There are 2 ways in which we nourish our spiritual life, the life of our soul. First we must reject anything that leads us away from God; and second, we embrace everything that is of God. The Church reminds us of this important reality of rejecting sin and embracing God over and over again through the study of the teachings of Jesus. We are reminded of this especially at the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when on Ash Wednesday as we
receive the sign of repentance, ashes on our foreheads, we hear the priest saying to us: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. In order to grow in our life of divine union with God we need both movements. It is not enough for us to just reject sin, nor is it enough to just strive to be faithful to God. Both movements, rejection of sin and embracing of God, are necessary because they help each other. We cannot grow in union with God if we are still holding on to our sins. Jesus says: “You cannot serve both God and the world”. Jesus reminds us that we must reject one and choose the other. To love both is not to love either. This is why trying to love both sinfulness and holiness is associated with lukewarmness, and if we are lukewarm the Lord reminds us that He will “spit us out of his mouth.
If we want to draw closer to God and embrace those realities that belong to God we must first let go of sin. This is the first step and it is absolutely essential in our spiritual growth. Jesus knew this so well that He gave us a means of letting go of sin by giving us the sacrament of Confession.
There is only one way for us to let go of sin, and that is to confess our sin and repent. St. Ignatius of Loyola tells us that “sin thrives on secrecy” and the longer we keep our sin secretly buried in our souls the more damage it will do to our spiritual life. This is why the Church invites us to follow the instruction of Jesus and confess our sins to his priests. Before his ascension back to heaven Jesus appeared to the apostles and breathed on them. By doing this he imparted on them the power of the Holy Spirit which in theology is called sacred power because it is the power of God. Just as Jesus spent much time forgiving sins and calling people to a change of life, so too the apostles are commanded by the Lord to forgive sins: “If you forgive anyone's sins here on earth, they will be forgiven in heaven. But if you do not forgive here on earth, they will not be forgiven in heaven”. This is an incredible power that Jesus give to His Church, to bind things in heaven by what they do on earth.
By confessing our sins to a priest we have the assurance that our sins are forgiven in heaven, this assurance comes from the words of Jesus found in Sacred Scripture. Some people say that they would much rather confess to God directly, and I'm not surprised. It is much easier to do it this way, because it does not cost us as much. But we do not have any assurance in scripture that when we confess to God directly our sins are forgiven. Actually, Jesus seems to say the opposite - if our sins are not forgiven by the apostles here on earth then they are not forgiven in heaven.
The church invites all Catholics to confess their sins in the Sacrament of Confession regularly, because only through this sacrament of God's mercy can we have the assurance that our sins have been forgiven in heaven. Even though we only have to confess grave sins, it is good for us to make confession a regular part of our spiritual life. The Church recommends a monthly confession to those who truly want to grow in their life of faith.
One of the best ways for us to prepare for the sacrament of confession is to make a good examination of conscience, by looking at God's commandments and reflecting on how we have lived them. You can find an examination of conscience based on the 10 commandments in most churches, or by searching for it on
line. By following the commandments of God we express
our love for Him, who reminds us that “if you love me you will keep my commandments”. Confessing that we have not kept God's commandments and resolving to keep them in the future is our way of renewing our desire to Love God.
It is no coincidence that Jesus gave us an opportunity to confess our sins through this sacrament of God's mercy. It shows that Christ truly desires for us to grow in union with God by rejecting that which keeps us from Him.