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?
- Observe your sinful behavior but don’t stop there. See it as a symptom of something deeper.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!