This semester I have the great opportunity of teaching a whole class dedicated to Augustine’s Confessions. This Christian classic is an amazing example of a literary masterpiece and it is also one of the most theologically dense books that I have ever read. Leading three hours of discussion on each of the individual books of the text is making me greatly appreciate the mind of Augustine. It is also causing me to ask the question, “What exactly is a confession?” Of course, I understand the biblical, theological and liturgical meanings of the word “confession” but what exactly about Augustine’s work makes it a confession. An interesting web site is helping me, at least in part, to answer this question.
The website has been set up by an evangelical church called LifeChurch which is “one church, in multiple locations” but principally based in Edmond, OK. After preaching a series of messages on confession the church set up a website that gives people an opportunity to anonymously post their confessions. The confessions are arranged under a number of topics including Addictions, Lying, Stealing, Shame, Lust, etc with each containing a warning at the top that some of the posts are only appropriate for those over 18. In my naivety not only was I completely unaware that such a website existed but that such a thing has never even entered my mind.
What I find interesting is how different these modern confessions are from what Augustine claims to be doing. These modern confessions are simply statements of the sin(s) that one has committed. Many just simply state the sin, for example, “I steal from my employer.” Others include a request for prayer: “I steal from my employer. Please pray for me.” Now, I assume that the prayer that they desire goes something like this: “Lord, please help this nameless, faceless person whose sin I just read about on the internet stop sinning. Although they know what their sin is I do not know if they are actually sorry for committing this sin or if they are even attempting to stop sinning, apart from requesting the prayers of complete strangers.” Now, I am sure that requesting the prayers of complete strangers must bring some semblance of psychological relief but what more does this accomplish? In fact, some of those who confess may actually enjoy the thought that others know how sinful they are albeit anonymously. For others, perhaps stating their sin so “publicly” actually spurs some on to additional sin: “Now that I have ‘come clean’ and asked for the prayers of others I can continuing sinning with less guilt.” Hopefully some actually stop sinning after confessing on the website thereby making the website a good thing.
But again, Augustine’s Confessions seem more illustrative of what a true confession should look like. He writes,
Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and Your wisdom infinite. And You would man praise; man, but a particle of Your creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that You resist the proud: yet would man praise You; he, but a particle of Your creation. You awake us to delight in Your praise; for You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless, until it rests in You.
In Augustine’s mind it would seem that a confessio is somewhere between a profession of faith in God and a simple though significant acknowledgment of sin. For Augustine God is great and greatly to be praised. He is powerful and infinitely wise. Human beings, on the other hand, are mere “particles” of all that God created. We are mortal and, most unfortunately, sinful people. But it does not end there. God created us to praise God. God is able to awaken us from our sinful slumber so that we can delight in Him. Why did He do this? Because God made us for himself! That’s right, God made us, God awakens us and God desires that we come to Him. He expects us to put our sins behind us and look to Him. (Or as Boethius would say, we need to quit looking at the dirt and turn our faces upon God Himself.) So, not only must we confess our sins (whether to a friend, a priest, on the internet or directly to God) we must also, in the same breath, allow God to awaken us to Himself. We should not only ask for the prayers of others, but we must praise God. For Augustine it seems that confession is more an act of praise rather than a therapeutic act. So, to all of you out there on the web confessing your sins to complete strangers, try talking directly to God — try praising God. Surely your hearts are restless, so let them find rest in God.