Confession as a Spiritual Practice

Aaron R. returns again with some ideas on confession, atonement, and community.

Amy Tan wrote in The Kitchen God’s Wife ‘this was how you [come] to love someone… One person [lets] out their fears, the other drawing close to soothe the pain. And then more would pour out, everything that has been hidden, more and more – sorrow, shame, loneliness, all the old aches, so much released until you overflowed with the joy to be rid of it, until it was too late to stop this new joy from taking over your heart.’ In addition Mircea Eliade has noted that confession has a long history pertaining to the alleviation of suffering. To my mind both these mechanisms play an important role in the process of atonement, not just with God, but in our religious communities.

The functions of confession are numerous and well known. They involve being stripped of pride, they are expressions of love to God and they also serve as a catalyst in the process of repentance. In a study of the theological and historical practice of confession Edward Kimball argues that the Hebrew root of confession is yadah, which has connotations suggesting an acknowledgement of one’s human nature, to extol God’s characteristics or to praise and give thanks.

One transition that Kimball describes pertains to how the early Church used to practice public confession much more frequently than we do today. This might involve individuals confessing to a congregation or organised meetings of confession between small groups. One example Kimball cites is of a decision made by an Elders Quorum in Kirtland in 1840 which ‘voted [Charles Wood’s] Licence be taken from him and withheld until he make satisfaction by confession to the Church.’

It seems that after the excesses of the Mormon Reformation, where public confessions became a norm, and under the influence of Brigham Young, who seemed to value a certain silence on such issues, the practice became less common. However, small revivals continued, for example, prior to the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple members were encouraged to meet together, confess their sins and forgive one another as a preparation for this spiritual feast. Kimball also briefly documents the long history of public confession in the mainstream Christian Churches.

The practice in many ways has fallen away and in my mind this is something that is missing from our worship services, especially from our testimony meetings. Confession seeks to approach others in a spirit of love and honesty; it seeks forgiveness in a way that embodies the trust and humility that are foundations for healthy relationships; it seeks to break-down the barriers which separate us one from another and seeks out help from a person or community that is motivated by similar desires; it helps remove the veils of self-deception and enter a more intimate relationship with those we want to create sacred communities with. As we humbly express our failings to one another, following our collective partaking of the sacrament, and ask for their help and patience as we strive to live a life more fully in tune with the Spirit, we will surely see the impact such confessions have upon the people in the wards that we attend.

Zion became one in heart, I believe, because the people no longer tried to hide their hearts from one another. These Zion-like communities, I am sure, were not perfect (in the sense of being un-improvable) but were rather bound together in love and fellowship because they were willing to forgive each other and were able to trust in the forgiveness of others. My own experience of trying to express my sins in this way began just over a year ago. Regardless of the impact it may have had in the lives of those others who are present in such meetings, I have felt my love for those people in my ward increase. Moreover, I have seen (or perhaps more readily perceived) the good that they do.

I should note that I am not suggesting that people begin to confess intimate and specific details of serious transgression, but I do believe sincere confession of weaknesses can empower communities to be more at-one. President Kimball spoke of this when he suggested that we say something like the following: “I recognize my weaknesses and imperfections and I am striving constantly to overcome them and ask you, my brothers and sisters, to overlook my frailties and errors.” I think we can be more specific about certain weaknesses, in fact I sense that the more personal or ashamed we are of that transgression the greater the impact, as longer as it does not fall into areas that might put a person’s membership in jeopardy. Edward Kimball notes that ‘If sin is conceived not only as an offense against God, but also against the community of believers, then confession to that community is consistent with the basic requirement of confession to those who have been hurt.’

Following those lines I cited earlier from Amy Tan, her character records ‘But I stopped myself. I kept myself hidden’. I believe that our ability to build Zion will be hindered unless we learn to be more vulnerable with one another, to be more open about our failings. I believe that confession is a spiritual practice in that is a catalyst for allowing the spirit of atonement to permeate an individual and a community.


  1. Confession is a key element in 12-step programs (like AA). The announcing of our flaws to God and to another person is an act of humility, and crystalizes, I believe, our own recognition.

    As for public confession, my only concern (well, perhaps I have more than one, but this is one) is that it seems it could easily because just another vain repetition like so much else in “standard” testimony bearing and public praying. (Of course, I suppose if I listened with a “Zion” heart, I probably wouldn’t feel that way, would I?)

  2. Sorry — that would be “it could easily become…” not “easily because…”


  3. Thanks for your comment. I agree that if this is done routinely then it could become stale, just like anything. I think then it should not be a monthly occurrence for an individual but rather should be something which rises up out of us.

