For Martha Key, it was her anxiety accompanied by chronic physical pain, penetrating and disarming her defenses of denial and feigned contentment. Finally, she decided to break her silence, fueled by finding herself unable to cope with the frustrating circumstances of her life. It was, as she put it, time to stop lying to herself and those around her. With others it could be any number of things: guilt over betraying a friend, shame at being rejected by a lover, guilt over failures in parenting, grief over divorce or death, guilt over an affair, or harm to someone physically or emotionally, anxious avoidance of challenges or social situations or responsibilities, growing estrangement from family members or friends, uncontrollable anger or frustration or suspicion, loss of a job, self-confidence, or self-respect, to mention some common ones.
What these confessors shared was the kind of self-encounter that corners all of us when we fail to live the way we really want to live. Always there is another side of the confessor at work, a higher self that opposes what is happening, that operates from a position of self-worth and selfrespect. It is different from conscience, which at times can prove spectacularly untrustworthy. It is a realistic self-acceptance that refuses to surrender the positive aspects of oneself while facing the negative or darker side with which we struggle.
Without it, we lack the courage and resources that Martha Key brought to bear in facing her denial and deceit. Choice and Inevitability Self-disclosure in most confessions usually presents some mixture of choice and inevitability. He sat, fighting back tears, as he confessed an affair with a woman in his congregation. Someone had written the chairman of the church board disclosing their relationship after intercepting an errant note he sent her.
Who knows how long he could have continued their relationship had he not been exposed. Yet there is probably an element of unconscious choice in the errant note. Whatever the case, whether a confession is made more from internal pain or external pressure, there is obvious relief in the socialization of this otherwise isolating experience. What has been concealed, worrisome, inescapable, unmentionable, demoralizing, unspeakable, or unbearable is now disclosed to another human being. The response is crucial. For the process to continue, it must be acceptance. Both the confessor and the person who hears must experience a sufficient measure of acceptance to welcome such a disclosure to the light of day where it can be addressed without fear of condemnation.
Once it has become speakable, there is the possibility of dealing not only with the disclosure, but also with its consequences. Guilt is the more legal term, designating the state of having committed an offense, crime, or wrong, particularly against moral or penal law. It carries with it feelings of remorse and fear of punishment, whether the offense is real or imagined.
A relevant response often requires one to distinguish between guilt that is considered real and neurotic guilt, which is rooted in childhood training that is no longer appropriate. It describes the painful feelings arising from some notion that we are unacceptable to others for any number of reasons. It can evoke a range of reactions from embarrassment to outright humiliation.
Social disapproval or contempt looms larger in the picture. Developmentally, we may learn to feel shame much earlier than guilt. If guilt centers on wrongdoing as unacceptable, shame surrounds confessions of a quite different character. Shame comes from being something we sense is unacceptable to others, and it is much more difficult with which to deal. So we cannot define the purpose of confession in the purely religious terms of seeking forgiveness for our sins.
Gospel Series: Confession, Repentance and Forgiveness
Confessions, whether ancient or modern, have always involved a mixture of all that marks our estrangement from ourselves, from others, and from our Creator. Confession has always been accompanied by the distinct but overlapping experiences of both guilt and shame, usually so intermingled as to be difficult to separate. Perhaps it is here that organized religion has stubbed its toe in the confessional task. It has never seemed to deal in a satisfactory way with the patterns of shame governing our everyday life, not since Adam and Eve became aware that they were naked and were ashamed.
Martha and Alfred experienced both guilt and shame in varying degrees. Growing up in an alcoholic home with an abusive father, she became a second parent, helping Mother out with the smaller kids. Given her tendency to deny the unacceptable, she had little sense of guilt, having tried so hard to please everybody else. Alfred, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with guilt.
He felt he had betrayed everybody: his wife, his children, the other party, the church, as well as God. At the same time, shame surrounding his own sexual desires drove his pursuit of their satisfaction underground, adding fuel to the fire. His confidence was shattered, not only in his ability to function professionally, but even to hold his job. Shame is such a relative thing. Acceptance We crave acceptance from one another. Someone once described us as living in a hotel universe, each in our own separate room, tapping out messages on the wall to each other.
In isolation we become progressively detached, disoriented, and delusional. Only when we get something into words clearly enough for someone else to understand, do we really understand ourselves.
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Acceptance forms the ground from which mutual understandings can grow. So many thoughts follow. He and fellow prisoners survived isolation and maintained their sanity by tapping out messages to one another on the walls of their cells. Acceptance is the opposite of condoning. Honest confession is a two-way street that demands straightforwardness from both parties.
He has broken one of his most cherished moral standards. His career and family life are in jeopardy, but this is just the beginning. We have a lot more to do and say about what has happened.
Acceptance means we can clear the air, continue our relationship, and start to deal with the situation at hand. Despite what he has done, Alfred will not be abandoned. And we are free to proceed from here to address what he needs to do next. Honest confession addresses, step-by-step, her despair at failing to deal with so many conflicts in her relationships at home and at work. A Continuing Process A full confessional experience takes place in the context of a relationship committed to dealing with what is disclosed.
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Here may be the difficulty with ritual confessions in organized religion. Whether made in the confessional booth to a priest or embedded in the weekly liturgy acknowledging our sins in corporate prayers, ritual confessions end in some kind of absolution or declaration of pardon. A priest, minister, or rabbi pronounces that our sins are forgiven. Symbolically, ritual confession can come to suggest a two-step process where the confessor declares a moral failure and the clergy declares it forgiven.
End of story. If we stop there, we ignore the possibilities surrounding a relevant response.
Confession can never be a one-night stand. For the kind of confessional experience we are considering, we are only at the beginning. A full confessional experience requires time to unfold. What is declared always points beyond itself to things worthy of our best consideration. Time is required to explore the layers of truth that unfold beneath her deceptions that can now come to light. She may start with lying, but very soon she is dealing with the painful consequences of a perfectionistic pride she developed as a small child. Her position as oldest involved assuming grown-up responsibilities in her family.
Her efforts to keep others content were made at the price of denying her unmet needs. Her lying was a noble failure to convince everybody, including herself, that all was well—when it never was.
In listening to honest confessions, one learns to expect a series of selfconfrontations unfolding like layers of an onion. When you are faithful over a little, you will be trusted with much. Responsive Context Honest confessions, then, tend to be made in a context that promises an accepting response, coupled with some prospect of resolving or coping with the predicament they present. A chance to dispel guilt or shame and the anxiety that comes with them is not enough.
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We must also address implications or consequences of the events that occasioned them. Both Alfred and Martha sought something substantially beyond mere exoneration. Neither had any desire to return to the status quo in a life that had become unmanageable. Martha would not have found any satisfaction in some single event of confessing her self-deceit and frustration. Neither would Alfred. Both carefully selected the venue of psychotherapy, which could respond to their self-disclosure with ongoing conversation. Both had to reach the breaking point before they did. It certainly was in the rural parish of my seminary days.
Both Martha and Alfred were also in religious settings where confessional conversations had fallen into virtual disuse. Martha chose the venue of psychotherapy over her church, her colleagues in education, her family, and her friends. Her shame led to the assumption that there would be little acceptance within the circle of her daily relationships.
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How many others choose to leave the fragile fellowship of congregational life to seek help through psychotherapy where conversations with the troubled are sanctioned? A precondition to honest confession is the availability of some anticipated relationship to deal with what is revealed.