Forgiveness and Confession

We’ve been talking about mercy, or what we’ve called the path to forgiveness—a trait and a characteristic that Jesus calls a “weightier” matter of the law. Last week, we saw that in Biblical verse after verse God says that he forgives us for his sake. We’re trying to understand what exactly that means. That God could forgive us for his sake seems illogical, maybe even profane. I always thought that forgiveness was for my sake.

We’re also discussing whether we can be forgiven without confession. Must we confess our sins in order to be forgiven? There’s something about forgiveness that is very troubling. If I forgive you, especially for something which has really been a humiliating and grievous wrong, it’s as if you get away with it without any consequence—no retribution, no recourse. I’m left with the wrong and you’re just left scot free. I wonder if God feels that way too. He pardons us, forgives us our debts and claims that he remembers them no more. No consequences, just reconciliation. Somehow it just doesn’t seem quite quite right. Shouldn’t there be some kind of payment?

As I was thinking about it, I would say that of all the discussions I’ve had with many of my Muslim friends, probably this very aspect of Christianity—the mercy of God and His forgiveness and this extension of grace to us—is the concept they find both most difficult to understand and most objectionable in Christianity. The notion that you can get away with no consequence, that there’s not a quid pro quo, that there’s not cause and effect, that grace supplants consequence, is an idea that just doesn’t seem fundamentally right to them.

This was of course the same argument of the Prodigal Son’s elder brother: It’s just not right to let bygones be bygones, there must be some kind of consequences. Their father, on the other hand, wants no part of settling scores. He’s not keeping track. The common theme of all the “Lost” parables of Luke chapter 15 (the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son) is the joy and the celebration of the finder when what is lost is found, regardless of the circumstances of its loss—that’s the interesting part about the lost parables. The coin is lost, but it can’t lose itself. It doesn’t get lost on its own. It has to be lost by somebody. The lamb has some kind of very immature and very undeveloped responsibility for being lost. And the lostness of the prodigal son is willful, premeditated, deliberate.

So regardless of each of these circumstances of being lost, or the even the circumstances of each being found, the response—unbridled joy—is the same. This joy takes place in heaven. It is angelic joy. It is divine joy. It is joy for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, for (St.) Pete’s sake, for heaven’s sake, for goodness sake. Notice how we’ve turned these into vernacular expressions. It points us back to the idea that everything on earth, including forgiveness and mercy, is truly for heaven’s sake. It seems that forgiveness is either too easy, or else it’s too hard. It’s always easier to forgive if there’s a confession, if there’s contrition on the other side. But is that really necessary for forgiveness to take place? Is it required? Is it compulsory? Is it necessary for us to forgive in order for us to be forgiven? Is it required by God for us to make a confession In order for him to forgive us?

When I was a boy, I remember living in fear of the consequences of not confessing. I thought that if there were one unconfessed sin, and somehow I stepped off the curb and was struck by a car and killed, I would be lost. I remember thinking over and over about my confession and about being forgiven, and about asking God to forgive all my known sins and all my unknown sins—things that I had forgotten about.

A Pew survey in 2017 about religious beliefs asked Protestant American Christians what they must do to be saved. The top answer (19%) was that you just had to live a good life. The second answer (12%) was that you must repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness. Is 12% a high percentage, or a low percentage? For Catholics, confession is one of seven compulsory sacraments. Not confessing is not an option for them. Even so, only about a third of Catholics practice formal confession—going to the church, sitting in the confessional booth, and telling the priest their sins, following which he lays out the consequences—how many Hail Marys and Pater nosters to repeat in order to make penance and atone for the sins confessed. It remains a bedrock sacrament of the Catholic Church. It reminds me of my boyhood, making sure that I had confessed every last sin that I could remember, and even those that I couldn’t.

Who benefits from our confession? Does our confession please God? In one sense, repentance prepares us to find and receive God’s grace. But in another, more profound, way, I think we discover through our repentance that God’s grace has already found us. When God proclaimed that he forgives us for his name’s sake, for heaven’s sake, it means that we live in a freely forgiven world. We are covered with forgiveness. It is here. It is everywhere. It is infinite and eternal. We simply somehow must enter into this forgiveness, even if our five natural senses cannot appreciate it. Maybe grace is the sixth sense to help us to realize that there is a forgiving and forgetting God who extends his mercy to us without reservation.

What is clear from our study so far is that contrary to what we might have been taught, forgiveness for God’s sake is good both for God and for us—and not just spiritually (which it is, of course) but physically as well. There’s much written about the physiology of forgiveness. It turns out that forgiveness is good for your health. Studies show that it can lower the risk of heart attack, improve sleep, lower cholesterol, reduce chronic pain, and lower blood pressure. It is established medical fact that harboring resentment and pent up anger and thoughts of retribution leads to anxiety, depression, and stress. Chronic anger puts you in “fight or flight” mode, leading to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and of course changes in immune response. There is, it turns out, an enormous physical burden to holding grudges.

