A year or two before I arrived in Northern Ireland, I received a call from an elderly congregation member from a previous church that I had ministered at. She asked if she could meet with me and to hear her confession.
I was a bit nervous about it as I had never done such a thing before. So I met with her at her home in a retirement village and there in her lounge over a cup of tea, she shared with me something she had done probably over 30 – 40 years before that she had never shared with anyone before. For 30 or 40 years she had kept this as a secret. But now, sharing the full nature of what she had done with another person, and holding what she had shared in prayer with the assurance of God’s forgiveness, it was as though a great burden had been lifted from her.
It was a very moving experience for me, not only because it was the first time I had been asked to hear someone else’s confession, but most especially because she was someone I held in the highest regard because of her saintliness, humility, her overflowing kindness towards others, and her faithful service in the church over decades. In that conversation it had felt like I was standing on sacred ground. If anything, it felt as though that day, I should have been making my confession to her and not the other way around.
I share this story with you, because Step 5 on the 12 Step Programme can indeed be seen as a kind of confession. In Step 5 we are encouraged to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
In Step 1 we were invited to identify that one issue or struggle in our lives that we feel powerless over and that makes our lives feel unmanageable.
In Step 2 we were invited to consider the possibility of a Higher Power.
In Step 3 we were invited to hand over the care of our wills and our lives to that Higher Power, or God, as we understand God.
In Step 4 we were invited to take a moral inventory of ourselves, listing as honestly as possible our virtues as well as our weaknesses.
Today in Step 5 we are invited to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
Trevor Hudson in his book One Day at a Time suggests that Step 5 is more than just a confession. He says it is a time for coming out of hiding, sharing our secrets, bringing the skeletons out of the cupboard, taking off our masks and finding and new freedom and peace. He says it is the invitation, to come clean, to the best of our ability.
For Protestants this step might be for some a bit of a stumbling block, because it sounds rather like going into the Catholic confessional. Isn’t that something that Protestants have left behind. Isn’t it enough to make my own private confession to God?
It is important to remember that what the Protestant Reformation did was to challenge the Roman Catholic claim that to be forgiven you had to confess your sins to a priest as the representative of the church. The Protestant Reformation however never denied that there might at some point in our lives be benefit in confessing our sins to another human being for to do so would have been to go against scripture. The practice of confessing one’s sins to another is in fact quite Biblical. We find it in James 5:16 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.
The book of James suggests that confessing one’s sins to another person can be a good thing and can help us to find healing. It does not specify however that such confession needs to be made to a priest or a clergy person, and neither does it say that you won’t be forgiven. But it does suggest that it can be very helpful for our healing.
Getting back to Step 5, Trevor Hudson says that the fifth step has three parts:
1. Firstly we must admit our wrongs to God. He suggests that when we seek to be honest with God about our failings, it reopens the channels between us and God or The Sacred and we discover the cleansing power of Divine mercy flowing deeply into our lives.
2. Secondly, we must admit our wrongs to ourselves. He says this means looking at our moral inventory again and acknowledging ‘This is who I am’. There are no excuses for what I have done. I am not going to blame my upbringing, my genes or my circumstances. I am willing to take full responsibility for them. Trevor suggests that when we are willing to face ourselves honestly in this way, we open the way for positive change to take place in our lives.
3. Thirdly, we must admit our wrongs to one other human being. Trevor suggests that this is the scary part of the fifth step. It is a very difficult thing to be this honest with another human being. We would much rather remain in hiding, and have our secrets go to the grave with us, chain up the ghosts of the past and keep our masks firmly in place, than come clean in the presence of another human being.
Trevor Hudson writes that he knows the resistance to doing this. He says that he put off doing the 5th Step for several years, coming up with a whole host of reasons not to.
Bit he says we avoid this part of Step 5 to our own detriment. He suggests that there are a whole host of enormous spiritual and emotional benefits when we do so. And so he lists for major benefits that come to us when we admit our wrongs to God, ourselves and to another human being:
1. Firstly we receive a stronger self-worth. We seldom feel good about ourselves when we do wrong. Often we carry a huge burden of guilt and shame and which makes it hard for us to respect ourselves. But coming clean requires bravery and courage and when we do brave and courageous things, helps us to feel better about ourselves.
2. Secondly we receive a release from guilt. Nearly all of us carry some kind of guilt around with us. And some people tell us we should not feel guilty about our deeds of selfishness, anger and prejudice, but Trevor Hudson says he couldn’t disagree more. Guilt shows that we have at least some moral awareness of what is right and wrong. It is like a moral alarm bell. The question is whether we will allow our guilt to motivate us to become better persons. But naming honestly and confessing our moral failures can open us to receiving forgiveness which helps us to be released from the burden of guilt.
3. Thirdly, we receive the gift of a deepening of our relationships. When we keep our shameful deeds hidden, and end up wearing masks of pretence, we end up cutting ourselves off from others preventing deep and honest relationships. Coming clean helps break the awful sense of isolation we feel as it opens us to experiencing a deeper connection with others.
4. Lastly, it invites us into genuine spirituality. Trevor Hudson says that a common criticism thrown at religious people is that they are not sincere. The word usually used is hypocrite. And if truth be told it is not always an unfair criticism. Too often in the church we give the impression of being better people than we are. Church attendance can very easily become part of presenting a polished version of ourselves to the world, when below the surface we know that all is not quite as it seems.
But when we come clean, Trevor suggests that it is precisely where we have most deeply failed that we experience most deeply a sense of God, grace and love in our lives. It also enables us to be a little less condemning of others. When we can more freely admit our own faults, we become less defensive helping us to live with a freer spirit and a lighter heart.
Those people in life that are easiest to get on with are not those who are perfect in every way. In fact they are often the most difficult to get on with. One has a constant feeling of being judged. On the contrary, those who are easiest to get on with are those who are freely able to admit their own faults and don’t try to pretend to be better than they are.
I found the story of a young man who with the help of his sponsor was able to take this step. Even though his sponsor was someone he had grown to trust, it still took an enormous courage to confess to him the exact nature of his wrongs. Afterwards he felt quite exhausted but he knew something had changed. And in the weeks ahead he realised what a life-changing experience Step 5 had been for him. For the first time in a long time, he could look at people and smile, and be happy when people looked happy to see him, instead of feeling burdened by the baggage he had been carrying.
I end with a few quotes from Scripture -
James 5:16 So confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another so that you might be healed. The prayer of a godly person is powerful. Things happen because of it.
Psalm 32:3-5 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Don Ward – Rather than admit a mistake, nations have gone to war, families have separated, and good people have sacrificed everything dear to them. Admitting that you were wrong is just another way of saying that you are wiser today than yesterday.