by William R.
Until shortly over six years ago, I was unwilling to concede to my inner most self that I was a sex addict. That recognition did not fully come until I accepted the fact that I belonged in a 12 Step group for people in recovery from sexual addiction. Here I found people who understood the nature of the problem that had plagued me for thirty-two years. Here were people who had found a way out of the deadly obsession of sexual addiction.
I had long ago confessed that I was a “sinner” and that I needed “a Savior and Lord” but I was unwilling to acknowledge the exact nature of those sins in me that were still crucifying the One I proclaimed to serve. I had yet to acknowledge my character defects – the foremost of which were lust, resentment and fear. And I was totally baffled as to why God, who had done so much in my life, had not saved me from this life-threatening and soul-endangering obsession.
Why Being a Good Christian Didn’t Fix the Problem
I was astonished when I read for the first time, in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, an exact description of my predicament. Bill Wilson writes: “Now let’s take the guy full of faith, but still reeking of alcohol. He believes he is devout. His religious observance is scrupulous. He’s sure he still believes in God, but suspects that God doesn’t believe in him. He takes pledges and more pledges. Following each, he not only drinks again, but acts worse than the last time. Valiantly he tries to fight alcohol, imploring God’s help, but the help doesn’t come.” (Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions, p 31)
When I read this for the first time it was as if Bill Wilson was describing me personally. In my case, I was full of faith but still reeking of lust. I believed I was devout. After all, had I not gone to church all of my life and was I not now training for the ordained ministry? Could I not even read the New Testament in Greek?! My religious observance was scrupulous. I went to church every Sunday, had held offices in the church, and had been employed by the church. If anyone had asked me, I would have told them not only that I believed in God but that I was an evangelical, born again Christian.
And I took pledge after pledge to stop what I was doing, only to see my resolutions dissolve in the next hour, day or week. Even more frightening were the telltale signs that each episode was worse than the last. The same level of toxicity failed to satisfy the unfettered passion for sex which tightened its hold over my mind and heart with each new incident. I became increasingly compulsive and violent, increasing the danger to myself and others.
Valiantly I tried to fight lust, imploring God’s help or anyone’s help for that matter, but no help came. I visited a psychiatrist, a Jungian therapist, clinical psychologists, the clergy of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a medical doctor – all to no avail. I went to healing retreats, was prayed over in languages I could understand and couldn’t understand, and went to a priest with a ministry of exorcism (who told me I was not demon possessed). In one moment of desperation, I even called Alcoholics Anonymous hoping they would take me into their fellowship, only to be told I must be an alcoholic for them to help me.
I was rapidly falling into the mistaken notion that God had abandoned me.
Quantity of Faith and Quality of Faith
Just like the religious alcoholic that Bill Wilson wrote about I was massively confused. I found that I didn’t have the slightest idea what was really wrong. If I had known, I wouldn’t have spent so many years living in bondage to sexual addiction.
Wilson writes that people like me, who “mean well” and “try hard” are indeed “heartbreaking riddles” to “clergy, doctors, friends and family.” But to most AA’s, Wilson says, we are not a mystery. “There are too many alcoholics who have been just like us, and they have found the riddle’s answer.” “The answer”, Wilson says, “has to do with the quality of faith rather than its quantity. This has been our blind spot. We supposed we had humility when really we hadn’t. We supposed we had been serious about religious practices when, upon honest appraisal, we found we had been only superficial. Or going to the other extreme, we had wallowed in emotionalism and had mistaken it for true religious feeling. In both cases, we had been asking something for nothing. The fact was we really hadn’t cleaned house so that the grace of God could enter us and expel the obsession. In no deep or meaningful sense have we ever taken stock of ourselves, made amends to those we had harmed, or freely given to any other human being without any demand for reward. We had not even prayed rightly. We had always said, ‘Grant me my wishes’ instead of ‘Thy will be done.’ The love of God and man we understood not at all. Therefore we remained self-deceived, and so incapable of receiving enough grace to restore us to sanity.” (Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions, p 32)
When I read Wilson’s description of the problem I finally felt that, after all these years, I had the answer to the riddle of why I’d never been able to stop my obsessive behaviors, in spite of my pleas for help to God and others: I had never cleaned house so that the grace of God could enter me and expel the obsession. It was not until I went through the full confessional process, which Steps one through nine provide, that I found I had been liberated from my obsession. Through this discipline of confession and by working all of the Steps on a day-in and day-out basis, I found I could stay free of my addictive rituals and behaviors.
