Preparing for confession

Do no harm Preparing Children for Confession

Faithful Orthodox Christians should frequently participate in the Holy Mystery of Repentance and Confession. Through this Mystery, along with private prayer, corporate worship, and fasting, we receive the gift of God’s divine forgiveness (John 20:23). Not only that, but we also receive the opportunity to talk about our deepest concerns, to receive counsel and encouragement toward spiritual growth. But how can we, as Orthodox Christians, adequately prepare ourselves for the Sacrament of Confession? What steps should we take to ensure we truly benefit from this Mystery and grow spiritually in the life of Christ?

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

Why do we confess our sins?

In the eyes of the world, many of us are good people. Sin and the confession of sins, however, have very little to do with being a good person. As Christians, we are not called to be simply good; we are called to be perfect, as God our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Yet we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8, 10).

God is the source of all life and joy. Our separation from His life, from the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, inevitably leads us to corruption, despair and death. In coming into this world and becoming one of us, God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, defeated death through His own death and resurrection. He offers the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him and join themselves to Him. Knowing our weakness, He gives us this promise through the Apostle John: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

Orthodox Christian going to Confession in an Orthodox Church.
All Orthodox Christians prepare for and go to Confession several times a year.

However far along we are on our spiritual journey, we can always grow closer to Christ and strive to make our lives look more like His. Through the Mystery of Repentance we renew the saving work of our baptism and allow the healing power of God to restore our relationship with Him, which had been broken by our sin.

How often should we confess?

This is not an easy issue to discuss because depending on which Orthodox Church you go to, and who your parish priest is, there are a wide variety of expectations on Confession. Some bishops and priests equate going to Communion with going to Confession. So, if you want to receive Eucharist every week, you must go to Confession every week. Some will say Confession is important but leave it up to the person to choose. Thus you end up with scenarios where some will receive Communion throughout their life having never received the sacrament of Confession. Another practice that people observe is to only go to Communion and Confession once a year. Here in America, since the early 1960’s, there has been an attempt to encourage more frequent participation in Holy Communion. This has been well received by the churches here. The only problem is that it doesn’t address the question of whether there is a relationship between going to Communion and receiving Confession.  However, the 2023 OCA Clergy guidelines state "The priest, as the confessor for the flock entrusted to his care, determines the frequency with which his spiritual children confess their sins, with monthly confession as the norm."  https://www.oca.org/files/PDF/official/2023-OCA-Guidelines-for-Clergy.pdf

Why is there such a diversity of understandings on the issue of frequency of Confession? I am not sure what the answer is here. I do know that when the Balkan Countries and many in the Middle East were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, ongoing church education or evangelization was forbidden. This was also the case in Russia and its neighboring countries that fell under Communist oppression during most of the 20th century. Priests in many of the above areas were forbidden to hear Confessions. Many of the clergy were only educated in the rubric of doing the services and not in their understanding of them. Centers of education were closed. Some of these oppressive practices are still going on. In short people were not being properly prepared to be bishops priests and deacons. All of this could have affected the way Confession was understood and practiced among Orthodox Christians during that time. Those understandings and practices were then brought to the Americas in the early 20th century through immigration.

What do I think? What are the guidelines I would ask the parishioners of St Michaels Orthodox Church in Old Forge to observe regarding frequency of Confession? First of all, I do not believe in extremes. The idea that one must go to Confession every week prior to receiving Communion every week is not something I am expecting this parish to do. On the other hand I also don’t think it is appropriate for people to receive Communion on a regular basis without any participation in the sacrament of Confession. Confession is something we should do periodically as a means to prepare for our Eucharistic life in the Church. As Christians we pray at every liturgy that we “complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.” When I hear a Confession I tell the person confessing that we stand before the icon of Christ and that “I am only a witness bearing testimony before Him of all things which you say to me.” As a priest I need to be able to bear witness before Christ and His Church that I know the person who is coming to Communion to be someone who is repenting and striving to live the life of an Orthodox Christian. How can I bear witness to that if I don’t hear a person coming forward to confess their faith, and their sins in order to be reconciled with Christ and His Holy Church? Our faith and life in Christ is a dynamic reality and not a static obligatory one. “Growth in faith, life, and spiritual understanding” is a process of change. So as a priest I need to be able know the spiritual lives of the flock I have been entrusted with, so that when they receive Communion I can bear witness to the fact that those who come to Communion are repenting Christians who desire to grow in Christ. If someone is in the habit of coming to Communion on a weekly basis, I think it is important that they come to Confession more often. I think that coming to confession should be the norm as stated in our guidelines and if that is not your norm it should be a goal that one should attain in preparation for Holy Communion.  It is not correct to refuse confession and state "I am not going to confession because that was not how I was raised."  Here, there is not understanding of how confession is linked to Communion.  Your confession is linked by time and not the need for a cleansing of your sins.  If your normally rate of confession is not monthly, remember this is the goal, I think that you should come to Confession at least four times a year. Why the number four? Well we have four seasons of the year, and four church fasts during the year (Pascha, Advent, Dormition, Peter & Paul). If someone is unable to do that, then I would suggest trying twice a year (especially those who have not been in the habit of going to Confession at all). The Advent and Pascha fasts offer the opportunity to do that. Finally my intent here is to not present these guidelines to you in legalistic manner. I will always welcome anyone to the sacrament who needs to repent and seeks to return home as the Prodigal Son does in the parable.  Confession is something that is always available on an as needed basis with the norm being monthly.  

