Ask About Orthodoxy: Why Confess to a Priest?

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Ask About Orthodoxy Series

On the first and third Mondays of each month, I will be answering readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. Today’s question is: Why do Orthodox Christians go to confession with a priest?

{My apologies for being a day late.}

Confession with a priest is highly uncomfortable for many Protestant Christians.

Guess what? It’s uncomfortable for Orthodox Christians, too.

Yet confession is a sacrament in Orthodoxy, which means it is a way for us to experience God’s grace. As much as it makes me wriggle to confess in front of my priest, I have begun to believe that it is good for my spirit, and my psyche, to do so.

The first time I went to confession, I was terrified. I had written a list of sins on a little piece of paper. I approached the icon of Jesus, and my priest handed me a sheet with a confessor’s prayer on it. He stood behind me as I recited the prayer and then read off my list of sins, even though most of them had already been covered in the confessor’s prayer. Then my priest asked if there was anyone with whom I was not at peace. I was a little taken aback by the question. I realized that actually, there was a relationship in my life that I was not peaceful about. My priest encouraged me to pray for that person and to seek reconciliation. Then he had me kneel, and he draped his stole over my shoulder and prayed a prayer of absolution:

May God Who pardoned David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, Who pardoned Peter who wept bitterly for his denial, the Harlot who wept at His feet, the Publican and the Prodigal, forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His terrible Judgment Seat. Now, having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, depart in peace.

That’s one list of sinners, isn’t it? But if God could forgive them, then he can forgive me. It is an encouraging moment when there is a real person beside you to announce: You’re forgiven! Now go in peace.

It’s really not that different from going down for an altar call at the Protestant church, tearfully confessing your sins to your best friend, who came down to kneel beside you, and getting a loving, heartfelt hug from her at the end of the service. Yes, I know, it’s your priest instead of your best friend, but your priest has heard it all. I guarantee it. You’re not going to say anything that surprises him.

As you can see, we don’t confess to a priest. We confess to God in the presence of a priest as a witness. The priest is a witness to both our repentance and our forgiveness. We do believe that you can confess directly to God, and private confession is encouraged. Public confession, though, can be catharctic. You don’t have to hold your secrets tightly anymore. You don’t have to be burdened. You can let go and be flooded with the assurance that someone has heard your sins and still loves you. We actually pray a communal confession every Sunday as part of liturgy, and it’s an act of witness. Everyone in the room is confessing just as I am. Together we admit our errors and acknowledge God’s grace.

Yes, confession is still a little scary. But when I reimagine it as an act of witness rather than a legalistic formula, I envision confession as a gift of grace that tears away my layers of fear and clothes me in peace.


*Header image from Wikimedia Commons

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    • kksorrell says:

      I saw your post – glad to hear you made it through your first Orthodox confession!!! I am ashamed to say I’ve only gone a handful of times in 9 years. I need to do better.

  1. This is actually a part of Orthodoxy that I find compelling, not scary. I think there is something powerful in confession, along with an opportunity for accountability and growth that comes from public confession (in any format). Although confessions and penances were misused at one point in church history, I think they have a lot of benefits!

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