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When Prayer and Corporate Worship Aren’t Working

Spiritual Direction as a Context for Confession

Confession is good for the soul—especially confession in the presence of someone who knows how to mediate God’s grace in such tender moments. The safety of the spiritual direction relationship makes it the ideal place (and for some of us, the only place) where we can acknowledge deeper levels of self-awareness, examine the hidden dynamics and relational patterns that are hindering us, and at times make our own confession.

While the idea of making a confession and/or receiving someone’s confession may be uncomfortable for us as Protestants, we do well to remember that this is one of the ways we are to be present to one another in the body of Christ. In some traditions the spiritual director and the confessor are seen as two distinct roles and two distinct people. However, most pastors and spiritual leaders (at least in the Protestant tradition) do not have anywhere else to make their confessions and there are times when this is what the soul needs most.

Because of the safety, the privacy and the longevity of the relationship with a spiritual director, this may be the only safe place we have to engage this powerful discipline. If the Spirit is stirring us to make a confession, we need to follow this prompting, no matter how difficult and humbling it seems. When, by God’s grace, we are becoming more aware of our sins and negative patterns, spiritual direction is a place we can go with the daily awareness of how these are impacting our lives.

There may also come a time when God invites us to make a whole-life confession as part of our spiritual journey. Perhaps we are so burdened by the accumulated awareness of our sin and the knowledge of how it has wounded our lives, the lives of others and the life of the world that the only way for the burden to be relieved is to take a fearless inventory, to confess our sin, to receive forgiveness and make restitution as needed. This is so important to our transformational journey that everything from the 12-step program to the Ignatian exercises includes such a practice.

Practicing Confession

The first time I made a confession to my spiritual director I had not planned to do it. Confession to any kind of confessor was not a part of my tradition but it had been on my mind as something that could be beneficial to my spiritual journey and on this particular day, it just kind of came out. I remember actually sliding out of my chair and onto the floor in a wave of tears that took me by surprise. My director just quietly got down on the floor with me and put her arms around me in a gesture of love, comfort and unconditional presence that was tremendously healing in its impact. There was no need for words.

The first time I received someone’s confession, the person let me know ahead of time that this was something they wanted to do. Because the person was from a liturgical background, I brought my Book of Common Prayer so that I could read the prayer of absolution. She made her confession. Tears flowed. I put my arms around her and offered the prayer of absolution along with a verse from Scripture that assured her of God’s forgiveness. A great burden was lifted.

Cultivating self-awareness through self-examination in and through spiritual direction and having the courage to practice confession there is crucial to our transformation. As Robert Mulholland states so clearly, “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place at the points of our unlikeness to Christ.” This means that the spiritual direction relationship will at times be a place where we move beyond warm, gentle, affirming interactions to conversations that challenge the false self and help us see ourselves more clearly.

Confession is always best practiced in an environment of love and safety—one sinner to another—and the willingness to do this is, in itself, part of our healing and transformation. Certainly this is what Paul means when he says we are to confess our sins one to another that we may be healed.