The greatest temptation in Christian communities is to avoid confession altogether, to maintain the facade, the uneasy stasis of staying right near the surface and never getting too deep, too real, too honest with each other. But on the other side, another temptation, perhaps not as great but just as real, is what often happens in place of real confession. We might call it “confession as performance.” Here’s an insightful piece from Bonhoeffer’s invaluable Life Together:
[A] danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God’s offer of grace, help, and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession.
Again, let us not steer clear of real gospel confession with our brothers and sisters. The Bible commends it too much for us to safely avoid it. But Bonhoeffer has touched on something important here, something I’ve witnessed in a few small group settings. The safe space for confession can be taken advantage of, in a way. Here are some ways we might exploit and pervert the confessional act:
1. We treat the confession itself not as an act of repentance but mainly of catharsis. This is the employment of cheap grace. Basically, we’re not looking so much for the grace that frees and empowers us but the opportunity to “get something off our chests.” At least, until the next opportunity.
2. The confession becomes a self-indulgent “pity party” session. It is not about receiving the word of forgiveness in the gospel from our brethren and walking in that freedom but about occupying their ears to satisfy our need for attention and soaking up their consolation. It’s not the gospel’s embrace we really want, in other words, but some pats on the back.
3. We turn our confession into self-justification. We end up spending most of the time blaming our wrongs on all the people whose fault it really is. We use the time to confess others’ sins, not our own.
4. We treat confession secretly as sport. Mainly, we confess certain things to see what might scandalize our community or offend their sensibilities. We enjoy cultivating a prurient interest or creating a shock factor. This is relatively rare but still real.
5. We confess sins to look like good confessors. This is what Bonhoeffer is mainly addressing in the excerpt above.
Note: Some of these sins can only be self-diagnosed. Let us be more on guard of our own hearts’ tendencies toward these perversions of confession than on the watch for others’ tendencies toward them.