From Perfunctory Penitence to Compelling Confession In Four Easy Steps

For many people the Sacrament of Confession is experienced in a rather perfunctory way. Upon preparing to go to confession many are content to look at some matters pertaining to external behavior: “I got angry with my children….I had lustful thoughts…. I was distracted in prayer, or I didn’t pray as much as I should…. I gossiped….and so forth. While the confession of these sorts of things is good and proper it also remains true that,  for confession to really heal,  it is necessary to go deeper. It is necessary to examine the deeper drives and motives of sin; to examine not only what I have done, by to ponder why.

In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus invites us to go a little deeper than a mere examination of outward behavior. He begins with a critique of Jewish purity codes such as the “Kosher” diet and he says:

Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile….Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mat 7:16-17)

The Jews of Jesus time were very meticulous in matters of external purity. The notion of ritual purity and external observances was deeply ingrained. This is not bad in itself but it runs the danger of short-circuiting deeper introspection. It is possible to think I am a hero because I stay away from unclean foods and do other things like pay my tithes but then (on account of my hero status) not look at how I treat others with contempt or have an unforgiving attitude etc. The ritual observance is not wrong, but our carnal nature can twist it and make it deadly by turning holiness into perfunctory external observance.

Already Jewish spirituality cautioned against this possibility with the famous utterance by Moses: Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer (Deut 10:16). Jesus therefore taps into this traditional caution and warns that holiness is far more than ritual observance or merely external behavior.

And then Jesus give us the key to a good confession in these words from today’s Gospel:

But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile. (Mat 7:2-23).

Notice how Jesus focuses on the deeper inner drives that give rise to sin. It is from the heart of man and his evil and errant thoughts that bad behavior issues forth. It is not enough to say, “I got angry.”  Rather we ought to ask additionally: “what is it that causes my anger?” What is there in my heart and in my mind that give rise to anger? Is is fear? Well, then, why am I afraid? Am I afraid because I do not trust God? Am I afraid because I am ego-centric and when the whole world does not think as I do or have the priorities I do, do I get afraid? Am I afraid because I am a control freak and have to have everything go just as I planned exactly? If it does not go exactly as I planned do I then get fearful and my fear issues forth in anger? ….Why AM I angry? What causes it?

The same can be said for every other sin I commit. Why is it that I do these things? What are the drives and sinful attitudes that give rise to sinful behavior?  The drives and bad thoughts are deep within that then give rise to the bad behavior I need to confess.

Jesus teaches us to go deeper, into the heart and mind, to discover what causes our sinful behavior. And this leads us to the recipe for a good confession, for a confession that moves from From perfunctory penitence to compelling  and transformative Confession. What are the basic steps?

  1. Observe your sinful behavior but don’t stop there. See it as a symptom of something deeper.
  2. Once you have observed WHAT you do, ask, “Why?”  Let the Holy Spirit show you the deeper drives that give rise to sinful behavior. To this end it is also helpful to avail yourself of teaching on the seven deadly sins: Pride, anger, lust, greed, gluttony, envy, and sloth. There are a few good resources out there I might recommend to your attention. Peter Kreeft wrote a good book on the subject: Back to Virtue. Fr. Robert Barron has also issued a DVD on the subject: The Seven Deadly Sins . In addition to the seven deadly sins there are innumerable attitudes that give rise to sin;  things like: fear, indifference, laziness, contempt, impurity, hated, malice, cowardice, jealously, revenge, disobedience, hard-heartedness, stinginess, selfishness, pettiness, spite, neglect, prejudice, arrogance, self-centeredness, pomposity, insincerity, impatience, infidelity, ingratitude, disobedience….and on and on. Focus on these deeper drives and attitudes for it is they that give rise to our bad behavior. Learn to name them. Learn to know their moves and tactics. “AH,” but you say, “There is so much to remember here!” Well I am going to help you by offering you a resource I have compile myself from various sources. It is call the Litany of Penance and Reparation. You can get it by clicking on the title. It is a very through listing (if I do say myself) of the deeper drives and sinful attitude that give rise to sinful behavior. Pray it carefully before your confession and you will find help to honor Jesus’ instruction to go deeper and look into the heart and mind to discover the deepest drives that cause bad behavior.
  3. Having prepared in this way, go to confession and confess not only bad behaviors (which are the symptoms) but also articulate these deeper drives and attitudes. Name them! See them for what they are thus learn their moves.
  4. Repeat this process frequently through the year and thus gain self knowledge and self mastery through the years. Confession will break open for it will no longer be a perfunctory laundry list of merely external behaviors. Confession will become a compelling and transformative sacrament that breaks the bondage of sin by the power of God’s grace.