    Moreover, reading back through what I have written, I think that I did not clearly express that some things should not be confessed publicly, like serious transgression.

  4. N Meyer says:

    I see some of this happening in ‘good’ RS meetings. Not every week, but occassionally a lesson will be taught that really resonates with the sisters and it will bring out a lot of personal feelings and regrets.

  5. Amen and amen and amen, Rico.

    Let not any man publish his own righteousness, for others can see that for him; sooner let him confess his sins, and then he will be forgiven and he will bring forth more fruit. (TPJS 194-195)

    Confess your faults to one another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. (James 5:16)

    But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and the sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord. (D&C 59:12)

    (see, I can quote scripture too!)

  6. Perhaps this quote is relevant (from Elder Mickelsen, “The Atonement, Repentance, and Dirty Linen”, 2003):

    “While driving through a small town in Mexico, a man ran over and killed a dog that darted in front of him. From that day on, he was known in the village as mataperros. No consideration or thought was given to the origin of the name; he was simply the “dog killer.” For those who came along later, not knowing the circumstance, their minds conjured up a terrible image of what he had done.

    Reputations built on rumor, reality, or established by nickname can be virtually impossible to overcome. The adage “Do not wash your dirty linen in public” is wise counsel. It is not necessary, appropriate, nor healthy to expose our private or family mistakes and sins for public scrutiny. The more widely a sin is known, the more difficult the repentance or change.”

  7. #5 – Thanks Kathryn.

    #6 – Although I am aware of E. Mickelsen’s remarks and agree that somethings are not appropriate to confess in a public setting (even though this used to happen), I disagree with the wider implications of his remarks. Which is that we should hide our weaknesses from others. Moreover, the idea that the more widely a sin is known, I think, does not impact how easy it is to repent. Instead I think that counsel seeks to save the sinner being remind of things they would rather forget (or have changed) by people who won’t let them move on. Others in the community have not learned to forgive. This is precisely one of the reasons that I value this process because it encourages communities to forgive each other rather than to judge or condemn while simultaneously glorying in their own righteousness.

  8. Peter LLC says:

    I confessed to being a shiftless bum while teaching the priesthood lesson last Sunday. Does it count if everyone already knows?

    Anyroad, I think vague confessions directed at no one in particular (like mine and President Kimball’s above) aren’t of much use in building community since often it’s just a way to tell your audience to get over it already. Still, an honest admission of fault could be like oil on troubled waters when resolving conflicts with one’s fellowman, and certainly preferable to bluster and evasion.

  9. I’ve had wonderful conversations with members when I have visited with them as a home teacher (etc) wherein the topic of their sin/mistake/frailty is discussed. Not major sins, mind you, but critical impediments to their progression. I have experienced how hearts are knit together through such conversations. I whole heartedly agree with much of this post and the comments above.

    Thank you for the insights.

  10. There’s an element of phoniness in vague, public confessions of wrongdoing–sort of like “I’m really a humble person who doesn’t consider myself perfect, so I must have some faults although I can’t really think of any.”

    Better to confess sins to God, self, and the persons injured.

  11. #8, #10 – I think there is a real but important balance between being specific but not sharing something that will make others feel uncomfortable. The gauge is to share something that is meaningful but also not hurtful or uncomfortable. I think if we are honest there are many things we guilty about and would not like others to know but that do involve laws of chastity, for instance. Like how we treat our children or friends. Holding ill-feelings toward another or even being judgmental. These can all be shared in honest humility and it will not be phony. We determine the level of phoniness in our confession.

    #9 – Thanks Tim, I too have had that experience.

  12. Great post.

    I was just talking about this yesterday with a friend. In my experience, there’s tremendous pressure to put your “best face forward” in LDS culture. That’s because the consequences of making your sins known often include social alienation, and in more serious cases, a change in your status in the church.

    I fear that this actually drives sin underground, because acknowledging, confessing, and facing it can have such severe repercussions. It also seems to create unrealistic expectations of perfection and robs the community of the chance to practice and experience forgiveness and grace on a regular basis.

    One shouldn’t revel in sin, but being willing to openly acknowledge and name it — even in public, when appropriate — is actually a sign of spiritual strength, humility, and emotional stability. I hope that one day our community is healthy enough to handle more openness and frank acknowledgment of sins and weaknesses.

  13. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    I’ll take Joseph Smith over Elder Mickelsen anyday.

  14. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    Confessing and acknowledging weaknesses in character is very different from spouting a detailed list of what exactly we’ve done, and where, and when, and to whom. What counts, and what can be safely shared, is what’s inside of us that sparks the action, not the specifics of the action itself.

