20 Oct

Confession is good for the soul.

By the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 16, 2011.

I like to begin sermons with stories: touch-points or examples I can refer back to throughout the course of the sermon. For the topic of confession, there are soooo many different stories I could use: stories about marital infidelity, or cheating on a test, lying about something or saying something harmful to someone.So many possibilities!

The problem with telling a story, though, is that if the story does not work for you, you might not realize that the rest of the sermon will work for you – you might think the rest of the sermon is just for people who relate to the story.

So today, I invite you to think of your own story. Think of a situation in your life where your words, thoughts or actions weigh heavy on you. Perhaps it is the cause of anxiety, or feelings of guilt, or feelings of shame. Something for which you feel remorse.

Private – don’t have to share it. Got it? Good. Whenever I need an example, I will ask you to think of your story.


We have recently started Thematic Ministry here at First Unitarian. Each month will have a different theological, philosophical or cosmological theme that I will preach on at least once in the month. As we get more accustomed to thematic ministry, there will be other ways that we explore the theme, such as in our covenant groups or our adult and children’s religious education programs. This month, the theme is “forgiveness.”

The alignment of Forgiveness with this time of year was not by chance. The Jewish High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur, take place in the fall. This year, Yom Kippur was on October 7.

During these days, which are also called the Days of Repentance, Jewish people ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and is the holiest, most solemn day of the Jewish year.

Last year at this time, I spoke about atonement. I talked about the Jewish process that is involved in repentance and atonement that permits people to erase their mistakes and return to a clean slate. The process begins when we feel remorse, and admit our wrongdoing. Then we resolve to never act in such a way again. We make every effort to right the wrong we have done, by apologizing and asking for forgiveness and by making every effort to relieve the pain and distress we have caused others.

Notice the first step: I must feel remorse and admit my wrongdoing. The first step toward forgiveness and atonement is the act of confession.

Now there are various ways, both religious and secular, to understand confession. One might be the way we heard about in the moment for all ages: the Catholic understanding where a person who has sinned confesses his or her sins to a priest in order to seek absolution. In this Sacrament of Penance, the person who may have been wronged is not in the picture at all. It is all between God, the Preist, and the pentiant. How many of you have experienced the Sacrament of Penance? This is not the type of confession we are talking about this morning, though there are similarities.

Another understanding of confession, in the religious realm, is as a profession of faith or belief. In this type of confession, one repeats scriptures and teachings in such a way as to affirm them. It has nothing to do with wrongdoing or forgiveness. How many of you have had to learn, or creedally affirm, a confession of faith like this? Again, that is not the type of confession we are talking about this morning.

Sometimes, confession is meant as more like a testimony. For example, when I confess that my spouse’s coffee cake is better than the kind my mother used to make, that is less of a confession than it is a personal observation I may or may not feel some remorse about making. Sorry, Mom! Again, not the kind of confession we are talking about this morning.

Instead, the type of confession we are talking about today has religious, spiritual and secular components, and it is outlined in the book Rediscovering Confession: The Practice of Forgiveness and Where it Leads, by therapist and pastoral care professor Dr. David Steere. In the book, Steere points out that there are four dimensions to confession. First, we enter a state of heightened self-awareness. Then we begin to understand what led us to the predicament we are in, and how the path we are on might lead toward hope and reconciliation. As we continue in the process, we experience a growing need to do something meaningful about the situation. And finally, if we follow through on the process, we realize that there is the potential for a spiritual encounter, which make take the form of immense personal growth or may be a reconnecting with something beyond ourselves.

Let’s look at these dimensions of confession more deeply. You may have noticed that these dimenstions are similar to the steps toward repentance and atonement that Jews take at Yom Kippur. That is because components of these four dimensions are found in a variety of religious traditions (such as Judaism and Catholicism) and in secular traditions such as 12-step programs.

Steere tells us that the first dimension of confession usually “arises from a heightened experience of self awareness.”i By this, he means that the ‘depressive triad’ of guilt, shame and anxiety get to the point where we notice them in our consciousness, and that this noticing brings us to a place of heightened self-awareness.ii This is the first step in confessing: being aware of the pain and discomfort that we feel.iii Think of your example this morning. I asked you to think of something that weighs heavy on you, that causes you to feel guilt, shame, or anxiety.

These feelings are part of why we avoid confession. No one likes admitting guilt or shame, either to ourselves, or, even harder, to someone else. Admitting our guilt, our flawed humanity, makes us vulnerable. It can be scary. So we get anxious and avoid it.

In fact, churches are some of the hardest places to admit to our humanity. Steere points out that there is a history of church – specifically mainline protestant churches (the ones to which Unitarian Universalist congregations are most directly related) being particularly difficult places to bring our guilt, shame, and anxiety. People claim that “church [is] not a place where they [can] talk about their guilt or matters of which they [are] deeply ashamed. They may [want] to, but everyone [seems] too ‘tidy’ and dressed up for the messy entanglements of their inner turmoil.”iv

So we keep our inner turmoil to ourselves. Perhaps it even begins to eat away at us, degrading our self-esteem, weighing us down. The cycle feeds on itself: the longer we wait, the harder it becomes to admit our mistake, our guilt, our wrongdoing. The harder it becomes, the more we push it off. Until we are no longer whole human beings, but are shattered fragments. Steere says “the pain of concealment from others is fueled by a growing sense of estrangement – not just from others, but from ourselves and [the Spirit of Life] as well.”v

This is not the way to live, we know that. But that doesn’t make confession any easier. Think about your example again for a moment. How long has it weighed on you? If a substantial amount of time has passed, does that make it hard for you consider admitting your wrongdoing?

