One of the leading advocates of the practice of the spiritual disciplines has been Richard Foster. His book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, was first published in 1978 and continues to be a popular work, guiding believers in the practice of spiritual disciplines like mediation, prayer, fasting, solitude, simplicity, worship, and confession. The practice of the disciplines of the Christian faith allow us to place ourselves before God so that God can transform us. By themselves, the disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.
Chapter 10 of Foster’s book deals with the spiritual discipline of confession. While I am not able to reproduce the entire chapter, the following is a collection of Foster’s words from that chapter.
Salvation as the Bible speaks of it refers to far more than who comes to faith in Christ or who gets to heaven. The Bible views salvation as both an event and a process. To converted people, Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12). The discipline of confession helps the believer to grow into “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13). Confession is both a grace and a discipline. Unless God gives the grace, no genuine confession can be made. But it is also a discipline because there are things we must do. It is a consciously chosen course of action that brings us under the shadow of the Almighty.
For a good confession, three things are necessary: an examination of conscience, sorrow, and a determination to avoid sin. In the experience of opening ourselves to the “gaze of God,” we must be prepared to deal with definite sins. A generalized confession may save us from humiliation and shame, but it will not ignite inner healing. The people who came to Jesus came with obvious, specific sins, and they were forgiven for each one. It is far too easy to avoid our real guilt in a general confession. Sorrow is necessary to a good confession. Sorrow as it relates to confession is not primarily an emotion, through emotion may be involved. It is an abhorrence at having committed the sin, a deep regret at having offended the heart of the Father. Sorrow is a way of taking the confession seriously. A determination to avoid sin is the third essential element of a good confession. We ask God to give us a yearning for holy living and a hatred for unholy living.
The person who has known forgiveness and release from persistent, nagging habits of sin through private confession should rejoice greatly in this evidence of God’s mercy. But there are others for whom this has not happened. Let me describe what it is like. We have prayed, even begged, for forgiveness and though we hope we have been forgiven, we sense no release. We doubt our forgiveness and despair at our confession. We fear that perhaps we have made confession only to ourselves and not to God. The haunting sorrows and hurts of the past have not been healed. We try to convince ourselves that God forgives only the sin; He does not heal the memory. But deep within our being we know there must be something more. People have told us to take our forgiveness by faith and not to call God a liar. Not wanting to call God a liar, we do our best to take it by faith. But because misery and bitterness remain in our lives, we again despair. Eventually we being to believe either that forgiveness is only a ticket to heaven and not meant to affect our lives now, or that we are not worthy of the forgiving grace of God.
Those who is some small way identify with these words can rejoice. We have not exhausted our resources nor God’s grace when we have tried private confession. In the Book of Common Prayer, following the call to self examination and repentance, we read these encouraging words: “If there be any of you who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein but require further comfort or counsel, let him come to me or to some other minister of God’s word, and open his grief…” God has given us our brothers and sisters to stand in Christ’s stead and makes God’s presence and forgiveness real to us. It is quite correct theologically to say that every Christian believer can receive the confession of another, but not every Christian believer will have sufficient empathy and understanding. Though it is unfortunate, it is a fact of life that some people seem unable to keep a confidence. Others are disqualified because they would be horrified at the revealing of certain sins. Still others, not understanding the nature and value of confession, would shrug it off with a “That’s not so bad.” Fortunately, many people do understand and would be delighted to minister in this way. The key qualifications are spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humor.
The discipline of confession brings an end to pretence. God is calling into being a church that can openly confess its frail humanity and know the forgiving and empowering graces of Christ. Honesty yields to confession, and confession leads to change. May God give grace to the church once again to recover the discipline of confession.