While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
This month, we turn to the biblical roots of the Sacrament of Penance. When addressing the realities of sin, the Bible encourages us to be honest about our need for mercy, while also encouraging us to work towards repairing the relationships that we have damaged. The healing process we call reconciliation begins when we honestly acknowledge the wounds we have caused through our sins.
In the Book of Genesis, we find a beautiful story about our human tendency to avoid taking responsibility for our sins. When the first man and woman succumb to the serpent’s temptations and eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they do is hide themselves from God. Immediately, we see that they do not trust in God’s mercy; they are afraid.
When God finds them, they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. The woman blames the serpent, and the man blames God and the woman. The consequences of their sin are a series of damaged relationships: the woman’s relationship with her children will begin with pain; the woman’s relationship with the man is marred by unintended inequality; and the man’s relationship with the earth is now a process of toil and labor.
When we refuse to take responsibility for our sins, our relationships are wounded and the wounds are left to grow.
Hence, the ancient Israelites recognized the importance of confessing sins and attending to the damage that had been done. For example, in the Book of Leviticus, we see laws that demand confession and reparation. “When you realize your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed.
And you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.” (Lev 5:5-6)
The Israelites are commanded to honestly acknowledge their sins by confessing, but confession was not enough.
After confessing, the Israelites were expected to make a type of payment. First, they needed to repair the damage they had done to the members of their community. If they had stolen, they needed to make repayment beyond what had been stolen. (e.g. Num 5:7) Second, sinners needed to make a sacrificial offering to God.
This form of prayer helped the sinner remember and return to the blessings of God’s covenant. Both of these actions were meant to help reconciliation by repairing damaged relationships. Confession begins the process of reconciliation between sinner, community, and God.
In the New Testament, we see that this emphasis on repentance is at the heart of Jesus’s message (Mar 1:15). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stays true to the practices of Israel by emphasizing three forms of sacrifice that are meant to help repair the relationships that are damaged by sin: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. (Mat 6:1-18)
Fasting helps us focus on ourselves, almsgiving helps us focus on our neighbors, and prayer turns us toward God. Hence, when we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, all three of these relationships should be considered. Sin is not just an offense against God; it is simultaneously an offense against ourselves and our neighbors.
In the end, confessing our sins is an act of honesty to ourselves, to our community, and to God. It is often hard to confess because we are filled with guilt, shame, and fear. We would rather hide our imperfections from others, from God, and even from ourselves. Psalm 32 puts it beautifully: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”
Allow me to illustrate this point with my own confession: As I was writing this article, my wife and I were having a conversation and I spoke to her in a condescending tone. She rightfully got angry, and I immediately began to make excuses for my behavior. Rather than acknowledging what I had done, I tried to place blame elsewhere. After she walked away,
I felt a growing sense of guilt and shame. I stayed quiet, thinking that her anger and my guilt would eventually go away. But, of course, it did not. The silence between us was a loud sign that I had caused a wound. I was left with a choice: let the wound grow, or break the silence.
Confession is a first step toward reconciliation and healing. When we stay silent, our wounds grow. Confession shows us those wounds and invites us to work towards healing. After confession and absolution, the acts of penance we perform should be steps toward repairing the relationships we have damaged. The Sacrament of Penance is gift that pulls us out of our silence and into the joy of reconciliation.