So, what is confession really about?

by: Stephen Marsh

December 2, 2011

I was reading someone who wondered why people were not out there confessing minor sins to their bishops and keeping anything significant to themselves.  It occurred to me that they really needed a significantly better understanding of confession, the LDS Church and life.  Not to mention others who just do not seem to understand confession.  After all, why should we need to confess to come to Christ?

Then I thought of this quote, from a 12-step program on step 5 (step 5 is:  Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs).  Some more quotes:

This is perhaps difficult, especially discussing our defects with another person. We think we have done well enough in admitting these things to ourselves. There is doubt about that. In actual practice, we usually find a solitary self-appraisal insufficient. Many of us thought it necessary to go much further. We will be more reconciled to discussing ourselves with another person when we see good reasons why we should do so. The best reason first: If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking. Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods. Almost invariably they got drunk. Having persevered with the rest of the program, they wondered why they fell. We think the reason is that they never completed their housecleaning. They took inventory all right, but hung on to some of the worst items in stock. They only thought they had lost their egoism and fear; they only thought they had humbled themselves. But they had not learned enough of humility, fearlessness and honesty, in the sense we find it necessary, until they told someone else all their life story. -A.A. Big Book p.72-73

Having taken my personal inventory in step 4, I am now ready to share that inventory. I share it with my God, with myself and with another human being. This allows my history to become more real with me. It begins to become in my mind what it truly is, namely “my history”. By sharing it with another person, I begin to pull down the fake truths of my life – the facades and the games – and I begin to be who I truly am and build my life with others on the basis of honesty and truth.
– From

Some people seek an easier and softer way by doing a “general confession” to God alone. They are not about to name specifically the humiliating, “awful” thinks they have done out loud before another human being. But this act of specifically confessing things is what often leads to serenity. The more afraid you are to tell about a certain act or thought in your Fifth Step, the more likely it is that confessing that particular thing will put a new crack in your denial and free you in a new area. There doesn’t seem to be an easier, softer way, and people who seek one apparently don’t understand the tenacious and tricky nature of this spiritual disease we are facing. Step Five is to help us see, to grasp, to understand specifically how the disease has permeated our lives in ways we usually cannot see any other way.
– A Hunger for Healing, p. 91-92

The Fifth Step is the key to freedom. It allows us to live clean in the here and now. Sharing the exact nature of our wrongs sets us free to live. After taking a thorough Fourth Step, we have to deal with what we have found in our inventory. We are told that if we keep these defects inside us, they will lead us back to using. Holding on to our past would eventually sicken us and keep us from taking part in this new way of life. If we are not honest when we take a Fifth Step, we will have the same negative results that dishonesty brought us in the past.
– Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text, Chapter 4/Step 5

This may be one of the most challenging steps we face in our recovery process, but it can also be one of the most fulfilling in terms of removing us from our isolation. In order to accomplish Step 5, the three-part sharing it endorses must take place. That is, all of what we discovered about ourselves in our Step 4 inventory is to be freely admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being.
– Serenity, A Companion for Twelve Step Recovery, p. 45,46

The purpose of confession is to help us heal, to help us find freedom.  It does not exist to clutter up lives (or why Brigham Young wrote and preached a good deal on how minor confessions ought not to be heaped on church leaders — those only increase our burden and theirs — and how confession and repentance involves us leaving those things in the past, leaving them behind).

There is a lot of value in understanding confession, and in admitting to ourselves, to God and to another human being the exact nature of where we went wrong.  It is a key to keeping us human, keeping us engaged, keeping us truthful and honest and healed.

23 Responses to So, what is confession really about?

  1. Paul on December 2, 2011 at 3:52 PM

    Stephen, lovely post. I taught a workshop on Steps 4-9 at last year’s Families Anonymous annual convention. We talked about the value of inventory and confessing as precursors to letting our weaknesses go. There is value in naming our successes and our mistakes — not only to ourselves but to someone else — so that we may take stock of them and then give them to God.

    It is for me an act of humility to do so. Not humility before the person to whom we confess, but before the Lord, recognizing that only He has power to right those wrongs in our lives.

