“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
“Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Much has been said about the need for confession of sins in the Church and the need to be reconciled to God. There is a tendency to think of confession in some type of legalistic way - where one recounts their trespasses and gets the due punishment and forgiveness and goes on their way. There has also been a tendency to see confession as a type of yearly obligation in order to have a "pass" to come to communion. Unfortunately, these views of confession have done great damage to this "sacrament of reconciliation." So, what is confession exactly? Is it a legal transaction that takes place in a "courtroom?" For the Orthodox Church, confession has always been understood more in terms of hospital language, rather than a courtroom.
It is important, first of all, to remember that sin is not the breaking of a moral code of conduct. Sin means literally, to "miss the mark," like an arrow that is shot and misses its intended target. The target here is man being what he was intended to be - created in the image and likeness of God. When we sin, we cease to be fully what God intended for us to be. It is we who break communion with God through our sin. We all sin and "fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). There is a story from the desert fathers about a disciple who came to a certain elder one day and said, "Father, I have fallen!" The elder said to him, "Get up!" Again and again he came to the elder and said, "I have fallen!" And invariably the elder responded, "Get up!" The disciple then asked, "When will I have to stop getting up?" "Not until the day you give your soul up to God," the elder replied. Thus it is not a matter of if we sin, but when we sin, what are we going to do about it? In the First Epistle of St. John we read, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." So the first step in confession is the acknowledgment of our sins. In hospital language, sin is a parasitic sickness or wound that needs to be cleaned out. Before it can be healed, one must acknowledge that there is a wound in the first place. Christ, as the Divine Physician, came to heal the sick. Christ Himself said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick ... For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."
Confession is primarily naming and taking responsibility of the illness in order for the spiritual hospital (the Church) to prescribe a remedy to aid in the healing process. This is just one of many metaphors that the Fathers of the Church have used to speak of confession and reconciliation. In the charge that the priest says prior to the confession of sins we find a strong injunction about not hiding anything, "lest you depart from the Physician unhealed." Confession of sins is the rooting out of the infected wound. It is surgery that prepares the wound for the healing balm of penance and Holy Communion. This medicine of the Church comes from the same root as pharmacy (pharmakon). This medicine is given so that healing would continue to take place within the wound and not become infected again. This is how a penance is understood. It is not a punishment or an earning of forgiveness, but a prescription from the doctor for the sake of healing and restoration. Fr. John Romanides, a well-known 20th century Orthodox theologian says, "Having faith in Christ without undergoing healing in Christ is not faith at all. Here is the same contradiction that we find when a sick person who has great confidence in his doctor never carries out the treatment which he recommends."
It is impossible to be saved on our own. It is only when we are able to admit our complete powerlessness over sin that we can be open to Christ's healing in our lives. We need the Church in order to root out this sickness. Think of how silly it would be for a surgeon to operate on himself. A Father of the Church has said, "he who sees his owns sins is a greater miracle than raising the dead." This means that it is a miracle when we are truly willing to see ourself as we really are, to see the infection, and be willing to submit to the "knife" of the Church for the sake of true healing and restoration. Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, "It is when man is challenged with the real 'contents' of the Gospel, with its divine depth and wisdom, beauty and all-embracing meaning, that he becomes 'capable of repentance,' for the true repentance is precisely the discovery by man of the abyss that separates him from God and from his real offer to man. It is when the man sees the bridal chamber adorned that he realizes he has no wedding garment for entering it." This recalls the story from Matthew 25 about the virgins who had prepared their lamps with oil for the meeting of the bridegroom and how he came at midnight to claim those who were prepared. The bridegroom is Christ and the bridal chamber is the Kingdom of Heaven. This is what we sing during Holy Week on the first three days at Bridegroom Matins, "Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me." Let us be ever open to a vision of Christ who desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of Thy Truth. He has given us His Holy Church as a place for recovery - that intensive care unit for our sinful souls where we are given medicine to aid us in our healing.
Note: See also "Preparation for Holy Communion" by Fr. Thomas Hopko, an article from Orthodox Education Day Book October 7, 2000