Steps one through nine of the 12 Steps deal with facing our personal wrong doing and character defects. Confession begins with the admission that we find ourselves in need of help. We have reached a place of despair that we can ever unravel the entanglements of our lives on our own. We need help. We are faced with the choice of turning to God or perishing in the turbulent waters of our own lives. We prepare ourselves for confession by doing a thorough and searching moral inventory of ourselves. Here we discover the exact nature of our resentments, mistakes and character flaws, as well as our strengths. We put these down on paper so they can be seen in black and white. Having faced ourselves as we truly are, we are now ready to come to an honest estimation of ourselves before God and another human being. Perhaps for the first time in our lives, we are entirely ready to have God undertake a profound personality change in us. So we ask God to remove from us those defects of character which prevent us from sharing God’s love and power and way of life with others. We make a list of all we have harmed being ready to ask for forgiveness and to redress the harm where we can and when to do so will not result in further injury.
The reason I could not as an evangelical, born again Christian cease my compulsive sexual behavior was that I did not have the tools for putting this kind of confessional process into practice in my life. Although the spiritual discipline of confession should have been part of my basic equipment as a Christian, I did not know how to confess in ways that led to change. I only knew how to confess in ways that increased my guilt and shame. In order to understand why a Christian would not be able to do one of the most basic things which Christians do, you need to understand a little history.
A Brief History of Confession
The confessional process is central to all 12 Step recovery. But it is not central to how most Christians experience their faith today. An understanding of the way the Christian community has practiced confession throughout history explains in part why the spiritual discipline of confession is not a prominent part of the life of most churches today. Confession was a normative part of the Christian life from the very beginning. But the way in which confession has been practiced has changed a lot over the years. Understanding some of these changes may help to explain why the contemporary Protestant church has largely abandoned the practice of confession.
Confession played an important role in the life of the early church. By the third century the church practiced two informal confessional approaches. The Eastern Church practiced a “curative” confessional approach which involved a “guide” called “kybernetes” or “pneumatikos” who was not necessarily ordained. In hearing the confession of sin and then providing direction, the “guide” led the person in a “process of healing or purifying.” The Western church followed a “corrective” confessional approach which involved the clergy who heard confessions and then privately or publicly corrected the individuals but did not subject them to official penance.
It was not until the end of the fourth century that the church sought to scale, catalogue and measure sins and then assign a particular penance for each sin. Yet confession continued to be on a voluntary basis until the Lateran Council of 1215, when the church made annual confession of “all one’s sins” a requirement of the church. This approach to the penitential process eventually forced priests to spend a lot of time on this task and, over time, it generated serious problems. According to church historian Dionisio Borobio these included an “exaggeration of the multiplicity of sins, legalism and a casuistry designed to exhaust every possible circumstance, the anxiety and even anguish produced in sinners and even confessors through excessive fear of judgment and eternal damnation” and “the abuse of private masses and indulgences as a means of freeing oneself from the punishment due.” It was the trafficking in “indulgences” which finally motivated Luther to post his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a key event in the Protestant reformation.
The leaders of the Protestant reformation reacted strongly to abuses of the spiritual discipline of confession. Luther felt that the penitential practices of his day misled believers into thinking that these practices, not Christ’s work of atonement, were the source of their forgiveness. He emphasized that the confession of a believer did not put him or her in a position to merit God’s forgiveness. One could not trust in one’s own remorse or deeds as a means to God’s forgiveness, neither could one be aware of all of one’s sins; rather one must trust in the promise of God to forgive sinners for Christ’s sake.
While Luther refused to make individual confession obligatory, he was nevertheless deeply convinced of its value as one means of grace. He was convinced God’s law brings a believer to confession. But the choice of what to confess and to whom to make the confession belonged to the individual believer. Confession could be made to God alone, to another believer or to a group of believers, or to a pastor. While Luther saw pastors logically serving as confessors, his theology of the priesthood of all believers opened the door for confession to be heard, and affirmation of God’s forgiveness to be given, by any brother or sister in Christ.
