Confession without Shame

In the desert monastic tradition, women and men who left the city to pray in the abandoned places of their society made a spiritual discovery: when you get down to the most basic level of our struggle against the devil and all his wiles, what we wrestle against is not bad political leaders or corrupt business executives. Our enemy is neither the people who’ve done us wrong nor the people who are using our neighbors for their own ends. Though we may be tempted to think so at our worst moments, our enemy is not even ourselves. The enemy, the desert ammas and abbas taught us, is bad thoughts. When we give into them, they corrupt our souls, our relationships, our society, and God’s good creation.

But they do not have to. The great discovery of desert monasticism was that we can name these bad thoughts and so unveil their illusory power. We can plead the blood of Jesus and watch them flee.

The monastics called this practice the “manifestation of thoughts,” and it was the bedrock of the spiritual direction they offered both to one another and to the seekers who came asking for a word. In Western Christianity, this practice turned into confession. And when confession started to look like another way for Christendom to exercise control over people, it faded away from common practice, especially among Protestants. There were good reasons for this, not the least of which being that shame can suffocate a soul when bad thoughts are not met with grace, but with harsh condemnation.

Still, there’s a wonderful power in this ancient tradition of the manifestation of thoughts, especially for those of us who are engaged in a life and death struggle with the Unspeakable. This is why, in our new Common Prayer Pocket Edition, we included a series of prayers against the eight bad thoughts. It can be a great gift to have words that both name these thoughts clearly and claim the power of Jesus to overcome them. Like Antony of Egypt, I’ve found that such words can save your life.

Last week, I had the chance to spend a day with a wonderful group of people who wanted to learn more about the desert tradition and the resources it offers for ministry in our world today. As a part of our workshop, we took time to name the basic thoughts that each person struggles with. After writing them out on paper, we created a little liturgy to “manifest” them together. I share it here as an invitation for you to add the thought that is trying to take your life and plead the blood of Jesus in defense.

I struggle with pride. I have lots of balls juggling in the air, and I am loathe to admit that I cannot manage them all. I’d hate to let anyone down. I’d not want to admit failure.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I struggle with a deep desire to be comfortable in some selfish ways. Sometimes it’s a lack of care, and sometimes it’s real anger and impatience when things don’t go my way. I want life to be easy.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I struggle with the desire to be significant in the face of weakness.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I am afraid of disappointing those who rely on me.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I struggle with thoughts that judge others and myself, as well as feelings of guilt surrounding my own shortcomings.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I struggle with an anger that invites me to be resentful because I don’t get to spend my time where I want. Then I get mad at myself because I know it’s not all about me.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

I vacillate between pride and self-deprecation. I often find myself wanting more, some future glory or amazing calling somewhere else.

Against the torrent of oblivion, we plead the blood of Jesus.

  • Sam Alexander

    Very glad for a focus on confession. It has always seemed to me to be THE central Christian spiritual discipline. I often tease, (well, half tease), my congregation when I say I want to bring the confessional back to the Presbyterian church. In psychological terms we might suggest that naming does indeed have power to free us since it makes our negative thoughts and behavior an object which we can then act upon and change. I believe we do that kind of transformative work in the presence of the creative, healing power of God’s love. The love that speaks new life into the places where we have created despair and death; the love that says, “Let there be light, and there was light,” (metaphorically speaking). I’m wondering though about the focus on the blood of Jesus. It seems counterproductive to me. The whole substitutionary atonement thing calls to mind a wrathful, bloodthirsty god. I’m kinda done with that view of God. Curious, how do you think the blood of Jesus helps us here?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Good question, Sam. Yes, “blood” language is often misused. But it’s deeply biblical. For me, the key is the biblical notion that life is in the blood. We plead the blood of Jesus because it has the power to give us his life–to sustain us as living members of his body.

  • Chris

    This is a very important part of the tradition to raise up, and so rarely gets the affirmation of spiritual people, especially Christians. I remember one description of looking at these thoughts like one would look at birds passing over one’s head–note them and watch them pass on by.