    When we can name, and then let go of, our weaknesses, we are then in a position to let go of wrongs others have foisted upon us; we are ready to know the sweet blessing and liberation of forgiving others. But first, I believe, we must confess our own weakness in order to be in a position to forgive others.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 2, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    That is an excellent point about how to forgive we need to realize we need forgiveness.

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  3. Bob on December 2, 2011 at 4:54 PM

    My father was an alcoholic. He spent 2 years of my teenage life in the ‘Hotel California’. But he did overcome it.
    I went to some AA meetings with him. All who are there know your are there because you are a confessed Drinker. You will stand up that night and say the everyone: “My name is___ and I am an alcoholic”. Reply_”Welcome ___ !
    Other than visitors, at the AA meetings, are and always will be, only alcoholics and those who have not had a drink today.

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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 2, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    Amazing how freeing it is to have people open with a confession of weakness.

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  5. Meag on December 2, 2011 at 7:19 PM

    But must we confess to a bishop? It is in the act of confessing to someone, or the “right” someone. Looking back on my wild youth, I did my share of confessing to the bishop. Looking back, I realize I did it because I was taught to (if your sins were x,y, or z). But my heart was not in the confession. I recognized I should stop x,y, and z, and I did, but it was at that point a turning away from my sins as a step of faith. (if God says not to drink, I’ll not drink anymore) But I didn’t feel guilt. To be honest, 15 years later I don’t feel guilt. I just turned away from it and that was that. I felt my confession to bishop and stake president were kind of pointless formalities that made me uncomfortable.

    However, I can see if I felt major guilt over something and couldn’t shake it, or needed help, I would probably turn to my bishop. But where is that line? I think it’s different for everyone.

    So, I guess I see the need for confession, but no clear idea as to a standard of when to confess. I would do it if I felt I need to, but there’s not much I could imagine needing to confess about. What guidelines should I teach my children?

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  6. um on December 2, 2011 at 8:14 PM

    this is a terrible analogy. im sure whoever wrote up that info on the 12 step process didnt envision that you would confess to someone who could potentially keep you from attending a family members wedding based on their arbitrary interpretations of rules.

    confession can be good, but you equated that to “mandatory confession to bishops is awesome”

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  7. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 2, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    um, no, whoever wrote up the various twelve step programs anticipated you would make things right even if it meant going to jail. Much more rigorous in what they require of people than a bishop would be. FYI.

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  8. Ray on December 2, 2011 at 11:31 PM

    Stephen, I wrote the following post about an hour ago – prior to reading this one. It deals at the core with the idea that uncertainty and doubts don’t need to be “confessed” and the tension between what a “counselor” does and what a “shepherd” and a “judge” do.

    Interesting timing.

    “Regular Members as ‘Counselors in Zion’ to a Bishop Who Is a Shepherd and Judge” (

    In a nutshell, I believe we make things into “confessions” that shouldn’t be confessions. There’s a difference between “confiding” and “confessing” – and we conflate them FAR too often.

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  9. um on December 3, 2011 at 12:11 AM

    thats not what you said. you said there is power in confessing to anyone, not a specific authority.

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  10. hawkgrrrl on December 3, 2011 at 4:12 AM

    I’ve been reading a great book called “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.” The root of all evil is self-justification. Confession means you admit to yourself and another without being able to hide behind self-justification. It’s been an interesting read. Most people are incapable of admitting their wrongs, even to themselves, but certainly not to others.

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  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 3, 2011 at 5:13 AM

    um, I was quoting and talking about step 5. You felt certain that it implied things, so I moved on to explain that in a 12 step program the other steps do not agree with your conclusion.

    But yes, there is power in confession to another human being. You are right, it does not necessarily follow that the other human being is any one person.

    Hawk — Mistakes were made, but not by me is a great book. One of my favorite ethicist (who has a a number of sidelines) recommended it strongly.

    You might also find The Bottom Line on Integrity interesting as well.