I would like to now address those people in the parish who may not be in the habit of coming to Confession at all or very rarely. I really want to encourage you to rethink this habit you may have developed and to change it. Some may have the mindset that I will go to Confession only when I need to go. One may equate the need for Confession with having to do so if one commits a “major” sin such as murder, adultery or commits a felony. The thought is, “Since I haven’t done any of those things why bother with going to Confession?” My only answer to this is, we address our physical health needs, and maintain our cars and homes, better than we take care of our spiritual life! We make a point of getting our teeth cleaned twice a year and getting them X-rayed even if we don’t experience any problems. We see our family doctor once or twice a year for health check ups. We make a point of taking our cars in three or four times a year for oil changes, tire rotations, and brake inspections, even if there is nothing seriously wrong with the car. We fertilize and maintain our gardens and lawns several times a year. Why do we do these above things? (Among others I haven‘t mentioned.): To prevent worse things from happening later. If we don’t get our teeth cleaned regularly, bigger problems happen later on. If we don’t get our oil changed in the car regularly, bigger problems happen later on. Keeping a regular rule of going to Confession is like coming in for a spiritual health check up. We take a spiritual inventory of our lives to see where we are falling short and to come forward to publicly state that we still want to “get with the program.” The program being that I want to follow Christ and live by His rules and not by my rules! If we prepare for Confession properly, I find it hard to believe that people will not have anything to confess.

When we refuse to regularly partake of the sacrament of Confession, we run the risk of disconnecting our inner spiritual life from our public behavior. We end up compartmentalizing our lives living in two separate worlds. We adopt a form of “church behavior” that has little impact on our daily lives. The things that do impact on how we live have less do with church and more to do with other things that have become more important. In fact we begin to develop our own thinking about who God is and what a church should be like based on influences and experiences not rooted in the Orthodox Christian Tradition. I think this is especially a challenge for us who have grown up in the Orthodox Faith and sometimes have taken it for granted. It is like maintaining a form of religious behavior but never fully understanding and appreciating the substance of it. It is like admiring an expensive ornately decorated jar that has preserved fruit in it. We learn to admire the appearance of the jar and its decoration, but we have never tasted of the fruit that is in it. As Orthodox Christians we are always encouraged in the communion hymn to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Confession offers the opportunity to break through the wall of pretentious Church behavior and bring us back to the reality of what it means to be “baptized into Christ.” The sacrament of Confession is necessary for our ongoing growth and maturity in Christ. The sacrament of Confession offers us the opportunity to discover the relevancy of the Orthodox Christian Faith and how it can help us encounter the world we are living in today. But like any medicine, we won’t be able to see the benefits of it if we don’t regularly take our medicine! Repentance is a habit, a way of life. Confession is the needed medicine to help us enter into that way of life. 

(edited from https://catalog.obitel-minsk.com/blog/2019/02/mystery-of-repentance-how-often-should-one-confess)

How to prepare yourself for Confession

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when preparing for confession is not to procrastinate. To prepare adequately to stand before God and confess our sins requires time for deep examination of ourselves and our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is why the Church counsels us to begin preparation at least one day before, so we can collect our thoughts, fast, read the Scriptures, pray, and critically examine our sins.

Fasting

Throughout the ecclesiastical year, Orthodox Christians should fast according to the rules of the Church. Employing this tool of spiritual discipline helps us to focus more on what truly matters – our walk with God – and less on the fleeting things of this world. If you are preparing to go to Confession, you should follow the fasts of the Orthodox Church to the best of your ability. This will help you to enter (and stay in) the proper mindset of repentance necessary for spiritual cleansing and renewal.

Reading the Scriptures

A key part of the spiritual life of any Christian is the reading of the Holy Scriptures. This becomes especially important when an Orthodox Christian is preparing for Confession. When we read the Scriptures, we actively listen to God through His written word. We often find He can speak to us through the simplest of passages, convicting us of our sins and inspiring us toward repentance and change.