    It’s true that there is a lot of shame connected with bad thoughts. And that we all have bad thoughts and that they’re part of our human struggle. It’s especially hurtful when they get in a circular pattern in one’s mind and run around like the Tazmanian Devil, seeking some psychic space to devour and make his lair in your soul. Bonhoeffer, in the Lutheran tradition, suggested confession to one other person, because corporate confession does not accomplish what confessing to one other person can: a face-to-face and personal experience of letting someone else know what is troubling you, and reassurance that you are still in God’s fold.

    I might push the language of the prayers a bit–some of these sound like concerns that people might have because they exist, but they don’t necessarily sound like oblivion-causing thoughts. But it’s really that hard to name these oblivion-generating things in public, and attach one’s name or self to them. That’s the level of shame and fear around them. Yet I am convinced that our faith can come to the aid of God’s people, starting with each of us. I think of the anger expressed in the Psalms, in Psalm 137–those are some oblivion-directed bad thoughts. Anger leads to depression and anxiety–so how do we safely, healthily express this anger within our communities, and to God, so that it doesn’t get boxed in and explode within us, as it so often seems to do in our vitriolic age?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for this, Chris. We read Psalm 4 together at Bible study here yesterday and talked about how slaves might have understood “in your anger do not sin.” Was a good conversation–esp about how Ephesians understands this Psalm in light of Christ’s witness, inviting us to use it to “not give the devil a foothold.”

  • Shannon

    Thank you much for this.

    I think that for me, it’s shame – over past failures, over ways others have failed me and what that could say about me – and a deep struggle with belovedness. It’s as if something within me is constantly looking for proof to affirm that I am an unworthy human being.

    Sometimes I deeply long for a recovery of the tradition of confession in Protestantism. I have a friend who holds my story well, thanks be to God, and a small church community that does confess on its knees corporately. I’m grateful. But I know others not part of my community who have expressed how they wish for a culture of confession (and without shame!).

    Your thoughts are a blessing. Thank you again.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for your honesty, even without anonymity. As we say during confession time here at Rutba House, “we proclaim to you God’s forgiveness and ours.”

  • Vladimir karabegov

    there are two types of confessions proceeding from two parts if our being the logical and the mystical,i dont know which one is harder to confess,saying something i dont think you are beautiful is a mystical lie and saying something like “i was thinking about seeing you choking and didnt help”is a thought that i techincal bad thought,anyhow confessions get harder and hareder,we are now struggling in the area of the “way”,people are less community oriented so confessions become to cold to embrace and even colder to confess,we need to now do confession and follow up on it with love(speak the truth+love)so that the “way”would be restored and righteousness flow…

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  • Lolly

    this confession piece has been rolling around in my soul for a couple of months lately. I see protestants hurt each other & sin, expecting unending grace & mercy not only from God but from the body–as if there ought to be no accountability for hurt, for bad behaviour, for our sins against ourselves, our neighbors, our loved ones. the lack of confession in the truth means there are few who know how to be contrite. and our obsession with “shame” as a bad thing further complicates what ought to be an honest assessment of ourselves, where we see the “worm” inside, bring it into the light & talk about why it should be decimated. having slowly left the evangelical church over the last 10 years, finding joy in liturgy now by discovering the church of my genealogical heritage, i am astounded in reflection–why, why, why did the corporate church “we” throw out the whole baby with the bathwater!? to me there is no church without an understanding of the depth of grace–and it ain’t cheap, like we treat it! grace is a big word & a bigger gift, but we expect it, and we are spoiled.

    i long for a safe space to confess to another–not one who will pat me on the proverbial back with a condescending “there, there….,” but one who will get in my face & tell me how it is. that “thing” you’re doing, that thought you’re thinking, that way you’re acting!? stop that! thank you for confessing, now let’s do the hard work of helping you not have to confess that over & over again. let’s do the GROWTH work of removing the wormy bits & reaching for the heavenly bits! i say shame on the church for throwing away confession!! yes. shame! i am so grateful to see many returning to the old manners of worship, liturgy, eucharist, and…confession!

    • Lolly

      …in that, there is authentic JOY!

      • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

        Amen, Lolly. This is a part of the “everyday awakening” that I see happening all around us. The letters I’ve received in response to my book The Wisdom of Stability have been an overwhelming sign to me that many share the longing you’ve articulated so well. And we’re finding the joy you reference in the messy gift of real community.

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