    But you are right, admitting you are wrong, admitting your wrongs, is terribly hard for some people. Inability to admit wrongs is a huge roadblock to freedom from self-delusion and self-deception.

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  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 3, 2011 at 5:14 AM

    Ray, thanks for sharing that link to your post. You make excellent points, as always.

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  13. Paul on December 3, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    #5 Meag, an interesting comment and experience. When I was a bishop, I had some youth “confess” who clearly weren’t ready to do so. They felt no remorse, and in some cases, no need to change.

    The 12-step approach is interesting, because prior to confessing, one goes through four other steps in which he or she acknowledges the problems that his addiction has caused in his life, acknowledges the role of a higher power in stabilizing his life, agrees to submit to the will of that higher power, then finally inventories strengths and weaknesses in the light of that commitment, and only then confesses. Without the first four steps, the fifth is likely to be empty.

    The 12-step process is an opportunity for recovery from addiction, but it is not the only way. Some people change just by changing.

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  14. Ray on December 3, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    One of the worst results of the “steps of repentance” approach within Mormonism (which works very well with habitualized, addiction-level sins) is that it forces or channels all issues into a system that is designed specifically for extreme cases and destroys the type of internal, “natural” change that still constitutes repentance (like Paul mentions in #13).

    Also, most members of the LDS Church aren’t “hardcore” sinners, even though all of us really do sin and come short of the glory of God. What this means in terms of confession is that, lacking “serious” sins, many members feel compelled to view less serious transgressions and even simple mistakes as sins that need to be confessed – when, in reality, many of those things (if not all of them in some cases) simply are transgressions or mistakes that can be overcome through effort or “counseling” with a “confidante”).

    I’m not saying that I disagree with the steps of repentance as taught in the LDS Church – since Pres. Kimball’s time, especially. I’m just saying if that is the only way we see repentance (as an obsession with correcting past mistakes by confessing everything we do that might not be perfect), we miss out on the other aspect of repentance that applies more broadly to ALL of us – namely, the power to grow and become more “perfect” (complete, whole and fully developed) by acquiring NEW characteristics of godliness.

    Here is another post I wrote almost four years ago about obtaining a fresh view of repentance:

    “A Fresh View of Repentance”

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 3, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Btw, at a baptism and feeling sorry for my bishop. So many meetings, so much time and so little gratitude it often seems. The child being baptized is in a family dear to us, but our bishop goes to every baptism.

    Does so much in bearing others burdens. I have to confess I am often grateful I do not have his calling now.

    Guess this essay would have drawn more comments if I had asked people what they thought others should confess or to post anon what they wished they had confessed.

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  16. Bob on December 3, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    In the 12 steps__you confess to the one(s) you’ve been lying to. Then you ask for their forgiveness of you for lying to them or wronging them.
    But yes, you must first confess to yourself that you have been lying to yourself. But in AA, you must then confess to another.

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  17. Paul on December 3, 2011 at 9:04 AM

    #16: In the 12 steps, we confess first, then later make amends.

    #15: Stephen, I’ve felt the same way about our bishop recently. I’ve done that duty twice before and wonder now how I made it through… Our bishop is tireless, compassionate and kind.

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  18. voy on December 3, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    I’m not buying it.

    The scriptural model for confession (thinking mostly NT and BOM) is simply at odds with this newer age thinking of having to confess to someone, anyone, in order to finally surmount the issue at hand. I find little scriptural justification for going to a spiritual leader either, to confess anything. Doing so simply brings a prying eye, no matter how well intended, to matters that are largely individual.

    I think its part of our culture… we want another human, especially a church leader, to tell us we’re clean, forgiven and repaired because we either lack the ability to reconcile ouselves individually or can’t fathom moving on without someone giving us the go ahead. Call it a result of leader worship and taking the “judge” in Israel thing way to far, call it a lack of spiritual maturity… there are a lot of issues at the root level.

    I haven’t “confessed” in the LDS definition since my mission, and likely never will again simply because I neither require, nor want, nor seek for any intermediary – no matter how well intentioned or ecclesiastically positioned – between me and some deity.

