The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
A friend of mine recently expressed a concern about the idea of living in a confessing way. “What of the person,” he asked, “who keeps repeating the same sinful behaviors but who nevertheless is very open about what he is doing and keeps confessing his challenges and shortcomings? He is confessing his faults, I suppose, but that hardly seems sufficient.”
This is an important insight. Confession alone is not sufficient, as it comes with a companion requirement. “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins,” the Lord declared, “behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” With the Lord’s test in mind, let’s consider my friend’s implied question: What of the man who keeps confessing but also keeps repeating his sins? Has he repented? The scripture says no. We are to confess our sins and shortcomings and to make acceptable efforts before the Lord to forsake them. Mortality and its attendant temptations may form part of our story but can never be an excuse.
What about the other case, however—the case of one who successfully forsakes his sins but never confesses them? Has he repented? Interestingly, the scripture again says no. There is no true repentance without willingness to confess that sin, just as there is no true repentance without forsaking that sin. Both are necessary; neither, alone, is sufficient. But why is this the case? Why isn’t simply forsaking enough?
In order to address this question, I invite you to consider a story. Years ago, when I was in high school, I had the role during a school assembly of introducing the various dress-up days that we would be having over the next week, which was Homecoming Week. We had planned Occupation Day, Sports Day, Nerd Day, School Colors Day, and Punk Rock Day. I was trying to pump up the crowd for all of the week’s events, and in particular was trying to get people to want to show their school spirit by dressing up for the various days.
I described each of the first four themes and then came to our theme for Punk Rock Day. These were the days of DEVO and the emergence of punk rock from the underground. We had a relatively small but vocal group of students who were punk rock enthusiasts. One of the leaders among them was a fellow young man in my ward—a great guy and one of only a handful of LDS students in the school. “So on Punk Rock Day,” I bellowed into the microphone, “those of you who are into punk rock, fantastic. Come to school dressed to the hilt—show us your enthusiasm. As for everyone else, get into it and come and show the punk rockers how stupid you think they really look!” The gymnasium erupted. I had succeeded in stoking the fire. But then I saw my friend from my ward. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
As I sat down, I knew that I had done something terrible. I had ignited the passions of the majority against an easily targeted and essentially powerless minority. I ached. I felt bad for my friend and for his friends. I was embarrassed for myself. As students were filing out to their classes after the assembly, I hurried quietly out of the gym, the commotion around me barely audible as I was feeling overwhelmed by my own regrets.
What could I do? The deed was done. I had hurt my friend and had disregarded the feelings of some of my classmates. I wished that I could go back in time. Given the impossibility of that, I yearned for a hole to climb into where I could dream the whole scenario away. I felt trapped in my mistake.
My shame alone would have kept me from making the same kind of mistake again—which is to say that one can forsake a sin and never repeat it for selfish as well as for loving reasons. The act of forsaking a sin, by itself, does not cure what is sometimes called “the mother of all sins”—pride—the sin that gives birth to all other sins. Whether I forsake a sin for meek or for prideful reasons, it is only confession that assaults my sinfulness head-on. Pride cannot allow me to say, or to reveal, what the Spirit beckons me to confess. To finally say it—fully and without any vain withholding—is to render pride powerless and the cleansing Spirit of the Lord victorious.
This is why, when we finally confess, we are surprised to discover that it was not the painful thing we had imagined, but is instead liberating and joyful. How could we have been so wrong? Because when we imagine confessing, we are thinking about it from the perspective of our pride. And from that vantage point, confession is, indeed, a fatal blow—that is, to the ego. So it seems the hardest thing we could do—unbearable, perhaps even unthinkable. But when we exercise our faith and confess anyway, the pride that was protesting is obliterated. And then we discover the truth: that what seemed heavy and unbearable is the lightest thing under the heavens.
So what does this mean in the case of my public insensitivity toward the punk rock enthusiasts in my school? What kind of confession was needful? At least three: confession to God, apologies to anyone who had been harmed by what I had done, and a willingness to speak of what I had done and the challenges I had created whenever it would be appropriate and helpful to do so. Reticence to do any of these would be evidence of an ego that still hadn’t let go—my need to be seen as without sin being itself a manifestation of sin.
I knew I had done wrong by God and by those I had disparaged. I needed to
come clean. So I went into the principal’s office and requested to use the school intercom system to make a public apology during the class period immediately following the assembly. I don’t remember what I said, but it was a heartfelt attempt to undo the harm I had done. I walked out of that office a different and lighter person, a confessing heart having been added to my soul’s commitment to forsake that kind of insensitivity in the future.
My public apology did one additional thing in this case—something else that is essential to the confessional life. The offense was young enough that the public confession ended up being an act of restitution as well. But it might not have turned out that way. My comments could have created such a terrible burden that one meager apology couldn’t have begun to heal the wounds. Others might have still struggled even if I no longer struggled myself. As we will explore in the next chapter, in such cases my work is not finished. We repent of our sins in part by continuing to help those who might still be burdened by them.