You may have heard the saying, Confession is good for the soul. Where did it come from? It comes from an old Scottish proverb, “Open confession is good for the soul”—a piece of advice that people come clean regarding anything that they are guilty of in order to feel better about themselves.
I think that’s the basis for the phrase. It’s not easy to admit you’re wrong about something—some of us will never admit to doing or thinking wrong things. Saying, I’m sorry is even more difficult—and unfortunately we get used to living that way. Do the least you can and try and get away with it. It’s a bit like the man who went to the doctor. The doctor asks, And what’s wrong with you today? And he replies, Well, I’d prefer not to tell you. Just try and guess.
I think that’s a bit weird and unfair, to say nothing of being dishonest. This old phrase is generally saying that admitting our errors is good for us; easing the burden of carrying the guilt we feel if nothing else. Psychological studies have demonstrated a benefit to those who acknowledge and feel sorry for their mistakes and misdeeds. Psychologists call this benefit catharsis, a releasing or getting relief from repressed emotions.
A Problem Shared Can Be a Problem Solved
Sometimes what is needed is a little encouragement to open up—share how you feel and talk to somebody about what is going on in your life. It can often be the case that a problem shared is a problem solved. It’s amazing how often we don’t know what to do in a difficult situation—but just hearing another human being’s opinion opens up our mind in a helpful and beneficial way.
If you saw the tremendous movie The Mission, you may recall the scene where the character played by Robert De Niro insists on carrying a heavy bundle up a mountain. He has taken on his penance to atone for the sin of murder. A Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons, tries to get him to put the burden down. He refuses to do so. It seems the character played by De Niro wants to feel his burden to the maximum.
And that is where the C-word comes in—I mean the word ‘conscience’. A teacher was talking to a class of eight-year-old children one day about the little voice inside their heads that helps them to choose what is right and wrong. No response. The kids looked at her blankly. It starts with C, she said. One bright little boy put up his hand, I know—Jiminy Cricket. We may smile at the innocence—but there is a serious thought here. Have we downplayed the importance of confession to God of my wrongs?
As a child, I grew up attending a Catholic church in a small country town, and was expected to attend confession in a wooden type box, where I knelt down. And I confessed my sins to the priest in the adjoining confessional. Was it good for me? I’m not sure. It was more confusing than calming. And quite mysterious. But at least my conscience was clear when I stepped outside. I had a sense of my own sins and shortcomings, and my responsibility to live a good life as best I could. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I understood it in a more adult way.
Looking Deep Within Ourselves
It is interesting to me that the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) include two steps for dealing with our sins, our defects of character, our wrongs. The fourth step instructs us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We are told to look deep. To leave out nothing. In fact, we’re warned that we are as sick as our secrets. This inventory must be written. We’re creatures who tend to rationalise and quantify our behaviour. We also have a selective memory when it comes to judging our own bad behaviours. Besides, as the AA literature teaches, this written list of our wrongs will be our first tangible evidence of our intention to truly face ourselves and change.
And so it is with faith in God. In the Old Testament, Psalm 119 is a long chapter:
Happy are people with integrity,
who follow the law of the Lord.
Happy are those who obey His decrees
and search for Him with all their hearts.
They do not compromise with evil,
and they walk only in His paths
My soul is weary with sorrow…
keep me from deceitful ways…
I have chosen the way of truth…
you have set my heart free. (Psalm 119:1-3; 28; 29; 30; 32)
Our confessions are not meant to make God aware of what we’ve done wrong. He knows already.
There is a genuine sadness when we do wrong—and we need to confess our sin to God because he deserves this as the one true, holy and righteous God. Evil weighs heavily on the heart. It can colour your opinion of yourself. It can sap your energy, your drive, your ambition, and leave you lethargic. In fact, it can stop you from moving forward.
Let me try and simplify my idea here. Our confessions are not meant to make God aware of what we’ve done wrong. He knows already. Our confessions are meant to make us truly aware of who we are. We can know, however, that God hears our confession. Our admission has been heard and accepted. Pardon follows upon sincere confession. It is in God’s nature to forgive our sinful ways when we from our hearts confess our evil ways.
Speak to him today sincerely from the heart, because confession really is good for the soul. The Apostle John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 – NKJV). So, in that sense, confession is good for the soul.