to teach us the way, to teach us that in accepting our contingency, dependence, inability, and brokenness we begin to imitate God. We begin to find salvation.
But we don’t want to be contingent. We don’t want to be broken. Like Eve in the Garden, we want to take for ourselves that which will make us what we want to be (wise, beautiful, well-provided for). Apart from God, we want to become like gods. We want to do it ourselves, our way, the way we like it; but in the end (and we have experienced this time and time again, this is not just philosophy or ancient mythology it is our daily experience), in the end we are merely driven by forces beyond our control: serpents and passions, culture and circumstance, need and opportunity. Like Eve in the Garden we are deceived, and we don’t want to admit it. We don’t want to admit it: we want to explain it: It’s her fault, it’s his fault, it’s not my fault.
We are stuck on fault, on guilt, yet fault is not the issue. Like a sick child who has caught a cold playing in the rain. Figuring out how he caught the cold does not help heal the cold. But to heal the cold, we have to first acknowledge that we are sick, that we are sick and cannot heal ourselves. This is why we come to confession. We come to confession to say that we are sick, that our body and mind is out of control, that we need a physician. And just this act, this act of contrition, this act of humbling ourselves, and saying out loud: “I am badly broken and I cannot fix myself,” this act begins to heal us. Why? It begins to heal us because we have already begun to see reality, to see who we really are, and to find the place where God meets us.
God saves the poor and needy, but for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is almost impossible. The way a rich man can enter the Kingdom is by seeing his poverty. It is the broken and humbled heart God does not despise. When in a few words, with simplicity, we can admit our failings, our brokenness, our faults, then the pain in our heart speaks. This pain is called compunction. And when compunction speaks, few words are needed, simplicity is everything, explanations are meaningless.
When we come to confession, we come to God, as to a Physician, a Physician who listens more to our heart than to our words. Preparation for confession has much less to do with scribbling down lists of mistakes and sins as it has to do with allowing your reflection on your sins to break your heart—or rather letting yourself feel the brokenness that is already there. When we come to confession with compunction, with pain in our heart, then we confess everything with few words, few words and much meaning. When we come to confession with compunction and humility then we already have begun to be healed, we have already begun to reach out our hands to our loving and humble Father, to the Physician who heals our soul.