On Confession (and Presumption)
How many people reading here have been to confession countless times with the exact same sins every single time? I think that’s been me since probably the first time I went to confession. Of course, the sins I confess now differ from back then, but when I think of the last few times I went to confession, I’d be willing to bet I probably didn’t change all that much. Or perhaps you’ve not been to confession in a very long time, and you think it’s not worth it to go back because you’ll only sin again. For most of us, it can be easy to feel stuck in the same sins for a long time. It can sometimes feel very easy to say, “I like confession and being reconciled with God, but I still like my sins.”
But there is a problem with this. When we go to confession, we say our Act of Contrition. There are probably about a million variations of this prayer in English, but in every single instance we’re essentially promising to sin no more and avoid occasions of sin too. It’s part of going to confession that we have to say those words, and mean it. The obvious problem is, most of the time I can know with a very high level of certainty that I will sin again. When I try to imagine not sinning again after confession, I sometimes envision crazy life-changing miracles. Or being hit by a bus about 5 minutes after leaving the confessional. But mostly I just stare into the stark reality that in a few hours or days or weeks I’ll be right back in the same spot all over again. Does this mean that I can’t go to confession unless I really feel confident I can succeed at stopping my favorite sins?
I don’t think we need to be sure of success in order to go to confession. In fact, I think if we waited for that, we’d just never be able to go to confession. It’s fairly obvious that intentionally abusing confession so that you can continue to sin is a very bad thing, and that’s called the sin of presumption. But how is that different from the admission that we will probably sin again? The difference is in the intent. We can know that we may do bad things, but that doesn’t mean we intend to do them at all. Instead, we can make up our minds to fight against our sins, even though we know we probably will not win this time.
Going to confession is part of what gives us the strength to be able to succeed in our battle against sin. The graces of the sacrament of confession are God’s way of helping us grow in virtue. He wants us to accept the gift of those graces and desires to give us victory over our sins. If we allow ourselves to be kept away because we fear sinning again, then we’ve already lost the war. So the question is, when are you gonna’ get to confession again?
(For a somewhat more detailed discussion on presumption and penitence, check out Chris’ old article: I am a Hypocrite)