What prevents us from forgiving anyway? Why do we want to hang on? I think it is that we cannot accept things the way they are. Forgiveness is, in a sense, giving up the wish that things could be different. Forgiveness is recognizing that it is what it is. It is doing something with our memory. What must we do with our memory in order to make forgiveness something which is meaningful? God says that he forgets our sins. Must we forget them as well? Must we forgive and forget? Or should we forgive and remember? If forgiveness is primarily for the forgiver, what benefit does God get for forgiving us? Does forgiveness improve a perfect God? Could it be that sin stains everything around us? It stains the universe. In some sense, it stains even God Himself. Forgiveness wipes out sin. It cleans things up. There would be a lot of sin running around if God didn’t forgive for his own sake.

So our questions are: Is God’s forgiveness for God’s sake or for our sake? Or both? Is our forgiveness for our sake? Or is it for the forgiven person’s sake? Or both? Must we confess to be forgiven? Must we confess to God. Must we confess to one another? And in what ways are the forgiveness of God to us and the forgiveness of us to one another similar? In what ways are they different?

David: How does the very formal ritual of confession in the Catholic Church differ from the Adventist view of confession?

Don: The Catholic view of confession is that you must confess to a priest, and then do penance for your confession. Adventists today would be a long way from that, but when I was a boy, the concept wasn’t so very far away. We wouldn’t confess our sins to a priest or to a pastor or anything like that, but we accepted the notion of a chronicle, a book, of sins that one must work to expunge by specifically asking forgiveness for them. These were very common concepts from the Book of Revelation. So, in fact, the Catholic view and the Adventist view in terms of how it’s practiced and kind of the background and the route behind it are not all that dissimilar, although I think Adventists would say that they’re in no way Catholic-like with regards to forgiveness.

Donald: We don’t go to confession. It’s one person to another person. It’s not really a relationship with the pastor per se. The book, and the concept of everything being recorded in the book, is a big deal. It’s up to you to know whether or not you’ve taken care of what you need to take care of, because it’s all right there in the book. But we would go from one communion to another. There was some talk that you really shouldn’t participate in communion unless you really have your conscience clear of sins that you may have committed.

Confessions are about relationships. I’ve heard people describe the idea of asking for forgiveness on the basis of “I asked for forgiveness on the way you responded.” It’s not even confessing really what you did. It’s the way you responded to what I did. Which I think is an interesting concept as well. It’s really not asking for forgiveness. It’s trying to heal the relationship, I believe. So I think it’s about relationships. The book is a fairly important concept, but it doesn’t seem like we talk about the book too much any more.

Don: But the book had a “thingness” to it. It wasn’t about a relationship, about something written there that was a thing: “You did this, you didn’t do that.” “That” needed to be expunged by a certain type of confession, contrition, recognition of error and specifically asking for forgiveness. And then making sure that because I don’t know exactly what’s written in the book, and I’m sure I did something that was written in the book that I didn’t know about, that I really have to make sure that I was covering that those sins as well.

Donald: You’re responding, I think, to the idea of the book representing sin, not necessarily relationship. One could argue that a confession is just a response to sin, or that confession is a relationship thing between other people. I can sin independently of other people, it seems to me.

David: Surely the relationship is between the sinner and God. You could say “I’m sorry, I dinged your car yesterday when I was parking.” That confession is a relationship between people, but “God, I was nasty to people yesterday. I was in a bad mood. I was nasty and shouldn’t have been.” You can confess to those people and say “Sorry, I was nasty”, but the important thing seems to me to recognize and confess to yourself that you were bad. It’s a self confession. That I think is the important thing that God is looking for. If you confess to yourself that you were wrong to be nasty, then it’s so much easier to go to the person you were nasty to and say, “I’m sorry.”

Carolyn: I certainly think confession is a cleansing for yourself. I think this is the clean way of communion. We have to confess. To me, it’s a relationship with God, that we confess our sins, and in turn we also, if it’s needed, confess to one another, if we were nasty. But besides saying it to somebody else, “I’m sorry, I was really nasty to you” I feel like, for myself, I must go to the Lord and say, “Lord, cleanse me. Clean me, help me so that I can help myself not to be that nasty.” I think we need to clean ourselves so we have an openness between God and us. And I think confession is one of the ways that we clean up the book at the same time.

Audore: I converted to Adventism when I was in university, but I grew up in a Catholic home. I find myself trying to compare what was my thinking about this before and what’s my thinking now and how much has it shifted? And I can say, personally, the main difference between the way I viewed confession before I became an Adventist and now as an Adventist is mostly that instead of having to go through a priest, now I can talk to God directly and ask him to forgive me.

