A greater focus on sin in our practice may be a better remedy for loss of hope in redemption, than trying to trivialise or marginalise evil.
I am used to considering sacramental confession* an indispensable part of my ordinary practice, but having recently attended a weekend for young adults at which confession was repeatedly advocated by both the group leaders and local clergy, in a way that clearly assumed most people didn’t take it for granted, I ended up reflecting on why I practice as I do, particularly as my impression is that it is probably not the conventional response to the type of spiritual difficulty for which I ended up turning to it.
I have always been afflicted with continuous temptations to despair: that is, to deny the possibility of salvation, something that makes Christian life and faith impossible, as well as being obviously untrue when considered in the light of salvation history. Voluntarily assented to, it is therefore a serious sin (though it is important to distinguish between an unfortunate state of mind and voluntary assent). I have found that the only thing which has any effect in dealing with this tendency is regular and frequent confession.
My tendency to despair was not the result of growing up with a fire and brimstone attitude that emphasises judgement to the exclusion of grace. I think it is easy to see how that can lead to despair in many people as Christian ethics unashamedly asks too much for human nature: real holiness of life is only possible through a reliance on God’s grace. Instead, I grew up with what I tend to refer to as a cheap grace attitude, in which both sin and judgement were watered down as much as possible in the liturgy. There was a fashion (possibly there still is) for softening or removing mentions of sin in the liturgy**. The effect was rather like being endlessly told how effective and wonderful a cure had been produced for chapped hands, while I knew I was dying of multiple skin cancers on which it would presumably have no effect.
It was only when I started to use Common Prayer – which doesn’t mince its words when it comes to sin – that I started to realise that the Redemption God had offered in Christ was actually sufficient to deal with the real extent of the things I did wrong, and ultimately, that he was able to deal with and redeem the underlying flaws in humanity which produce and reproduce evil. Whoever wrote the general confessions in Common Prayer still thought they would be forgiven, and still thought that God could bring them to holiness of life, despite the fact that they had “erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep” and “justly incurred his wrath” through manifold sins and wickedness. Even so, this emphasis wasn’t enough to counter my mind-set on its own, and I eventually, following the logic of the Common Prayer tradition*** and the general exhortations of traditional Anglo-Catholic clergy, resorted to Sacramental Confession. It was the result of coming to an intellectual conclusion as to what ought to help which I didn’t trust emotionally, and I was rather taken aback by how much difference it made.
I still feel that the whole thing is substantially counter-intuitive, perhaps precisely because what one is doing is giving God a window through which to act, and what God does with that space is not reducible to normal human experience. I still struggle with the process even in the context of extreme familiarity. I find that all spiritual tensions, including those that are not obviously to do with unethical conduct or acting wrongly towards God, end up in the confessional in some way.
However, despite the difficulty of saying what you have done wrong to someone else, it is very reassuring merely on the human level to drag things out into the light and speak of them, in a safe environment and before someone who is there to assist. It is a way of bringing one’s whole life into the reality of the costly but worthwhile joy of Christian living: while in theory it would be possible to examine individual actions for a general confession, regularly and reliably, and I’m sure some people do, I find it practically impossible as a discipline. It is too easy to stop bothering, and as I don’t tend to find a general absolution enough to counter the natural tendencies of my heart and mind, I tend to find it too frightening to examine my conscience much in this way. My tendency to despair is pernicious enough that any attempt to examine tends to increase the conscious temptation to despair, and I need the process of the sacrament to deal with that – which it does, in a way that trying to ignore the temptation cannot. The sacraments open us up to God’s power to help us: as he does not impose himself on us, I find it easy to underestimate the extent of the power he actually has over the human heart and mind, once I start assenting to his aid by the series of actions which confession involves.
Obviously I can’t speak about the experience or use of confession in the context of having a different temperament, but, despite the fact that focusing on sin rather than ignoring it is difficult when inclined to despair and despondency, I have found the process extremely helpful as a counter to those very things, and would recommend it as a remedy for them, as well as in the context of a general deepening of Christian practice.
*Confession, also known as “auricular confession”, “the sacrament of confession”, “sacramental confession”, “the sacrament of reconciliation”, and probably quite a few other things, is the practice of seeking the mercy of God through the specific confession of actual sins to (under normal circumstances) an ordained priest.
**I came to the conclusion as far as liturgy is concerned, that instead of taking out or watering down mentions of sin, they should be balanced with equal space spent emphasising God’s mercy and grace to all who desire repentance. While in many ways I think the Common Prayer general confessions are good, I think they can be justly criticised in several ways, including that the general confession specified for the Communion service emphasises a particular emotional response to sin “the burden of them is intolerable” which is not in fact necessary to sincere repentance. The inclination or disinclination of temperament to be emotional about guilt is morally and spiritually neutral: it is what is done with either that matters.
***Which says that you should make a specific confession to a priest and seek absolution and counsel, if private prayer does not produce a state of mind in which it is possible to come peacefully and faithfully to Communion. (The Book of Common Prayer; Oxford University Press; page 304-305 – i.e. at the end of the first exhortation printed between the intercessions and the general confession of the Communion service). What exactly it was intended to encourage or discourage in its historical context remains unclear to me, though I think it is sufficient (combined with the comments in the instructions for the visitation of the sick [same work, page 379]) to be sure that there is nothing un-Anglican about advocating auricular confession. I don’t suppose the prayer book or articles to be infallible, but I think it is reasonable to place the burden of proof on those who are disagreeing with them rather than on those who are agreeing, when discussing these things within the Anglican tradition.