A History of Spiritual Abuse

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. A prayer of a righteous person, when it is brought about, can accomplish much.  James 5:16  NASB

Confess – to one another– Was James the first Twelve-Step sponsor?  It certainly seems as if he exhorts the assembly to reveal sins to each other.  That doesn’t happen very often in the Church these days, perhaps because we know it’s not a safe place for public exposure.  For real confession, we seek other avenues.  But what James wrote became a mantra of the Roman Catholic Church and the exclusive spiritual territory of the priest.  The confessional was birthed here, with unexpected devastating consequences.  Confession might be good for the soul, but it was disastrous for society.

Michel Foucault writes about the influence of the confessional as a spiritual requirement:

. . . the confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctor, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else, the things people write books about. One confesses–or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body. Since the Middle Ages, torture has accompanied it like a shadow, and supported it when it could go no further: the dark twins. The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.[1]

The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply in­ grained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, “demands” only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down, and it can finally be articulated only at the price of a kind of liberation.[2]

What Foucault describes is the transition of confession from a private spiritual experience to a public methodology for acquiring truth.  One immediately thinks of the Inquisition which viewed torture as a method of extracting “true” confession.  While the Inquisition has faded into the pages of the history books, the assumption that real confession involves pain is still with us.  In fact, if we encounter someone who confesses too easily, we automatically assume he is sill hiding something.  Confession must be difficult!  If it’s not, it’s suspect.

Of course, as Foucault points out, confession moved from an interaction with the priest to a declaration of one’s deepest secrets to doctors, teachers, Twelve-Step participants, psychologists, etc.  Western man certainly has become a confessing animal.

But is this really what James advocates?  Is it even a biblical idea?

The Greek term James uses is exomologéō.  Notice it is constructed from other Greek terms.  Ex (ek) means “from” or “out of.”  The remaining word is also a construction, one-part hŏmŏu, the other lŏgŏs, together meaning “to assent to a word or words,” that is, “to give agreement.”  The concept is simple: I say something from myself that is in agreement.  Agreement with what?  First, agreement with me, the speaker.  What I say reflects who I really am.  Second, in agreement with my community.  What I say finds relevance, and perhaps similarity, with others close to me.  In other words, I speak a personal and communal truth.

So far this sounds very much like Foucault’s description.  But now we notice an important difference.  James’ instruction is to the members of a particular community—a community governed by the commandments of the Torah.  Confession isn’t for everyone.  Confession might be needed for the confessor, but it isn’t necessarily for anyone else’s ears.  It’s not intended for anyone who is not already exhibiting behavior guided by Torah.  It’s not for teachers, priests, pastors, psychologists, therapists, counselors, or even close friends who are not safely in Torah.  Why?  Because Torah protects.  It protects us from identity abuse.  It protects us from slander.  It protects us from gossip.  It provides mutual responsibility.  Unfortunately, you and I have become victims of the Western confessing animal syndrome because the West has abandoned Torah.  Confession is no longer safe.

Does that mean I don’t tell my therapist my secret sins?  No, it doesn’t.  I seek counsel because I have to have someone to talk to about those things I hold in secret.  I need to have a voice somewhere.  But this is a substitute for the optimal.  What I really need is a safe Torah community where I am known and where I know others as they are.  Rare indeed in our world.  Perhaps Paul was right.  Now I see myself dimly because I am afraid to reveal all of me to a broken world for fear of further damage.  My hope is that one day that will change.  When the Kingdom finally arrives, confessing animals will no longer be needed.

Topical Index: confession, exomologéō, Michel Foucault, James 5:16

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1: An Introduction, p. 59.

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1: An Introduction, p. 59.

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Richard Bridgan

Confession seeks to confirm an image of self set against some backdrop of cognizance and self-awareness. If that backdrop is the frame of reality—God, Scripture, the people of God—confession is helpful and can proceed to right action. If not, ultimately it can only proceed to confirm one’s own choice. Thus, the vital significance of James’ admonition is made clear.

Gayle Johnson

“When the Kingdom finally arrives, confessing animals will no longer be needed.”

What an unusual picture for us today. Imagine that we were still confessing to a priest, who was responsible for delivering those sins (confessions) onto an animal, and that the animal was then sent away, never to be seen again. How did James perceive such a change in the instructions for a community of people who confess their sins to one another and pray for one another, and they are healed?

When I think about some of the changes in how they moved forward expressing their faith in the Messiah, I’m inspired.