One of my biggest questions when I was at catechism and trying to understand sin and God and everything was that if Jesus died on the cross for all our sins for all time for every person who ever lived, then why must I continually ask for forgiveness every time I pray? They say if you have sin on you when you pray and you don’t ask for forgiveness, then God won’t answer your prayer. So it became a habit for me to begin my prayers with: “God, if there’s any one I’ve sinned against, or if there’s anything I’ve done, please forgive me.” Then I would make my petition. I don’t know if this is common.

Rheinhard:: I think the goal or intention of forgiveness is to get a reward. The relationship between humans is complex, sometimes a wrong is minor and sometimes it’s major. Forgiveness may give peace of mind to the forgiver, even helping them avoid physical illness (that’s maybe the reward). Same thing with the guilty party, the one who made the mistake, who is rewarded when the nagging feeling of guilt is lifted. God in this case is not at the same level as we are. He is the Creator and we are the created being. The reward for us is salvation. That’s what we are shooting for, what we are looking for.

In the parable of the lost sheep, the guilty party didn’t do anything. It simply made an innocent mistake. It just wandered around without realizing its mistake. But there are people who openly transgress God’s law who really need repentance and confession. To be forgiven by God we have to repent, although God is always there to give his unconditional reward of being forgiven. Of course God wants to save his people, whom he loves. If we read the Bible from the beginning we see God’s intention was to save the world, to save the people. He already knew when he created the the world from the beginning. He wants to have people live in harmony with him. I think that’s the reward for God: He wants human people to live according to His law.

Donald: Parents tell a child who does something wrong to say “Sorry”. This is how we learn what the word “sorry” means. It means to repent.

Rheinhard:: If people really feel sorry they have to repent what they did. I think that’s a very close association to me,

Donald: You can say you’re sorry but not repent.

Rheinhard:: Sometime it’s only minor things; say, we step on somebody’s foot. There’s a hierarchy of sin. I think we have to consider that.

Don: In the case of the prodigal son it was willful, deliberate, premeditated, intentional sin. That’s what makes the story so compelling. Having run out of luck and money and food, he realizes that he’s going to repent and go back. The repenting seems to be pretty shallow and basic. It has to do with the fact that he’s run out of everything. He then puts together a repentance speech and rehearses it to say when he gets home. When he arrives there, he starts to say it but his father sweeps the repentance aside. He doesn’t even let him finish what he was trying to say. He says “We’re not going to worry about repentance. Instead, we’re going to kill the fatted calf and have a party.” It’s profligate. It’s scandalous. It’s not as things should be. There’s no cleaning up of the book, there’s no wiping out of the entries in it, no confession, no acknowledgment, no apology, no contrition. Quite the contrary. It’s exactly the opposite of that. And that’s what makes it so utterly confusing. It seems.

Carolyn: I really feel that God has forgiven all of our sins at the cross. He wants us to come to him. It’s our relationship with Jesus that we have to affirm. And he gives us this affirmation and allows the Holy Spirit to work within us from this whole element of coming to him and saying “Sorry.” You can go to your fellow wo/man and say you’re sorry, and you can try to make amends. But I think the whole element of forgiveness is between you and your maker. And it’s for us that we ask forgiveness. God knows already our hearts Just like the prodigal father. He forgave his son way before he saw him on the road. He was ready to open his arms at any time to him. That’s how God is to us.

Donald: So there’s a book in which everything’s being recorded, but actually everything in that book has been forgiven?

Carolyn: I think the book is for when we get to heaven, that if there are questions about other people and why they’re not there, I think that might be the element of what the book is about. It’s not for us to be able to cross out. I think it’s an automatic way of living, that we communicate with God, that we can immediately ask forgiveness and go to your fellow man. You’ve already made it right with God. The feeling of peace is what I’m talking about. It’s his grace and our peace that comes from forgiveness.

Donald: It’s fundamental to faith in terms of forgiveness, it’s been wiped out for us because of Jesus Christ.

Don: What’s with the book if it’s wiped out? There’s a very forensic ring to this forgiveness and a book with information that should or shouldn’t be shared. It is very puzzling and makes forgiveness seem either too hard or too easy. It doesn’t seem to be the right size for the occasion of what it needs to cover.

Carolyn: I think it’s too easy, because we know we were forgiven at the cross, but the Lord would at least like an acknowledgment, and I think we show our love for God by coming to him and saying “Oops! I did it again, Lord, and I’m so sorry.” And then you have to say “Oops” to your fellow man.

Donald: I think most sin is based on selfishness. It’s more important for me than you. So it’s selfish. But say you’re sorry. Another thing we say often is that it’s easier to ask forgiveness.

Don: …than is that it is for permission.

