A father watched his young son at work in the garden.
Instructed to remove the weeds, the son eagerly took up the challenge, taking garden clippers and lopping off the stems as close to ground level as he could maneuver. He assured his father that the weeds were gone, never to return, but the father knew better: without removing their roots the weeds would grow back.
Making a good confession of our sins is like weeding the garden of the soul. Most of us have the experience of assuring our heavenly Father that we have removed all the weeds, but unless we attack them at their roots, we’ll confess the same sins again and again.
It takes work to make a good confession. Focusing on behaviors and actions alone is like taking garden clippers to weeds: we may for a time cut off the parts we can see, but hidden within the soil of our behaviors the roots of sin are still growing. The real power of the Sacrament of Penance is unleashed when we expose the roots to God’s grace.
The Desire to Change
Making a good confession starts long before stepping inside the confessional. Even before making an examination of conscience we should examine our motivation. Do we really want to change? St. Augustine describes his tepid approach to change in the midst of his conversion. Realizing the excesses of his lifestyle, he prayed, “Lord, give me chastity,” and quickly aded, “but not yet!”
A good confession arises from a heart that wants to change. This is the very core of a good confession — firm purpose of amendment. A humorous spin on the Act of Contrition comes from a child who hasn’t quite memorized the words correctly: “Oh my God, I am partially sorry for having offended you…” If we’re rigorously honest, however, we might admit that the child is speaking the truth. St. Augustine recalled that as he determined to leave certain sins behind he could hear those sins calling out to him as if old friends were inviting him to spend some time together again. A good confession is the fruit of prayer to God, begging the grace to want to change, to want to leave our sins behind, to want to hand our sins to God and never seek to take them back.
How should you make a good confession? Start by spending some time in prayer, preferably before the Blessed Sacrament so as to be better protected against the snares and wiles of the enemy, the deceiver. In prayer, ask God to show you the roots of your sins, not just the external sinful behaviors. Ask God to shed light upon your motivations, the desire to sin, the reasons you make the choices that lead up to sin. It is one thing to ask God to show you your sins, but quite another to reach into the roots of your sins and eradicate the roots instead of the weeds.
Examination of Conscience
Next, make a good examination of conscience. That starts with an act of praise and confidence in God’s grace. Acknowledging that you are in the strong and loving arms of God, trusting that God will care for you and provide for you, thanking God for the blessings of His grace — all of this is a fitting start to prepare for a good confession. With confident trust and abandonment to God’s loving will it is easier to open your soul to God in the Sacrament of Penance; it is easier to want to change by first recognizing the good things that are part of total abandonment to God’s mercy and grace. In the hands of God who created the soil and planted the Garden of Eden, why would you do less than trust Him completely with the garden of your soul?
Having placed yourself in the arms of God, the next step is to ask God to lead you through a thorough examination of conscience. There are many formulas for an examination of conscience. Some are based on the Ten Commandments, and others on the beatitudes. Still others focus on the Precepts of the Church or the teachings of saints. They are found in missals and prayerbooks, websites and mobile apps. Any of these can be a tool by which God can shed light on sin and the motivations for sin. It can be confusing and distracting to switch among several forms for an examination of conscience when preparing for a good confession, so it’s best to pick one form and invite God to help you through it by the light of His grace.
Always approach the examination of conscience in prayer, and allow sufficient time for God to walk you through your sins, shedding His light on the roots of your sinful behaviors. Don’t rush. Many saints advise a daily examination of conscience in order to recognize patterns in behaviors and in the tendency to sin. A daily examination of conscience shows what circumstances, encounters, people, times of day, places and activities present the greatest temptations or vulnerabilities. Only by tracing patterns of emotion and behavior can we best recognize the roots of our sins as well as how to avoid sin in the future.
The best way to avoid sin is to avoid temptation. It is helpful as part of an examination of conscience to ask God to show you the steps that lead to sinful acts. Every sinful act starts with a temptation — ask God to show you where temptation lives in your daily life, and to show you the choices you made that led from temptation to sin. Again, pray for the grace to want to change those behaviors that lead to sin, or the roots will still thrive. Pray for the grace to want to remove temptation, the occasion of sin, from your life.
In the Confessional
Armed with more than a list of sins, but with a confident trust in God’s goodness, an understanding of the motivations and causes of the inclination to sin, and better knowing how the path leads from temptation to sin, you can now enter the confessional with an open heart, soul and mind.
In the confessional, do not allow the enemy, the deceiver, to disquiet you or diminish your resolve to make a good confession. Some of his tactics are to tempt you to worry that the priest will think less of you if you mention all your sins, or to tempt you to think that you cannot change, or to tempt you to think that you are not worthy of God’s mercy. Satan hates when someone resolves to make a good confession, and he will work overtime to lure the sinner away from God’s mercy. Recognize the source of these thoughts and ignore them, resolved to open your soul completely to God. Instead, pay attention to the Holy Spirit, who is prompting you toward the peace and joy and healing of the Sacrament of Penance.
It is astonishing how many people stay away from confession out of fear of forgetting what to say or do inside the confessional. This is also Satan’s deception, to keep sinners away from the wonderful mercy of God. Two things are essential to the fruitful celebration of the Sacrament of Penance: the penitent’s admission of sin that springs from a heart that wants to change (contrition and firm purpose of amendment), and the priest’s absolution. All the rest is secondary, and there isn’t a priest alive who won’t help someone through the celebration of the sacrament once they’ve stepped through the confessional door.
Once inside the confessional, remember that the priest is acting in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). Speak to Christ himself, baring your soul without fear of judgment, but instead with a hunger for mercy and grace. The priest is bound by the seal of the sacrament, so that nothing you say can be spoken of outside the confessional. No priest thinks less of a sinner who repents, but rather thinks highly of a person who simply trusts in God’s mercy.
Finally, take to heart the counsel of the priest and accept the penance he offers. He will invite you to express your contrition, the double-edged prayer that gives voice to sorrow for sins and the pledge of changing by God’s grace. The priest will absolve you from your sins in the name of the Church. With a lighter heart, walk out of the confessional with all your sins forgiven, a child of God whose soul is a weedless garden of delight.
Msgr. William King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate in canon law from the Gregorian University in Rome.