It is this discomfort that can help move us into the second dimension of confession – exploring the path that may have led to our wrongdoing. We seek to understand why we acted the way we did, to understand our motivation and to look for how we might make amends. We want to lift this burden off our backs, to claim our humanity, and to make important steps towards atonement. As Steere points out, “What begins in painful self-awareness, when fully explored, points beyond itself to the restoration of wholeness and balance.”vi

The process of confession points beyond itself. It points toward the hope of wholeness, of balance. It points toward the possibility of forgiveness, of atonement…at-one-ment.

This is why confession is such an important element in religious traditions…AND in 12-step programs. Because it is a step toward wholeness and health.

In 12-step programs, confession begins in the fourth step, when one is required to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. This is not a slow process, this searching and fearless moral inventory. There are whole workbooks devoted to it. This process helps a person to look at why she or he acted the way they did. Not with judgement, but to seek understanding.

Then, in the fifth step, one admits to one’s higher power, to oneself, and to another human being, the exact nature of his or her wrongs.

So here we are: Confession starts with an awareness of feeling guilt or shame. There is both a looking back in our lives for patterns and causality, and a looking forward towards hope for wholeness and forgiveness. And then, we feel the need to do something relevant and meaningful about the situation. This is where action is involved, where we make the confession – where we admit our wrongdoing, our failing.

The entire confessional process can still be stopped at this point. We may get stuck, deny the issue, do nothing, or try not to think about it. These are not relevant, meaningful responses. Instead, a relevant, meaningful response requires that we deal directly with the consequences of our actions. Take responsibility. Own it. We seek to openly confront “estrangement from ourselves and from others, [and] we move into a position where we may learn and grow. A relevant response brings more than release from pain. It creates the possibility of learning firsthand what will prove worthy of our best purposes and efforts.”viiOnly then can we move to the next dimension in the process.

Now the response we receive when we make a confession is extremely important. Steere points out that honest confessions arise “when we feel assured that we will be accepted and understood.”viii This is why people often confess first to a minister or therapist. Because we are trained to be nonjudgmental, to help you process through your emotions and to help you move into the place where you can learn and grow from the experience. But a priest or a therapist is not required. Often, the most relevant response we can make in the process is to make amends directly to the person harmed.

Now, being nonjudgmental is not the same as condoning the behavior. Instead, whenever we make a confession, it means that we can [begin to] clear the air, continue [our] relationship, and start to deal with the situation at hand.” ix That is key: start to deal with the situation at hand. This means addressing implications or consequences of x our behavior or wrongdoing.

In 12-step programs, steps 8 and 9 are connected to addressing these implications and consequences of a someone’s wrongdoing. In step 8, a person makes a list of the people she or he has harmed, and then becomes willing to make amends. In step 9, a person makes direct amends wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.

We are all human. We all make mistakes. We hurt each other, intentionally or accidentally. We all need to be forgiven for something, and we all have something we need to forgive. It starts with owning our failings, with claiming them.

When we do, we can begin to move towards the fourth dimension of confession – the potential for a spiritual awakening or deep personal growth. When we move through the other dimensions: heightened self awareness, looking at the path that brought us to where we are, and feeling the need to make a meaningful response and following through on it, we can move toward a clean, unburdened soul, or the wholeness of atonement. At-one-ment with ourselves and with the Spirit of Life and Love.

I invite you, once more, to think about that situation in your life where your words, thoughts or actions weigh heavy on you. Perhaps they cause you anxiety, or feelings of guilt, or feelings of shame. Hold it in your awareness.

Now imagine yourself acknowledging your wrongdoing. What path led you to the situation you are now in? What meaningful action might you take to address the situation? And how might you feel after your confession? Might there be room to move toward forgiveness? Toward atonement? Toward being whole?

Our failings do not make us bad people, they just make us people. Human. And by claiming them, by practicing the ancient art of confession, we can turn our failings into growing edges. What has brought us “anxiety, guilt or shame can lead us to embrace what is authentic and worthy of our belief, our trust, and our devotion.”xi

It is not easy. In fact, it can be quite difficult to confess, or to witness someone’s confession. As Steere reminds us: “How easily we learn to blame, and denounce, and condemn. How profoundly difficult it is to accept what is wrongful in both ourselves and others, and stay in a relationship. Yet our very survival as human beings may depend on it.”xii

Let us join now in a Litany of Atonement, reading #637, which demonstrates to us the power of confession, forgiveness, and atonement. I will read the regular print, I ask you to read the words in italics, the same words repeated each time: We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. When the litany is complete, we will sit in silence for a few moments before singing our final hymn.

iSteere, xiv

iiSteere, 23

iiiSteere, 5

ivSteere, xii

vSteere, 4

viSteere, xv

viiSteere, 31

viiiSteere, 8

ixSteere, 26

xSteere, 27

xiSteere, 33

xiiSteere, 224

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