Carolyn: Some of our sins are “Oops” sins like if I step on your foot and say sorry. Or if I cheated you out of money that was not right and I knew it. That’s not an Oops. That’s something I can’t live with. And he’s not going to be very healthy living that way too. And I need to also talk it over with God. I need to tell him, “I really goofed, now help me to get my mind around it, so I can ask forgiveness and make it right.” I may have to speak and also do something to rectify the occasion.

Donald: But we are getting very close to the idea of saying there are levels of sin.

Carolyn: I agree.

David: It brings in the whole issue of justice, and therefore, if we should not judge, forgiveness should be automatic. Because you’re not going to judge whether something was an oops or something more serious. It’s none of your business. Your business is purely to forgive. And indeed, that seems to be God’s business. His business is purely to forgive.

Donald: It’s also an ego thing. The higher up you go, “I don’t need to ask for forgiveness. All the decisions I make are right.”

Audore: As human beings, we subscribe to the idea of give and take—that for me to receive something, I must lose something. So if I want forgiveness I must be humble and lose face. And vice versa, if you say sorry, you need to mean it. The other person will want to know: Do you mean it? And how? How are you going to show me that you mean that you’re sorry, and are not just saying it?

Don: Is there a cultural aspect to this? There’s something about the culture of forgiveness or of contrition or of humility or of saving face or not saving face, that has a cultural element to it. Is that something God requires? Are we trying to save face for God?

David: Religion is a part of culture. The Islamic and Christian approaches to forgiveness are cultural approaches. Religious, yes—but religion is culture. But as a spiritual matter, forgiveness should have nothing to do with culture. It is a matter of the Holy Spirit. That’s where you understand what forgiveness is, where you ask for forgiveness, and where you receive forgiveness—in your Holy Spirit. It always comes with a dose of humility, which is a good thing to have, but we are very bad at swallowing it. The prodigal son tried it but he didn’t seem that contrite. At some point, within himself, the prodigal son would have to deal with his Holy Spirit—with God. It causes a great deal of trouble when we tie forgiveness to culture. If we tied it purely to spirit, I think we’d have a much kinder, gentler world.

Rheinhard:: The prodigal son was looking for a better life. And the Father was always waiting for him to come home. But at least the words came out of his mouth: “I sinned against you and God.” So there was some contrition and repentance. On the other hand, the adulterous woman whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death said nothing. God knows the heart of everybody. Some people find it easy to ask God for forgiveness, and some have to work really hard to come to repentance and accept God. God came to save your soul. With the woman, the prodigal son, the lost sheep and so on God practiced what he preached. The parables describe how God wants to treat his people and his ministry while he was on earth shows him doing it.

Donald: There is a big difference in the way we see God in the Old and the New Testaments—a gentle savior versus a judgmental God of anger. How can you balance those two things out when you’ve got one book that describes such a different Savior? My understanding of it would be that God wants us to be mild and gentle as opposed to being angry, holding a grudge, and being judgmental. But if you have a leader who is mild, meek, and gentle you don’t know which way they’re headed. Just because they are firm does not mean that they are right. But I do think this all fits together, and maybe I’m moving a little bit too far away from the idea of sin and confession, but our personality probably plays a significant role in the way we respond to what we’ve done. Some people are prone to saying “I’m sorry” much more easily than others.

Don: There is actually a personality grid of people divided into either forgiving or unforgiving personality. It’s been looked at in terms of physical health as well. The Old Testament God’s got high blood pressure because he doesn’t forgive enough. Maybe he’s under stress. Maybe he’s showing PTSD symptoms.

David: To what extent is the personality of Jesus that of a leader versus a follower? He follows each of us wherever we go, constantly on our backs, gently tugging and nagging at us. Is that leadership or is that followership?

Rheinhard:: In terms of human relationships, personality is a big, big thing. It makes some people harder to forgive and some people easier to forgive. Young people are expected in some cultures to defer to their elders, whether the elders are right or wrong, but in the US fairness seems to trump age, and that affects relationships. God is compassionate and merciful. He always accepts whoever comes to him, whether with the smallest or the biggest of sins.

Janelin: Culture plays a role in personality and relationships. In some cultures, forgiveness and contrition are not always verbal. In a culture where respect for age inhibits elders from apologizing to younger people, a parent who is overly strict with a child might effectively say sorry by buying the child a toy.

Rheinhard:: There are some characters or behaviors born of cultural indoctrination. Asian success in education can be attributed to Asian cultural emphasis on education as everyone’s top priority. You have to do good in school, no excuses.

Donald: Who caved in: The prodigal father or the prodigal son?

Carolyn: I would say it was the son. The father was as steady as could be. He always had forgiven that boy. And the son had to cave in, in order to say, “I’m sorry, I’ve hurt you.”

Don: Next week we’re going to talk about what sins can’t be forgiven.

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