Praying before Confession

Before you go to the Church and stand in the presence of the priest to offer your confession, you should pray the prescribed prayers. If you have an Orthodox prayer book, you should see a small section with a selection of prayers you can say when preparing for Confession.

While in prayer, ask God to help you perceive your sins and make a thorough confession of them. Humbly and silently ask Him to reveal to you the things in your life that have become a barrier to your relationship with Him. Always remember that our sins can never outweigh God’s love towards us. Even if we should seem to have failed, we should not lose heart but confess our sins openly, regret the wrongs we have done, resolve to make amends, and receive whatever remedy our spiritual confessor should recommend.

Examine yourself and your sins

The final step in an Orthodox Christian’s preparation for Confession is critically examining him/herself and his/her sins. As a guide to help discern your sins, you should read both the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). These passages act as a spiritual mirror in which we can see a reflection of our inner self. As God brings your sins to mind through reading the Scriptures, we recommend writing those sins down. You can then take this list with you to Confession. In this way we can make sure that actually say everything we had intended and avoid skipping those sins which may cause us most embarrassment or shame.

In the sections below, we ask several reflective questions that relate to each of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes our Lord mentions in His Sermon. We encourage you to read and reflect on them as you prepare yourself for Confession in the Orthodox Church.

Keep in mind, these questions should not be taken as some kind of test to ascertain how well we are doing as if there was a certain passing grade. Before God’s perfections, we shall always fail. It is for that reason that, as believing Christians, we throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord and do not trust in our own righteousness.

The Ten Commandments

First Commandment

Do I really love God above all things? Or are my possessions, job, money, pride, etc. more important to me? Have I placed my trust in these things, or in such things as horoscopes, occult practices (i.e. witchcraft, yoga), and superstitions? Do I attend religious meetings of heretics and schismatics?

Have I failed to trust in God’s existence, love and mercy, or have I doubted the Christian faith and the teaching of the Church? Have I failed to pray to God, worship Him and thank Him for His blessings? Do I serve God and keep His commandments faithfully? Have I complained against God in adversity? Have I glorified God through my words and deeds, or have I neglected my duties to God through fear of ridicule or persecution?

Do I pray attentively and on a regular/daily basis? Do I approach prayer with joy and enthusiasm, or do I allow anything, no matter how trivial, to be an excuse to shorten prayer or avoid it entirely?

Second Commandment

Have I given to anyone or anything the love, honor and worship that belongs to God alone? Am I making an idol of any person, idea, occupation, or thing? Have I earnestly tried to imitate the life of Christ? Do I read the Holy Scriptures regularly? Have I been irreverent during Church Services, let my attention wander, or been insincere? Have I neglected to receive Holy Communion regularly or without due preparation?

Third Commandment

Have I blasphemed God’s holy name in any way? Have I sworn a false oath, broken a solemn vow or promise, or entered into an agreement, promise, or contract against God’s law? Do I curse or use foul language? Do I give proper reverence to holy persons and things, including the clergy of the Church and the holy icons?

Fourth Commandment

Do I worship regularly on Sundays and major feast days and have I helped others to do the same? Have I stayed away from Church on Sundays or prevented others from going? Have I done unnecessary work on Sundays or spent the day in unwholesome fashion or profaned it by improper conduct? If I could not go to Church because of illness or other grave cause, did I pray at home?

Fifth Commandment

Have I loved and respected my parents as I should, or have I neglected them/failed to help them? Have I disobeyed them, deceived them or caused them pain? Do I treat all my family members with patience and love?

Have I been wanting in love or kindness towards my husband (or wife), or harmed him (or her) in any way? Do I set my children a good example and try to bring them up properly? Have I corrected their faults with patience and not with anger? Do I over-indulge or spoil them? Have I neglected my god-children and failed in my obligations towards them?

Do I work for my employer honestly and diligently? Do I treat fairly all those who work for me? Have I honored God as my Heavenly Father by treating others as my brothers, and have I honored the Church as my spiritual Mother by honoring and practicing my religion in accordance with her teachings?

Sixth Commandment

Have I caused or wished for the harm, injury or death of anyone, including myself? Did I give way to anger, or harm others with words or actions? Have I been cruel to anyone, mistreated animals, or destroyed any life unnecessarily? Have I failed to forgive anyone or harbored evil thoughts against them?

