In follow up to yesterday’s Graham Greene depiction of the callousness of the religious to the irreligious, it is perhaps good to note where mutual confession can work well and be a real blessing. Bonhoeffer in his seminal Life Together, and which I’ve drawn from a few times before, offers profound wisdom on the matter. He sees it as a means to honest and humble community, where there are no illusions or hypocrisies. It can be a wonderful means to the full assurance of faith. However, he is all too aware of its pitfalls and problems.
Key to it is that it should never become an empty ritual or mindless process.
Does this mean that confession to a brother is a divine law? No, confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner. (p92)
It is in one sense, simply another means to daily living in the light of the Cross, a lifestyle which avoids the twin horrors of self-righteousness and self-indulgent licence.
In daily, earnest living with the Cross of Christ the Christian loses the spirit of human censoriousness on the one hand and weak indulgence on the other, and he receives the spirit of divine severity and divine love. (p94)
But the most telling part was when Bonhoeffer identifies the religious dangers of such a practice. It is worth quoting in full – but it is trenchant and heady stuff! Bonhoeffer never minced his words.
There are two dangers that a Christian community which practises confession must guard against. The first concerns the one who hears confessions. It is not a good thing for one person to be the confessorfor all theothers. All too easily this one person will be overburdened; thus confession will become for him an empty routine, and this will give rise to the disastrous misuse of the confessional for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls. In order that he may not succumb to this sinister danger of the confessional every person should refrain from listening to confession who does not himself practise it. Only the person who has so humbled himself can hear a brother’s confession without harm.
The second danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of this soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God’s offer go grace, help and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession. (p94)
Well, that told you! Many Protestants are put off the practice because of its less than positive connotations of the confessional booth – but Bonhoeffer is at pains to distance us from that. What he has in mind would perhaps be more commonly termed accountability groups (e.g. of one or two others) who meet regularly for mutual encouragement, prayer and support. This is the priesthood of all believers in action – with the special trust and intimacy that comes from close friendship. A far cry, then, from empty religious formalism.