Do I need to confess the same sins over and over?
Dear Father Joe: Every time I go to confession, I seem to say the same things. It is very discouraging to me and I don’t know what to do.
First, let me suggest that you do know what to do because you are going to confession. Start with that wonderful thought: whatever else you are struggling with, you are only struggling with it because you are “in the fight.” With that, let me see if I can’t help you with this discouragement.
I’ll begin by reaffirming my first point: The fact that you are going to confession is a very, very good thing. Too many people neglect this amazing sacrament, very much to their detriment. God gave us the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation so that we can grow in our awareness of our sin and in our experience of his mercy. I truly believe that if we all made more of an effort to avail ourselves of this, our Church would be a better place. In this day and age when so much wickedness cries out for our attention, we absolutely need to make sure that we are going after the sins we know we are called to deal with: our own.
The second thing I would offer you is to make sure you are taking some time to prepare. Sometimes, our astute awareness of our habitual sins can take our eyes off other areas of our lives that are crying out for God’s mercy and healing. I want to share a brief examination of conscience that I’ve offered people to help them in their efforts. You can find it, and more resources, on catholicnewsagency.com.
• When was my last good confession? Did I receive Communion or other sacraments while in the state of mortal sin? Did I intentionally fail to confess some mortal sin in my previous confession?
• Did I willfully and seriously doubt my faith, or put myself in danger of losing it by reading literature hostile to Catholic teachings or by getting involved with non-Catholic sects? Did I engage in superstitious activities: palm reading, fortune telling?
• Did I take the name of God in vain? Did I curse or take a false oath? Did I use bad language?
• Did I miss Mass on a Sunday or a holy day of obligation through my own fault, without any serious reason? Did I fast and abstain on the prescribed days?
• Did I disobey my parents or lawful superiors in important matters?
• Was I selfish in how I treated others, especially my spouse, my brothers and sisters, my relatives, or my friends? Did I hatefully quarrel with anyone, or desire revenge? Did I refuse to forgive? Did I cause physical injury or even death? Did I get drunk? Did I take illicit drugs? Did I consent to, advise, or actively take part in an abortion?
• Did I willfully look at indecent pictures or watch immoral movies? Did I read immoral books or magazines? Did I engage in impure jokes or conversations? Did I willfully entertain impure thoughts or feelings? Did I commit impure acts, alone or with others? Did I take contraceptive or abortifacient pills, or use other artificial means in order to prevent conception?
• Did I steal or damage another's property? How much? Have I made reparation for the damages done? Have I been honest in my business relations?
• Did I tell lies? Did I sin by slander? By detraction - telling unknown grave faults of others without necessity? Did I judge others rashly in serious matters? Have I tried to make restitution for any damage of reputation that I have caused?
A good examination is important. I also like to add, “For any sins I have forgotten” at the end of my confession, just to make sure I’ve got my bases covered.
I think that, once we’ve done these things, we need to remember what we are there for. The goal of this beautiful sacrament is nothing less than transformation: We give God our garbage, he gives us himself – wow.
At least part of this transformation is the recognition that it is not primarily about our performance: doing good more often than sinning. It is primarily about learning to receive from God that which he gives us. For St. Paul, he hits this really hard in Romans and writes about how his sin and his struggles with sin teach him about God’s mercy. Obviously, we do not sin so that we can see how deep his love runs, but we do recognize that Jesus’ victory over sin is at both ends of the equation: Jesus is victorious when we don’t sin and he is victorious when we give him those times that we do sin. That is how complete Jesus’ mastery over sin is: Our sin cannot win unless we do not give our sin to God.
By confessing sins over and over, we are allowing God’s love and mercy not only to wear down our sins, but also embed deep within us a sense of his mercy. At no point will God give up on you, so it is incumbent upon you to never give up. Do not let the foolish sin of pride keep us from confessing everything we need to, even if we feel like we confess over and over. God’s mercy will win – that’s a fact. We are going to be faithful to the process.
So, don’t give up. Keep praying, keep pushing. Bring your sins before your heavenly Father and let him do what he is literally dying to: give you his mercy and love.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence.