Friday, August 05, 2011
The Gentle Art of Eliciting Confession
A question of pastoral practice. How does one, in a counseling situation, bring someone who is caught in a sin, to confess it as such? Especially for your average church-goer who isn't accustomed to actually confessing his sins before a pastor in person (apart from corporate confession).
I believe it usually takes a gentle approach. It takes a keen sense of where the person is "at" in regard to his sin. Is he just fine with it? Does he even know it's a sin? Would he defend it? I believe this is what Luther meant when he said anyone who could rightly divide Law and Gospel deserved a doctorate in theology. He wasn't talking about in the sermon - but in dealing with the individual sinner.
Often times, however, there's a situation in which the sinner knows his sin, but doesn't know how to put it into words. This is where the pastor can help.
Start with the commandments. Explain, in humility, how all have sinned. But also, gently, show what commandment is being, or has been broken. Body language will often clue you in to the sinner's response to the law. Often times when they don't say anything, you can still see they are stricken. Experience will help the pastor to discern here.
It can be helpful to give them the words. "When I have sinned, I find it helpful to confess, by saying..." or "Would you say that you feel such-and-such?" Acknowledge the awkwardness of this kind of conversation. Be kind. Imagine yourself in the penitent's shoes.
In the end, I don't think we need to burden people by dragging out an actual, verbal, specific confession from THEIR lips (though it would be preferable). I think it's enough to ascertain that they agree with your assessment of it:
"This is how I see it. You have committed a sin. You are here today, having this awkward conversation with your pastor about it. But you seem sorry for it, and you want to do better. Right?" This sort of thing. Basically you're only asking them for an "amen". And if you can, give them the words of the rite of private confession and absolution. But even that won't happen all the time.
After all, the liturgy gives us the words to speak - when we speak our corporate confession. When we confess our faith. We are saying, "amen".
What a blessing it is to pronounce that absolution, "I forgive you your sins..." But an even greater blessing for the penitent to hear. May we help them to receive those words of absolution by helping them to articulate, to verbalize, even if only a little... to confess that sin.