My first confession was the night before I was received into the Orthodox Church. It was a final step in my movement from my old life as a Protestant into my new life as an Orthodox Christian.
What is more, this was not a brief accounting of my recent actions. It was a life confession, in which I looked back over my entire life and became reconciled with God.
I was terrified.
Revealing my secret sins and my shameful mistakes to another person was frightening. I also had no idea what form this would take. My only knowledge of confession was from seeing the Catholic version in movies and TV. Some poor soul climbs into a booth and speaks to a priest through a tiny window. The priest hands out a few prayers as a penance, and that’s that.
Orthodox confession is nothing like that.
Confession isn’t what you think
For Protestants, the idea of confessing your sins to another sounds scary. Not only is it humiliating, it’s considered the sort of legalistic clergy-worship the Reformation fought against. We pray and confess to God, not men, right?
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. – James 5:16
In the early Church, sins were confessed to the entire assembly. Let that one sink in for a moment. Fortunately for many of us, that practice has ceased. In recent times, confession is done only in the presence of the priest, who stands in place of the congregation.
The very nature of admitting your wrongs to someone else is humbling. But there is a freedom in this kind of accountability that surpasses any private prayer of repentance. The sacrament of confessing our sins gives us the ability to work together with a priest who understands us and loves us. It helps us to truly see our reliance on God and our own inability to fix our broken nature.
“But I don’t need a priest,” the Baptist in me said. “I can go directly to God for forgiveness.”
Of course you can. In fact, Orthodox Christians are expected to constantly examine their conscience, and to repent always.
We don’t need a priest to forgive our sins. But Christ gave his apostles the ability to forgive sin, and that apostolic priesthood remains with us through His Church. We are not burdened by the sacrament of confessing to a priest, we are blessed with it.
In his work The Orthodox Faith (which you can find in this compilation of essential Orthodox reading), Fr. Thomas Hopko describes the elements of the sacrament of confessing our sins:
The sacrament of penance exists in the Church to allow for the repentance and reconversion of Christians who have fallen away from the life of faith. There are three main elements to the act of formal penance. The first is a sincere sorrow for sins and for the breaking of communion with God. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sins. The third element of penance is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed upon the repentant sinner.
My first confession took place in our small church, in the still of the night, with only my priest and myself in the building.
Standing before a small lectern on which were a cross and the Gospel, I listened as my priest intoned his instructions to hold nothing back out of fear.
He guided me gently through an examination of my life. The object was not to relive my past, but to renounce the things that led me away from God. As the rite progressed, I began to understand that I was not on a witness stand. If anything I was on a hospital bed, being examined and treated.
After my confession, I knelt as the priest placed a stole over my head and made it clear that my sins were forgiven – by God, lest there be any doubt.
Only one word could describe how I felt as I rose to my feet.
Some well-meaning friends later joked about my being “washed clean.” I didn’t feel the need to defend my confession or to go into detail. It was enough for me to know that I had found a path back to God, and that it had led me to this point.
I have since been to confession several times. It doesn’t really get easier, but it is less of a fearful process. I don’t like going to the hospital, but I know I need to be healed. Going in for regular checkups is part of my regimen to stay in good health.
After that first confession, I realized that after almost two years my long road to Orthodoxy was almost over. The next day, I would be received into the Orthodox Church. Before that happened, there was another sacrament in which I would take part.
I was to be married in an Orthodox ceremony.
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