  15. #6,
    Good thing he didn’t kill a goat. I’d hate to think what name he’d be stuck with after that.

  16. The church likes to hold itself up as a light unto the world. For whatever reason, I remember thinking as a kid that it was more important to be a good example than to be a good person. God will give you time to repent from being a bad person, but the bad example will stick in people’s forever.

    You know, you sell more magazines when you airbrush the models on the cover. I think the church has been doing that, metaphorically.

  17. Zion became one in heart, I believe, because the people no longer tried to hide their hearts from one another.
    … or from God and so also became one with Him, as Christ importuned in Gethsemane. My confession to my SP, now a decade and a half ago, — and his loving response — broke open my heart and then as I felt God’s love wash through it, my nature changed permanently. This was my “mighty change of heart” and I haven’t had one sense of longing since for the old nonsense in which I was trapped.
    My journey of formal reconciliation with the Church continues and I’m grateful for the oneness bishops, SPs, and their counselors have given me along the way.
    Over this time, I developed both a nagging sense of well-being and a wonder for this process God created that allowed me to persist in the wrong way until I broke and then, being prepared by this broken heart and contrite spirit for change, allowed me to turn back to Him for help and then receive a complete change of nature / putting off of the natural man.
    Marion G. Romney said that we could know when we’re converted when by the HG our soul is healed. “Healed” is the word for how I feel. That “heal” and “whole” are etymological siblings helps me understand and merge my situation with Christ’s invitation to be “perfect” (complete, whole) in His sermon on the Mount.

  18. I agree, I think if done appropriately, confession can have a powerful unifying force. I think the more ashamed I am of something, the more I need to confide in a few trusted friends. It gives my trusted friends the opportunity to love me unconditionally and it gives me the opportunity to feel and experience that unconditional love. As a result, it gives me more context to help me understand the much less tangible relationshipionship I have with my Savior.

  19. Just to clarify, I wasn’t saying, “you’re wrong because Elder Mickelsen says such-and-such”. Good post.

  20. Although confessions of serious sins should occur privately and confidentially between the person and the bishop, it gives me solace and hope when teachers (either RS or Gospel Doctrine) admit that, although they are striving to live righteously, they are not yet perfect.

    [When my husband was bishop, several times a person would bear his or her testimony in Church, announcing that they/their marriage/their life was perfect. Then, within days, they appeared at our doorstep on verge of divorce/suicide/breakdown or after adultery/fornication/wife swapping/etc. I learned from that experience that sometimes those who announce their lives are perfect either may be hiding something or may eventually recognize they are imperfect like the rest of us:)]

  21. Aaron, this post has stayed with me overnight (I’m in China this month, and it’s morning here now) and I can’t get Elder Faust out my head. Some of his most endearing talks for me were those in which he confessed his own weaknesses and lessons he learned. I think what was meaningful in his “confessions” is that they were specific events from his life (not general platitudes), but they had direct application to mine.

    I agree with others that it is good to see when someone teaches from their own position of humility. That’s very different for me than a glib “I’m not perfect” statement. My wife teaches in the Relief Society, and I think one of the reasons her lessons are so well received is that she’s pretty honest about her own experience and her own weaknesses in the face of what she teaches.

  22. A little late, but I wanted to thank you for this post. The ritual meetings, which included public repentance during the Kirtland holy season are especially poignant to me.

  23. While it may not be wise to confess sins publicly, I think the community would be benefitted if we could confess fear and weaknesses more publicly. I feel the pressure to put my best face on. It drives me crazy when people talk about how strong I am. Why can’t we accept each others’ weaknesses without trying to encourage them to believe they have no weaknesses?

    On the recent discussions about depression, several commenters expressed amazement that other people felt like they did. Imagine if it was safe to express doubts and fears in a real-life community, instead of only online.

  24. Thanks to all for the kind comments.

    #12 – I suspect that our local leaders can do a great deal to set this tone. I recall Eugene England speaking about a struggling RS President (in his Essay ‘Why the Church is as True…’) who did this and was able to encourage general changes in that ward community.

    #14 – I think that is very insightful and has helped me more clearly think through how I think we should manage what we say in such confessions. Thank you.

    #17 – Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope many have had similar feelings while going through that process.

    #19 – Thanks. I was just trying to explain why I disagreed with his comment.

    #21 – I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I recall that one of the talks from our most recent conference that people spoke about was from a GA who shared how we had struggled reading his scriptures and praying for a long time. It really resonated with people.

    #22 – I know very little about that but would be very interested to learn more.

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