John Calvin also strongly opposed obligatory confession but came to value voluntary private confession as a means of helping sinners “come to an assurance of forgiveness.” There was considerable development in his thinking regarding confession between the first publication of the Institutes of the Christian Religion and later editions. Whereas the first edition spoke of confession to God alone, to a brother in the form of “mutual consolation,” and to an offended party, the 1539 edition identified pastors as the most appropriate recipients of confession and providers of absolution because of their office. In the 1560 edition he went a step further by identifying pastors with the authority to remit sins and loose souls. They have been appointed, says Calvin, by the “very calling of the ministry to instruct us by word of mouth to overcome and correct our sins,” as well as “to give us consolation through assurance of pardon.”
Post-Reformation Practice of Confession
In spite of Luther and Calvin’s openness to the value of private confession, private confession never got off the ground in the Reformed Churches. The Second Helvetic Confession states unequivocally that a “sincere confession which is made to God alone, either privately between God and the sinner, or publicly in the Church where the general confession of sins is said, is sufficient.” Nevertheless it is still noted that individuals “overwhelmed by the burden of their sins and by perplexing temptations”, may “seek counsel, instruction and comfort privately, either from a minister of the Church or from any believer who is instructed in God’s law.”
In the years since the Reformation, confession of specific sins and/or the sinful state of believers in general has been encouraged in the preaching and teaching of the church but the ministry of oral confession as a means of reconciliation with self, God and others has generally been superseded by general confession as part of Protestant liturgies. “Secret confession by the individual to God alone” has become the norm.
Wesley’s Bands and Classes
One remarkable exception to this trend in devaluing confession was the Wesleyan Band and Class structure which flourished from 1746 into the late 1800’s. In 1739 John Wesley began setting up “bands” as part of the renewal movement he and his brother Charles initiated within the Church of England. These were small cell groups of men and women, usually divided by age, sex and marital status. The bands met to obey God’s command to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”(James 5:16) Their purpose was to aid in the “spiritual progress of those who were clearly converted.”
In these meetings, each person was to speak, “freely and plainly,” about “the true state” of “their souls,” “the faults” committed in “thought, word and deed,” and “the temptations” felt since their last meeting. The following four questions were to be asked of each member weekly: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” “What temptations have you met with?” “How were you delivered?” and “What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?”
Three years later, Wesley initiated “class” meetings which grew out of his concern that many new converts did not “live the gospel.” These converts, in Wesley’s words, “grew cold and gave way to the sins which had long easily beset them.” The classes usually met once a week, as well, for about an hour. Participants gave an account of their spiritual progress, discussed any particular needs or problems, and received support and prayer from other believers. Advice or reproof was given as need required, quarrels were made up, misunderstandings removed. In this whole process, the “class leader” was the primary provider of pastoral care and daily moral discipline.
Whereas the bands served as the “confessional unit” of Methodism, the class became the “disciplinary unit.” The mutual confession which took place in both units was based on the admonition of James 5:16. They were designed to provide the same sense of relief as confession to a priest. This band-class structure continued for over a century as Methodism grew exponentially.
Confession and Recovery
A more recent exception to the trend of neglecting the spiritual discipline of confession is, of course, the modern recovery movement. The recovery movement’s approach to alleviating the symptoms of a variety of addictive behaviors is reminiscent of the “curative” confessional approach, mentioned earlier, which was practiced by the Eastern Church. In that approach a “guide,” who was not necessarily ordained, listened to the confession of sin and then provided direction, leading the person in a process of healing and purification. In the recovery movement a person seeking relief from substance abuse or some obsessional behavior chooses a “sponsor” who leads him or her through the steps of recovery.
In step four, sponsees make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves, laying the foundation for a meaningful private confession. In this step sponsees look at their relationships with others. Experience has taught people in recovery that resentment is the number one offender, wreaking more havoc than any other single emotion. Jesus was plainly aware of this fact, for he admonished Peter to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times (Mt 18:21-22). The Biblical mandates to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Mt 6:12, Eph 4:32, Mt 18:35, Col 3:13), to not let the sun go down on our anger (Eph 4:26) and to seek reconciliation with offended neighbors (Mt 5:23-24) have never been disputed by the church. The problem is that most of us fail to keep these injunctions unless we bring another human being into the inner sanctuary of our lives where we so easily harbor these resentments, and become accountable for their surrender to a loving God who died for our transgressions.
Private Confession and Empowerment for Ministry
No one disagrees that members of the church need cleansing. The question is whether or not reliance on a general confession as part of the liturgy provides an environment which allows members to honestly face their sinfulness on a daily basis, and then provides them with a practical framework for bringing those sins, and the character defects which give rise to them, under God’s grace. I contend that it falls short and that this reliance on generic confession of generic sins has contributed significantly to the crisis which the church faces today.
