If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 John 1:8-2:2)
Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the sacrament of Confession and how its purpose changed over time. In his thinking, repentance was not meant to be a listing of violations against God’s various laws, but rather was meant to be a deeper assessment of how we each have failed to incarnate God’s Kingdom in our lives and in this world. Repentance is to focus on the ways we have not lived according to the values of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven or failed to make the Kingdom present in our lives and in the lives of those around us. This is the true change of heart and mind that repentance calls us to, rather than a mere listing of rule violations. Repentance, more than a mere acknowledgement of transgressions, is a change in the way we think and see the world (a true paradign shift).
In the beginning the sacrament of repentance was totally focused on one thing: on the betrayal of the Church, betrayal of her incarnated and revealed reality. Sin was considered a betrayal of the new life, a falling out of it. Sin was a rupture, a defection, a betrayal; sanctity was understood not as a moral perfection, but as an ontological faithfulness to Christ and His Kingdom. The moral teaching of the Church is eschatological, not ethical. For Christians, the essence of sin is the betrayal of Christ, the falling away from Him and the Church. So the sacrament of repentance is a return, through repentance, confession and regret, to the new life, already given, already revealed. Nowadays, Confession is not directed at that; its essence is different. It is directed toward a certain moral regularization – putting in order – of life in this world, of its laws.
In other words, the sacrament of repentance began by being referred not to a moral law, but to faith and to sin as a falling away from the faith (‘no one who abides in him sins…‘ (1 John 3:6)). Now confession is often a conversation about violations of moral laws, about weaknesses and sinfulness, but without reference to faith. And the answer is not about Christ, but something like, ‘Try to pray more, fight temptations…’ As everything in Christianity, the sacrament of repentance is eschatological; It is the return of man to the longed-for Kingdom and to ‘the life of the world to come.’ (THE JOURNALS OF FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN 1973-1983, pp 250-251)
Fr Alexander offers a suggestion for how we might reinvigorate Confession by changing it from our listing our moral lapses to the way in which we each have betrayed Christ and the Kingdom of God:
When we go to confession from now on, we should spend less time on our impure thoughts and confess instead: ‘I confess to you, my God and Lord, that I have contributed somehow to this world being the hell of consumerism and apostasy.’ (THE LITURGY OF DEATH, p 172)
Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:19-21)