Do I have to go to confession? Why does the Church make you go to a priest? Why can’t I go directly to God? Sometimes confession is a hard thing to get motivated to do. We begin to search for reasons why we don’t need to go. Whereas if we truly understood the merciful love that was waiting for us, we would want to go all the time!
Put simply, the sacrament of reconciliation is for when we sin and break away from following Jesus. In the confessional, what he merited in his cross and resurrection is made real, and Jesus brings us back to himself. Confession does more than simply forgive us, however; it also heals our wounds. In Matthew 9:2-6 we see that Jesus both forgives sins and he heals wounds. It says:
And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.”
This passage and its parallel found in Mark 2 provide a basis for the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus heals the wounded paralytic which becomes a visible sign of the invisible healing of the wounds caused by the damage of sin. The visible healing attests to the fact that, as Jesus says, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This is a potentially blasphemous statement as, for the Jews, only God could forgive sins. This is true for Christians as well. Jesus forgiving sins is simply one of the many ways that Jesus claims his divinity in the Synoptic Gospels. It is most proper still today to say that Jesus forgives sins, not priests. While he was still on earth, Jesus conferred the authority to bind and loose sins on the Apostles in the upper room. The terms bind and loose come from rabbinic language of the time that had to with moral obligations and liberties. Simply put, Jesus gave the apostles authority to hold people to their sins or free them from them (absolve them). For the Catholic rite of confession, it is more proper to say that the priest gives absolution, but still it is Jesus that forgives.
As I said from the beginning, like Jesus’ forgiveness, confession also heals our wounds, even our sometimes hidden wounds. Sometimes as we go about our lives, we don’t exactly feel guilty because of this or that sin, but sometimes we begin to feel anxious, lonely, angry, sad, emotionally drained, in a bad mood, or so on. These can be good indicators that we should go to confession because we need healing. It can be the case that we are less aware of our sinfulness and so therefore we don’t feel overwhelmingly guilty, but the things we may only view as “little” sins are wearing us down. The fact of our anxiety or other negative feelings are often indicators that we are experiencing a moment (or perhaps more than a moment) of brokenness in our relationship with God. At the heart of these wounds of anxiety, sadness, anger, loneliness, etc. is our lack of trust in the God’s love for us. Though lack of trust in God doesn’t often make us feel guilty, in reality it is nonetheless a grave sin. God is the creator of all that exists. To not trust in God is a highly irrational reaction, but going to confession is a great way to be healed and to renew our trust in his love.
Much of our lives we can walk around with hidden wounds and scars from decisions we’ve made. The Church offers beautiful practice called General Confession where someone recounts as best they can all of the sins throughout his or her entire life. This is a beautiful practice which in consequence will teach us a habit of letting God know and love all of who we are—even our weaknesses. Jesus came in weakness, as a baby, and Jesus died in weakness. Likewise, when Jesus comes into our lives now, he comes to our weakness. When he saves us, he starts with our weaknesses.
More than that, confession, though it is supernatural, reflects the natural reality of forgiveness. When you hurt another person, it is only right for you go back to them and ask for forgiveness. The same is true for the sacrament of reconciliation. When we have hurt or broken our relationship with God, it is only right for us to go back to him and ask him for forgiveness. Jesus is truly made present to us in the sacraments, and to ask for his forgiveness, we must go to the sacrament of reconciliation. Why? It is because while Jesus was on earth he passed the authority to forgive sins, not to everyone, but to a select few of his more committed disciples. So it was not the Church’s idea first, but Jesus’ idea that only certain people can forgive sins, namely, those who have descended from the apostles in virtue of their ordination. So, we don’t “go straight to God” because it was God’s idea to have a real live person on earth absolve us from our sins. By having to go to confession, we’re just following the system Jesus set up; doing it God’s way, ya know? As an added bonus we can be supremely confident that when we hear the ordained minister of the sacrament absolve us, we are truly and unequivocally forgiven.
In the end, no matter if you are aware of being in serious sin or not, head to confession soon. This is especially true if you are simply feeling a little off and you don’t seem to be yourself fully. Confession is designed to help us leave behind our failures and faults and live to our full potential. Additionally, there’s no sure way to decipher and be aware if we’re living in a state of grace or mortal sin. Thus, it’s always best simply to go to confession and let Jesus love us through his re-presentative (his idea, not just the Church’s). He comes to heal us and save us in our wounds. Keep his love in sight in all you do today, but let him love you in his very special way frequently through the sacrament of confession.