The Need to Be Cleansed: What the Addicts Can Teach Christians About Confession and Absolution

One of the young men that I sponsor in recovery has asked me to “hear his 5th Step” this week. Now, this will involve the profound process of him disclosing to me, in specific detail, the defects of character and wrongdoing that he has identified in writing a personal inventory of his life, as is suggested in the 4th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12 Step recovery programs.  Of course this is a great privilege for me, as it will be my job to encourage him to follow through with this daunting task, to sit with him for as long as it takes, listening with compassion and empathy, and then to remind him that despite his past wrongs he is beloved of his Higher Power, forgiven, and now called to live a life of joy and freedom in love and service.  Such gifts as this have been given to me freely in recovery, now to be passed onto this young man.

And so with this upcoming event as a backdrop, it will be my purpose in this post to explore this practice of self-disclosure in the recovery programs, with a view toward reminding Christians of the ancient and sacred sacrament of confessing our sins to one another.  It is my hope that in exploring how addicts “come clean” with one another, I might encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to embrace and renew the practice of individual confession—which in the churches seems to have been in precipitous decline for some decades now– that we might know again, with palpable and immediate sense of release and forgiveness, the very great grace of Christ.

Three aspects of all this deserve comment: first, the moral courage that it takes for anyone to make such a disclosure; second, the reasons why the practice is perhaps more alive and common in 12 Step spirituality than in most churches; and finally, the spiritual reasons why it is necessary that people engage in individual confession, how we are emotionally hardwired for such a process.

First, then, let us consider the great moral courage it takes to undertake an inventory and disclosure.  The 5th Step of Alchoholics Anonymous says that “we admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  As I mentioned above, this Step is done in conjunction with the 4th Step—the written personal inventory of one’s life and past wrongdoing.  The idea is that such an inventory, and the subsequent interpersonal disclosure, be comprehensive, total, “searching and fearless,” in the words of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.   No wonder that such a process is intimidating to the point of paralysis for many. Indeed, I think it generally agreed among those in recovery that more recovering addicts get stuck on the 4th and 5th Step than just about anywhere else.  We have seen many people who could never bring themselves to do this at all—and most of them were not able to sustain their recovery.  I was close to one man, now dead from his addiction, in my view because he simply could not bring himself to do his inventory and disclosure. I know many more whose addiction is again destroying their lives for similar reasons.  So for addicts this can be literally a life or death step.

The fact is that most people will do just about anything to avoid confronting the harshest truth about themselves, the darkest places in their souls. And those of us who lived lives of rampant addiction knew—though we could not then afford to think about—how our behavior had destroyed our own life and those of our loved ones.  So to come into a fellowship of recovery, and to be told that in order to get well and be healed, we must write out all of our wrongdoing and list our character defects in great detail—and then to tell all of it to another person– is quite an unwelcome shock.  And so it takes very great moral courage to do it.

Surprisingly, the fact that we are addicts may give us in some strange way an advantage over others when it comes to this kind of self-examination and disclosure. This leads me to my second observation: why it is perhaps more common in recovery programs than in churches to see such bold and fearless self-inquiry.  After all, let us not forget, men and women come to the rooms of recovery, finally, only when they are convinced that they have no other options, that they must find help there or die.  And so there is this urgency, this sense of utter clarity, that we must do what is suggested by those who have gone before us—no matter how outlandish it seems—if we want to be saved.  To be told, then, that we must write a 4th Step inventory and do a 5th Step disclosure, while daunting and unpleasant, is plainly better than the alternative, for we have made a decision to do whatever it takes to avoid going back to our former lives of insanity.  And so we do it.

In contrast, I wonder if many Christians are not at a disadvantage here.  For most folks in the churches, at least in my experience, are “respectable people” who have lived lives that seem mostly virtuous, or at least not terribly un-virtuous. They may be excused, then, for having less urgency than the addicts have about such an unpleasant task as making a “searching and fearless” personal confession to their clergy or to a spiritual brother or sister. I mean, after all, interpersonal or sacramental confession might have been what people did in the past, but, well, golly, there seems to be nothing terribly urgent at stake that I must really do this unpleasant thing.  This is surely an understandable attitude.

