I want you to consider a question of great importance to your well-being: Is confession healing? If it is, who wouldn’t want that? If it is not healing, why does the Bible teach us to confess our sins? “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
Let’s begin by asking, do we even need to be healed and if so, from what? I am loathe to argue yes based on scripture, though there is plenty of scripture to affirm a yes answer. I would rather assert that I need to be healed because I experience inner pain. This is proof enough for me. I hope it is for you too.
What is inner pain? Scripture would say it is sin. Sin separates us from God who is love (1John 4:8) We experience this pain as the absence of love – emptiness. Anxiety, worry, fear and frustration are the common descriptors. When I feel loved, inner pain goes away. In our modern society, we tend to reach for a pill or a bottle or a distraction. We medicate our pain. Could we instead lubricate it with love? If so, could confession be an entry point to access spiritual relief? Even more so, could it be permanent for that one pain point? If so, we can throw our medications out, at least for that one.
To explore this, we need to overcome an annoying obstacle. We have to see a connection between sin and pain. If your spouse betrayed you, did you sin? Perhaps not, yet you still feel great pain. If your loved one died, did you sin? Not likely, yet the the loss throbs mercilessly.
On the other hand, there are times when the connection between sin and pain are clear and obvious. If you were the perpetrator – the one who betrayed, or became angry or withheld love, then consequences came your way. People turned against you. Perhaps you remained defiant…but in time, you saw the error of your ways.
In one set of circumstances, we feel innocent and perhaps victimized. In the other, we feel guilty. What is the role of confession? This is where Jesus surprises us once again. In Matthew 9:2, friends brought a paralyzed man to be healed. Jesus said to them, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders mumbled against this because of their belief that only God can forgive sins. Jesus read their hearts and said, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” He then instructed the man to take up his mat and walk.
Here we see a presumably innocent man healed by having his sins forgiven. Thus it would seem that healing traces to repenting for one’s sin – that is, asking to be forgiven. This is consistent with my experience.
No matter how innocent we think we are, at some level I always find we feel some element of guilt. The parent who loses a child in a car accident blames themselves for having allowed their child to travel that day. The person whose spouse betrays and abandons them had a role to play in that spouse’s unhappiness. Whether our role is “sinful” or not depends on what we feel guilty about.
My experience is that if I can see the role I played, that is, the part for which I feel partially guilty, this is the deepest cause of my inner pain. We replay what happened and we think, “If only I had been smarter, sharper, luckier, I could have prevented this…”
The complicating factor is that we struggle as human beings to see clearly that which belongs to us and that which does not. Dr. Scott Peck, a Christian psychiatrist and author of the 1975 bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, argues that we all suffer from a disorder of responsibility. The ‘neurotic’ person takes on too much responsibility for woes. The ‘character disorder’ person takes on too little. The Serenity Prayer asks God to help us see the difference.
I believe the easiest and most direct way to see our guilt is to see ourselves through the eyes of the other person who feels hurt by us. I call this ‘reverse forgiveness.’ We take ownership of what we did to them as they see it, we repent – that is, we ask for their forgiveness – and then we are healed of our pain, even if they take no responsibility for their role.
This is both a miracle and a bitter pill to swallow, especially compared to numbing our pain with alcohol, sex and drugs. It is purely spiritual and can only be done through grace – God’s grace – and not on our own strength. On our own strength, we feel phony and insincere.
The antidote is to “first get neutral” – that is, to first take the plank out of our own eye (Matthew 7:5). We do this when we see that the judgments we feel towards others – which we use to blame others for our pain – are true of ourselves. In that humbling moment, the plank is extracted and we feel their pain. I remember clearly the moment when I felt in the pit of my stomach how my ex-wife must have felt by my abandoning her as I did. Compassion is the evidence that you have arrived at grace. Tears are likely to flood your face and heart.
At this point, confession to the afflicted or to a trust third party will become an urge, prompted by the Spirit. Personally, I recommend doing both. For me, my confessor is my pastor – a Catholic priest. However, the Bible says we can confess to anyone who is righteous.
You will know that confession has healed you by the simple evidence that your inner pain around that issue is gone – permanently. You have nothing left to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to lose. In that moment, you know that God is real and that he loves you immensely. This changes your attitude and mine from a hard heart to compassionate mercy.