“Confession is good for the soul,” says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful.
But there are many differences in the process. Some faiths distinguish between major and minor sins. Some faiths say you should confess to God through a priest, while others admonish the faithful to take their confessions directly to God. And the definition of sin varies across the board. The subject gets more complicated because there are multiple denominations or branches within many faiths that disagree over sins and confession.
Here’s a general look at how five faith traditions — Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Orthodox Judaism and Islam — live out their beliefs on confession.
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“We go to confession first of all because we are sinners,” said the Rev. Ramon Bejarano, pastor of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, Cailf. “We recognize that God is merciful and holy, and he is the only one who can forgive us for our sins.
“For us as Catholics, to come to the sacrament is a gift that Christ has given to the church for us to experience God’s forgiveness.”
Catholics go to a priest for confession and can either do it face to face, or with a screen between them.
“We have to do it before a priest because we believe Jesus left the apostles the power to do that,” Bejarano said. “Not because the priest forgives the sins, but because God, through the ministry he has left to the priests, forgives our sin. When we come before the priest, which, yes, is another human being, we are coming before Christ and we are coming before the presence of God.
“In the first centuries, the confessions were actually in public because when we sin, we not only lose our friendship with God, but we lose our friendship in the community of faith. So they had to confess in public and receive penance. That’s why they were called penitents. They couldn’t receive Communion and they had to stand outside the church or at the entrance. So while the rest of the community were celebrating the Eucharist, the penitents had to be outside kneeling down. It’s like, ‘I’m really sorry for my sins and I’m asking the whole community to pray for me to lift me up.’ Once he was lifted up, he was welcomed back.”
That changed, Bejarano said, in about the sixth century when Irish monks began hearing confessions one on one. That practice spread, eliminating the shame of a public confession and instituting the seal of the confessional, “so the priest could not reveal what was confessed.”
As in the Catholic Church, confession is a sacrament heard by a priest. But it is encouraged rather than mandatory, and it can be heard by a priest from a different parish.
“From Scripture, the Greek word (for sin) is ‘amartia,’ which means missing the mark, like an arrow that misses the target,” said Father Jon Magoulias of Modesto’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. “For us, the mark is Christ. We set our lives to journey to Christ. When we stray from that focus, we miss the mark; we sin. So confession, in the Orthodox practice, is the ultimate expression of love. It’s not seen as a means to punish people, to demean or humiliate anyone. It’s recognizing that Christ entrusted this care to his apostles, and through his apostles to his priests, and that forgiveness of sin is important.
“Orthodox doesn’t really give degrees of sin. Separation from God is separation from God. There are two characteristics to confession. One is private, which a person should make every day in his or her prayer life. We all make mistakes every day, and obviously a priest can’t hear 1,000 confessions a day.
“The second one is the sacrament of confession. God has entrusted this care to us (priests), not to make us a judge, but as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit to the people. When a person makes an appointment for confession, it takes place in the church. There’s an icon of Jesus Christ before the altar that reminds the person the confession he is making is to Jesus Christ himself and not to the priest. There is a service that is done, prayers offered on behalf of the individual. If the priest feels it’s necessary to give a penance, he does so, reminding the person it’s an act of love. The most extreme is a penance when a person could not receive Holy Communion for a period of time. There’s nothing more precious than receiving the body and blood of Christ. To have a separation now rather than in eternity, that’s an act of love.”
Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, confession in Protestant denominations is done directly to God rather than through a priest.
“Certainly a person is free to discuss his struggles, weaknesses and sins with his pastor, but it is not required to receive forgiveness from God,” said the Rev. Wade Estes, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Modesto, a nondenominational congregation. “In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus directs us to ask for forgiveness from God the father: ‘And forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.’”
Estes said the biblical Greek word translated as confess “means to say the same thing. So when we confess our sins to God, we are saying the same thing about them that God says, that we have violated his holy standard, that we have missed the bull’s-eye of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. ...
“God expects us to confess our sins in order to receive his forgiveness and live in a right relationship with him.”
“There are two kinds of sin — one against your fellow man and one against God,” said Rabbi Avremel Brod of the Chabad of Stockton, Calif., an Orthodox Jewish congregation. “If I hurt someone, I can’t just go ahead and say, ‘I did it,’ and then move on. We have to do something to fix that problem. We have to go to them and say, ‘I have insulted you and hope we can make it up.’
“And then there are sins against God. God gave the Jewish people 613 commandments. Quite a few still apply today. When we make a mistake, when we slip and don’t follow one of the commandments, we have to fix it. We say, ‘I’ve done this and I don’t want to do it again, so I’m going to do something to prevent it,’ such as give to charity or study the Torah. Aside from asking for an apology, you take a gift to someone; it builds up the relationship. The same thing with God — we’re going to do something extra. That doesn’t just fix what we’ve done, but it strengthens our relationship with God.” Confession is included in the prayers Orthodox Jews recite three times a day directly to God rather than to a rabbi, Brod said. But there is no set time for confession, he added.
Unlike other religions, Islam does not believe man is born a sinner, said Ahmad Kayello, imam of the Islamic Center of Modesto, Calif. “We believe the great sinner was Satan, when God ordered him to prostrate (himself) to Adam and he refused. That was the first sin after God created creation. From Satan, he came to Eve and Adam in paradise and whispered to them to eat from the tree, and they did. So we believe sin was from Satan, and he carried it to Adam and Eve.”
There are sins against God and sins against creation in Islam, Kayello said. Both need to be confessed to God with true repentance, but there also needs to be reconciliation and/or restitution in the second case, he said.
“If I steal a car, I must make a supplication to God that I won’t do it again,” he said. “If you go to a person and say, ‘I’ve taken your car; please forgive me,’ you can’t keep the car. You must give it back.”