Many people (perhaps more than a hundred) have asked me over the years, “Father, what’s the point in going to Confession? I keep on confessing the same sins and keep on doing them.” This is a very frustrating and discouraging experience: it looks like Confession isn’t helping us overcome our sins. I’ve been waiting to answer this very specific question for years, because the answer is so life-giving. We’re not going to deal with everything surrounding the Sacrament of Confession, but just this point.
First, if we’ve experienced this frustration it’s a sign that we have a good soul and that we care, because if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be frustrated. God’s grace is working in us: we want to stop these sins and we’re trying. Praise God!
Now, whenever we find ourselves in this frustrating situation, we have three options:
1) Do what some Thessalonians do in the second reading: They’re idle. They don’t work because they don’t see the point: Jesus is coming very soon and it’s all going to be over, so “What’s the point of working?” Option number one is spiritual idleness: stop going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession (the two terms here are used interchangeably), because “What’s the point? We keep on doing the same sins.” This option, however, doesn’t lead to any moral growth.
2) Go to Confession as often as we are now. If we’re already going to the Sacrament, that’s great! But the result is that we continue the pattern of sins for the foreseeable future.
3) Go to Reconciliation more often. What happens here is that we will keep on confessing these sins and then keep on falling, and then we’ll have a choice to make: are we going to give up, or are we going to battle through it? This decision is one of the great turning points in our moral lives and our relationship with Jesus. Either we can give up or we can increase our intensity and, with God’s grace, overcome our sins. Which one do you think the devil wants us to do? St. Paul advises the Thessalonians stuck in idleness to imitate him: an extremely determined person. He says, “with toil and labor we worked night and day” (2 Thess 3:8). He was a fighter. And our blessed Lord says today, “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Lk 21:19).
If we choose to go more often and not give up, victory is guaranteed. St. Francis de Sales says, “In this war, we are always victorious provided that we are willing to fight” (Ralph Martin, Pursuing Holiness, Track 6, 3:33). Because what we’re actually saying is this: “I’m really frustrated, but I trust in the power and grace of God. I’m going to Confession more often because I need God’s help and only He can get me through this.”
We normally assume going to Confession is sufficient for spiritual growth, but quite often, it’s not. The Sacrament does forgive sin, but does not automatically make us spiritually strong. In the same way, if cancer ravages our body, going for surgery may remove the cancer, but we’re not automatically back at full health. To be spiritually healthy, we need a good diet (the Eucharist), a good doctor (a holy priest), lots of rest (taking Sunday off and going on retreats), and more exercise (growing in virtue).
We gave out Rediscover Catholicism two Christmases ago. In Part Three, it gives seven pillars of Catholic spirituality: Confession, daily prayer, the Mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the Rosary. These are all spiritual exercises which build spiritual muscle. This is what we need to complement what we’re doing in Confession.
If we start doing these things and continue going to Confession regularly, we will see the number of times we sin drop! In June, we said that we always have to confess our mortal sins in “kind and number.” Kind means we’ve got to say specifically what we did wrongly; we don’t just confess, “I broke the 6th commandment.” That’s not specific enough. No, we take full accountability for our actions and say, “I missed Sunday Mass five times. I got drunk every week for the past month. I’ve looked at pornography every day.” This is also helpful when confessing venial sins: “I complained every day at work. I think I gossiped about ten times. I’m always jealous of Deacon Andrew’s great hair.” Part of the beauty of confessing the number of times we’ve done something is that we can see progress.
While we intend and hope to stop sinning immediately after going to Confession, it’s also important to be realistic and recognize that overcoming sinful habits takes time. We must be determined but also patient. Whenever parents go to Dr. Ray Guarendi, a famous Catholic psychologist, for advice on how to parent better, they sometimes complain that his discipline techniques aren’t working. And he responds: it takes time. The truth is: the techniques are working, but the results come over time. Same with Reconciliation: we’re receiving grace each time we come, we’re growing in humility, responsibility, perseverance, and virtue. But the results only show up after time.
Typically, there comes a final stage in getting over our sins. Having already seen great improvements, we’ll come to new levels of contrition and amendment. Contrition means that we’re sorry for what we’ve done wrong; amendment means our determination not to sin again. But there are different levels, right? Every time we go to Confession we’re sorry, which is why we go, but sometimes we’re not that sorry and we’re not that focused on changing. We don’t like, for instance, our sexual sins, but a part of us does. We may also not like swearing, but, we may think, “It’s not that wrong, right?” In the final stage of overcoming our sins, we arrive at a point where we say something like this, “I don’t want this in my life anymore. I hate what I’m doing. Before I didn’t like it, but now I hate it. This is hurting my relationship with Jesus, my family. I don’t feel good when I do this. I want to be free.” And now we’re ready to receive all the grace God wants to give us and cooperate with it, and make changes in our lives (e.g. I’m not missing Mass anymore, I’m getting a filter for my phone, I’m going to pray the Rosary every day, I’m not drinking with my friends anymore, I’m not going to swear or gossip anymore.)
We’re starting Advent in two weeks and it’s good to remember that we should all go to Confession this Advent to prepare our souls for Christmas. It’s also an apt time to start thinking about going to Reconciliation more often. How often? Well, how often is good for us? Once a month is a good spiritual habit. If we want to go more frequently, that’s even better.
One person writes: “I went to Confession once and told the priest that I was confessing the same sin over and over again and really struggling with it. He said that God knows my struggle and He appreciates my show of faith in persisting with Confession. Hearing those words helped me persist with going to Confession often. And it worked –the frequency of that particular sin lessened and has practically disappeared from my life.”
Don’t ever get discouraged by your sins. Keep going to Confession, keep responding to grace and keep trying. The answer isn’t going to Confession less, but going to Confession more.