Nor are the churches any real help, for most churches these days, even the liturgical branches that once used to stress personal confession—the Catholics, say, or the Episcopalians and Lutherans, to name just three—certainly are no longer insisting on it as a matter of faith and obedience.  Meanwhile, our friends the evangelicals and  pentecostals have historically had even less of a tradition of sacramental or intentional confession.  And so, without that kind of communal urging and encouragement, and in the face of the plain unpleasantness of the task, it is easy to see why many in the churches simply have gotten out of the habit and spiritual discipline of making personal confessions.  However, I would argue it is to our great loss that believers have abandoned this traditional Christian sacrament– which brings me to my third observation about self-examination and interpersonal disclosure in confession: that we are hard-wired to do it.

We are a people, I would argue, who by creation and by nature need the kind of regular and tangible cleansing and healing that comes from any kind of intentional confession or disclosure.  For we are created to be cleansed; we have an innate need to “come clean” and then be reminded that we are forgiven. Of course, all of this assumes that we have gone astray, that we are sinners. But if I can reach back to an earlier posting I wrote about brokenness, readers will remember that, to say that each of us is marred by sin—hamartia, to use the New Testament phrase, meaning “to miss the mark”—is to say nothing more than that we have strayed from that glorious vision that God had for our lives.  But then, we knew this intuitively in the still small places of our prayer and our conscience, and we knew it theologically from the Scriptures, the Saints and the Old Masters.   “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” says 1 John 1.8. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” says Paul in Romans 3.23.

Well, if this is true, if we really are broken and we know it, then we must yearn to be whole; if in our brokenness we have been unable to embody the splendor God intended for our lives, then we will urgently hope for another chance; if we are clear that our choices—“the things we have done and left undone,” to quote the Anglican Prayer Book—have led us down the wrong path, then we will strive to turn around and find the right path.  And it is in this yearning, this hope, this striving, that God in Christ meets us most profoundly.  For as surely as God created each of us to be perfect, God knew that each of us would not be perfect, and God knew that we must have some way, some tangible way—some sacrament—to experience our restoration to ourselves and to God.  And the sacrament we are given is to unburden our souls and our hearts through confession. First we unburden ourselves to God, for restored divine intimacy is the deepest need. But then we admit our brokenness to ourselves as well, for we must be clear and self-aware about our true condition, lest we live in self-deceit.  And finally—and most remarkably—we share our burdens with another human being.

For God knows that, being human, we need fellowship, and so God has always used people—real flesh and blood people—to be with us and to give us tangible reminders of the greatest spiritual truths. So the prophets were sent to remind us in unmistakable language of our personal and corporate corruption, the evangelists with joy and urgency to tell us of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and Christian brothers and sisters in incarnate presence to be with us in our sin and confession, and to remind us of our cleansing, forgiveness and restoration. Of course, all this has been said far more plainly and beautifully in the New Testament: “therefore confess your sins to one another and be healed…,” said James (5.16);  or, this from Paul: “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6.2); and most poignantly of all, from Jesus, to the woman caught in adultery: “are your accusers all gone?  Then neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8.11).

For the incarnate God in Christ knows full well what it is to be flesh and blood, to have emotions and struggles, to need human love and compassion in sensory ways—sight, sound, smell, touch. “Come sit with me in this dark night while I pray,” said Jesus to his friends. That the disciples could not do what He asked does not change the fact that Jesus, the most human of us all, yearned in his darkest hour to be embraced and held by his friends.  So we can with boldness imitate our Lord and ask for the presence of a companion as we go through the dark night of confronting our ugliest thoughts and deeds.  I can think of no more tangible and lasting way to be reminded that we are forgiven, we are cleansed, we are restored, than for another person– a flesh and blood person, broken as are we– to be immediately present with us as we name our brokenness aloud, and then in return to speak to us words of forgiveness and healing.

Our friends the addicts again are reminding us of a great spiritual reality—the deep need we each have to speak aloud to another person the nature and depths of our wrongdoing, and then to be tangibly reminded that we are forgiven, that we remain beloved of God, and that we are now to go forth in joy, loving and serving others in God’s name. For we are, all of us, created to be cleansed.

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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