The basic problem with limiting confession to general statements as part of a worship service is our tendency toward denial. During a worship service people may find themselves hard-pressed to come up with anything specific that needs to be brought to light. A longer period of careful reflection is needed and wrongs and personal shortcomings must be put down on paper for us to come to grips with just where we may be missing the mark.
I have discovered in my own healing pilgrimage that until I actually sat down and talked aloud with another person about my wrongs, my willingness to “clean house” was largely theoretical. And the house cleaning I did do was distorted by wishful thinking and my own rationalizations. When I finally got serious about cleaning house, I found rooms with locked doors, and clutter and debris I didn’t even know was there!
In addition to the problems posed by our self deceit, when we actually practice the discipline of confession, we may find that we encounter realities that overwhelm us. In such circumstances an outside observer is helpful. When we bring others who are experienced “house cleaners” into the process, they are able to help us begin to look squarely at the debris that needs to be removed from our house and at the personality traits that allowed the debris to accumulate there in the first place! I have found that by looking honestly and thoroughly at the resentments and mistakes in my life, and revealing these to another person, I was able to receive helpful and constructive suggestions as to how to remove the debris from my house and how to keep it from piling up again.
Every pile of debris that I have acknowledged and removed by confession, every amends I have made to the appropriate person, and every flaw of character I have “owned” and asked God to redeem, has drawn me into closer fellowship with God and other people. As I continue to participate in confession before God and other believers in the church and in the recovery movement, I find myself experiencing more and more of the new life in Christ.
Another advantage of including other people in our confession is that they can help confirm the reality of God’s forgiveness. Many of us need to hear privately, just as we hear so often in the general public confession in church, that we are forgiven. We need to hear it from another human being who has heard why we need God’s forgiveness. “Mutual confession is given us by God,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German theologian says in his book Life Together , “in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness.”
From when I began my pilgrimage of healing sixteen years ago up until the present day, I have found that other believers have played a vital role – first in assuring me that God loved me so that I could make an honest appraisal of where I needed redemption; then in guiding me in the process of allowing God to release me from my sins, and finally in confirming the reality of God’s forgiveness.
I suppose that some people might be tempted to think that private confession could be helpful, even necessary, for those who suffer from one form of addiction or another, but surely not necessary for ordinary Christian folk. Only the people with serious sins need confess. This doesn’t sound right does it? Nor should it. Confession is not a spiritual discipline reserved from people with ‘serious sins,’ it is a gift to all of God’s people. Over 20 years ago Karl Menninger in his book Whatever Became of Sin expressed concern that “the clergyman’s morally burdened parishioners” have become the psychiatrists “complex-laden patients.” Menninger called upon members of a variety of professions (preachers, teachers, doctors, writers etc) to reclaim the spiritual discipline of confession and to “join hands in the job of hearing confession.” Although Menninger’s comments are 20 years old, I believe they have just as relevant today. People tend to turn everywhere but to the church for their confessional needs. The medical community is increasingly aware of the psychosomatic roots of even major illnesses – where ‘resentment’ is still the ‘number one offender.’ Psychotherapy is the much more likely setting for people to be really honest about their darkest secrets. And where is the church and its members?
As Menninger pointed out, the need for confession is far too great for professionals to fill. What is really needed are not ‘professionals’ who are willing to hear confession. What is needed is an ‘equipping environment’ in the church which invites and challenges every member to take their own inventory, to measure their maturity-level in Christ, to see where they fail to reflect his image and likeness.
Then believers will not only be able to give an honest confession before God, but they will have the humility to make such a confession before other human beings. Believers who have honestly faced their own sins in confession will have no hesitation in hearing another confess theirs. For as Bonhoeffer said, “believers who have once been horrified by the dreadfulness of their own sins that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of another.” It will then seem a privilege to offer another human being a listening ear, sound counsel, and the assurance of forgiveness so freely given by the One who died to set us free.
May we regain our love for the crucified Jesus Christ as we confess to one another our sinfulness and proclaim God’s mercy and steadfast love.
William R. lives in Bellevue and is available for consultations and trainings on sexual addiction issues. He can be contacted at 11035 SE 30th St, Bellevue, WA 98004 .