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  19. Ray on December 3, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    There are two distinct and different usages of the word “confess” in our scriptural canon:

    1) Confessing the name of God / Jesus – which always means, in context, the same thing generally as “testifying”. (admitting to one’s testimony, if you will) This always is positive, obviously.

    2) Confessing sins and, in one case, faults – which also is admitting “to” something that has happened already.

    I know that probably is obvious to everyone, but I find it interesting that most of the scriptural instances of confessing sins are mentioned in context of public confessions. voy is correct in that, generally, there isn’t much of a scriptural injunction to confess sins to a spiritual leader – since the scriptural injunction almost always involves open, public, group confession instead. Based on voy’s comment, however, I really doubt s/he believes in that sort of confession – and, all other potential issues aside, I’m not sure I would prefer public confession either.

    The most interesting verse, imo, is James 5:16 – which reads:

    “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

    Notice, in this verse, James is not talking about “sins” but rather “faults” – and he says those should be confessed “one to another” in order for others to be able to pray for those who are struggling with “faults”. That’s the type of counseling and sharing of “confidences” to which I was referring in the first post to which I linked – those things that are not sins but rather should be shared outside a “confessional” with other members.

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  20. Paul on December 3, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    On a more practical level, voy, if you are LDS and your transgressions do not merit judgement regarding the status of your membership, then of course you have no need to confess anything to an ecclesiastical leader. But the Lord clearly taught that if we have an issue with another member of the flock we should resolve that issue before placing our gift on the metaphorical altar.

    As for the 12 step principles outlined above, there is no absolution in Step 5. The 12-stepper does not confess to be forgiven by those to whom he confesses. That forgiveness may (but also may not) come only after Step 9 in which he makes amends to those he’s harmed.

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  21. Jeff Spector on December 3, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    As humans, we blow it and transgress on a regular basis. That higher you go using Joseph Smith’s ladder analogy, the more the small sins matter. Because as we progress, we have made a commitment and possibly achieved a desire to give up the larger sins.

    So it seems the obligation to confess is first to God, to follow the steps of repentances until one receives the witness of a forgiveness.

    If that is not achieved, then perhaps it is time to seek counsel on whether that sin requires further action.

    I suspect if one were to quantify it, about 95% of most sins can be brought to the Lord only and confessed.

    There are some members, however, that feel that they can unburden themselves faster by just confessing to the Bishop. But have not suffered the broken heart and contrite spirit required in true repentance.

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  22. ji on December 3, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    We need to remember that confession of a sin to a bishop is required only for sins which, if known, would affect the member’s standing in the Church. Confession to a bishop is not required for most sins. So yes, most members will never have to confess to a bishop during thei rentire lives, because most members will not commit sins requiring such confession.

    Part of our cultural problem is that some think they must confess every sin (or every major sin) to a bishop. But this isn’t true.

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  23. Douglas on December 3, 2011 at 4:03 PM

    Too many members of the Church see the Bishop’s role as “Judge in Israel” solely as “Judge, Jury, and Executioner”. In ancient Israel, Judges were also seen as counselors. Keep in mind that the death penalty was exercised to a far greater degree than we deem necessary today. For example, if a son grew up to be lazy, rebellious, a glutton and drunkard, and wouldn’t listen to his father and mother, then the exasperated parents could present him to the judges to be dealt with. If indeed they agreed that the young man was beyond redemption, they would pronounce sentence and then stone him. Be assured that in practicality, these judges had to have been involved all along in attempts to turn around the recalcitrant lad. The ancient Israelis were fierce enough to defend their land against enemies like the Canaanites and the Phillistines, but they weren’t necessarily bloodthirsty against their own. And so it is in modern “Israel” today. A conscientious bishop will usually work diligently with a struggling member to turn his life around before resorting to a disciplinary council. Of course, since the Church’s present-day role is strictly ecclesiastical, that’s the only “whammy” that it has. If the straying member doesn’t care, then it’s a moot point anyway.
    The Church’s disciplinary system certainly isn’t executed perfectly but I defy anyone to find a better and/or more loving method.

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