Seventh Commandment

Have I given way to impure thoughts, words, or deeds? Did I commit any unworthy actions alone or with others, or have I led others to commit sinful acts? Have I degraded myself in any way, or forgotten human dignity? Do I read immoral books or magazines, or delight in obscenity of any kind? Have I associated with bad companions or frequented unsavory places? Do I eat, drink, or smoke too much? Have I been lazy, idle, or wasted my time? Have I been unfaithful to any trust confided in me?

Eighth Commandment

Have I stolen anything or wished to do so? Do I keep things that do not belong to me? Have I paid my debts? Have I lived within my income, and not wastefully and extravagantly? Do I give to charitable causes in proportion to my means? Am I honest and upright? Have I cheated anyone or caused others to steal or cheat? Have I tried to find the owners of lost things I have found? Did I damage or destroy anything that belonged to someone else? Have I defrauded anyone of rightful wages?

Ninth Commandment

Have I given false testimony against anyone? Do I speak evil, tell lies, or spread rumors about anyone? Have I disclosed to anyone the sins and faults of another? Have I made careless statements or done anything else to harm the name and reputation of another? Do I engage in idle gossip?

Tenth Commandment

Do I look with envy or hatred toward the blessings, possessions, talents, or achievements of others? Have I desired the downfall or loss of others or been jealous of another’s good fortune? Do I yearn for things God has not given me, or have I been discontent with my lot? Have I been stingy, or have I failed to be gracious/generous to anyone? Do I expect God to give me that which I would refuse one of my fellow men?

The Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit…

Do I recognize my complete dependence on God? Am I proud, arrogant, or self-righteous? Have I been selfish and possessive? Do I seek status, power, and wealth?

Blessed are those who mourn…

Have I endured difficulties and afflictions with faith and patience? Have I felt sadness for the sufferings of others? Am I truly sorrowful for my sins and faults, and am I prepared to voice them before an Orthodox priest in Confession?

Blessed are the meek….

Do I try to serve others at home, school, work, Church, etc., or rather to dominate them? Have I been resentful, bitter, unforgiving, or insulting and abusive to others? Have I loved my enemies?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Do I truly yearn for God’s will to be done in all things? Have I tried to cultivate a righteous life through prayer, fasting, worship, receiving Holy Communion and deeds of love toward others?

Blessed are the merciful…

Have I shown compassion and helped the poor, hungry, and needy? Have I tried to understand and forgive others, or have I been indifferent and judgmental?

Blessed are the pure in heart…

Do I love goodness, purity and holiness, or do I instead succumb to evil? Have I given way to impure thoughts, words or deeds? Have I been hypocritical, pretentious or indulgent to sinful passions?

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Do I have God’s peace in my heart? Have I been unfairly aggressive, irritable, impatient, polemical, or divisive? Have I worked for peace at home, work, Church and in society?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…

Have I complained when persecuted? Do I pray for my persecutors? Have I had the courage to stand up for what is right despite criticism, ridicule or persecution?

Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you…rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

Is the joy of Christ in my heart even in trying moments? Have I been pessimistic or despondent? Do I delight in the promise of God’s treasures in heaven?

Other questions to help you prepare for Confession

Another way to approach self-examination for Confession is to ask yourself questions about your relationship with God, your spouse and children, others in your life, and yourself. We created a nice infographic you can download to help you navigate these different questions as you prepare to confess to the priest.

When confessing in the presence of the priest

After preparing properly, when you actually approach an Orthodox priest to deliver your confession, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, remember that the priest will not (and in fact, cannot) repeat to anyone any of the sins you have told him. Moreover, he is not there to look down upon you or judge you, but instead to help you discern how he can help you heal spiritually through repentance. Therefore, you should never hide a sin from your spiritual father or feel ashamed or afraid of confessing it. Letting a sin linger on your conscience only serves to condemn you on the day of Judgment before God Almighty; and by then it will be too late to repent, confess, or ask forgiveness.

However, if you confess now, during this time the Lord has graciously given you for repentance, He is merciful and gracious and will help you change…if you truly want to. After your confession, live each day as though it were your last and tomorrow you would expect to stand before God in judgment with the hope of eternal life. Do not let pride or fear stand in your way. What is there to be fearful of, or embarrassed about, when your soul is suffering and being torn by the terrible consequences of sin? Why let fear and embarrassment keep you from receiving the gift of peace and consolation our Lord offers to you through this Mystery? These emotions are the work of the Evil One and we must fervently reject them.

Conclusion

As the Orthodox Church approaches the wonderful season of Great Lent, we should all take some time to prepare adequately for our next Confession. The benefits of this blessed Mystery can have untold lasting effects on your relationships, spiritual, physical, and mental health, and other areas of your life. But you can only glean these benefits through proper preparation, through fasting, prayer, and self-examination.

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