We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.
Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.
The great medieval Torah scholar Maimonides cited Numbers 5:6–7 as the source of the commandment to confess our sins.
Tell the people of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any kind of sin against another person and thus breaks faith with ADONAI he incurs guilt. He must confess the sin which he has committed . . .’
Then Maimonides goes on to answer the question, “What is the confession?”
The sinner says, “Pray, O God, I have sinned, I have done iniquitously, trespassed before you and done such and such things; indeed, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions, and I will never return and do this act again.” (cited in Days of Awe by SY Agnon)
Another sage adds,
Just as a sacrifice without repentance is called an abomination—’The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination’ (Prov. 21:27)—so a confession without the heart’s agreeing not to sin again is called an abomination. (Days of Awe)
If we really intend not to repeat a certain sin or misdeed, we’ll be ready to confess it not just to God, but also to another human being. Yes, ultimately we’re accountable only to God, but it’s easy to get super-pious and use that fact to hide or deny our faults. So, James tells us, “openly acknowledge your sins to one another, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Ironically, one of the best definitions of this open acknowledgement comes from a non-religious source, the Twelve Steps of AA: “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
A searching and fearless moral inventory sounds tough enough, but to actually admit what you come up with in the inventory is tougher still, especially when you have to admit it to another human being. Putting the things you need to confess into writing helps make them more specific and harder to forget. Then you can bring your list to another person. This practice is doubtless helping lots of recovering alcoholics and addicts these days, but I suspect that it’s a lot rarer among religious folk, even though it’s essential to spiritual and moral development.
So, as we enter the final period of spiritual preparation leading up to the Days of Awe, let’s be ready to speak the truth about our own condition to another human being. It might prove to be, as James writes, the key to our healing.