Try this method. Never known to fail!

11 Replies to “From Perfunctory Penitence to Compelling Confession In Four Easy Steps”

  1. Very timely! May I suggest weekly confessions for this approach because of the length of time it takes? Not all priests are crazy about this, either. One of our priests wants the sin, how many times, bing, bam, boom. The other priest, the one that favors your approach, has lines out the wazoo and confession only once a week.

  2. Thank you Father! I’ve been praying for advice and information like this. What a powerful litany!

  3. Thank you for focusing on healing. The Pharisees in the Gospel focused on what the others were doing wrong. Monsignor, your litany helps me look at my weaknesses, how I fail my dearest Lord and understand how much I am forgiven. If I ask for it, the Lord gives me the grace to work on these attitudes with Him. Friendship is restored, yes, but healing is possible.

    Isn’t this spiritual work a process? Because I remember when all I can think of was to keep the minimum necessary to make it to heaven.

  4. I enjoyed reading this. And I agree that we need to go deeper to fix what is causing the sin (we are actually studying this to a certain degree in social psychology at the moment). I have always had a particularly difficult time with Confession, even going to very caring, and understanding priests (one time after a rather large event in my life, I did have a bad experience in Confession with one priest). I have tried writing down what my sins are and what I think could be causing them, I have tried relaxation techniques, pretty much everything I can think of to make the best Confession possible, and I still feel numb and I draw a blank when I go in the Confessional. I think it’s a defense mechanism of sorts, but I’m trying to move away from that and past that. I know from talking with others about this that they have the same issue of drawing a blank or going numb at times, so that is why I am posting this as a comment rather than an e-mail.

    Do you have any advice for this sort of issue? Have you ever had people get really nervous or draw a blank and how did you handle it? I am really stuck on this one, and I am grateful that you posted this blog, in part so I could see a different approach, and also so I could ask some questions.

  5. Thank you for this post Father. I was getting ready to go to confession when I came across it. I have a problem with vengeful thoughts and I usually confess it as just that, “I have had vengeful thoughts.” After reading your blog I looked deeper than just the behavior. I realized that I was angry because of what certain people in the past did to me. But I looked deeper still and realized the heart of the matter was, they hurt me. It was as simple as that. The fact that I was hurt made me angry so I had thoughts of revenge. I confessed not just the bahavior but how I arrived at the behavior. I also confessed getting angry at my loved ones and, again, would confess it as that. I looked deeper and realized the reason I got angry was out of laziness. I was relaxing and didn’t want to do anything and they bothered me so, I lashed out. I confessed in just that manner, not just the behavior but what lead me to it. Is this what you mean? On a side note. I became frustrated with my son and cried out, “Lord please!” It was out of frustration but I was sincerely asking the Lord’s help. Was I guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain? Do you have any advice on avoiding the pitfalls of taking the Lord’s name in vain? It would help since I do get frustrated and angry and try very hard not to take the Lord’s name in vain in any way. But, once and a while something slips out and I am just not sure. Thank you and God Bless you Father.

  6. I really appreciate the Litany of Penance and Reparation–it is a great aid to confession and spiritual growth–thanks!

  7. That’s odd… many have said that homosexuality is a violation of the purity code. I tend to agree with them.

  8. Hi, Very interesting article you have there. I actually run a couple of blogs on this topic, and since I have found some of your articles very informative I definatelty think that my members would enjoy reading them. With that said I would like to place a link to some of your articles on my blogs since they are more detailed than the information posted on my blogs. Thanks for your help!

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