Perhaps the most accurate definition of ``Repentance'' in the Webster's dictionary is ``to change one's mind'' -- to the better, of course!
Repentance is one the most basic corners of Christianity. Our Lord Jesus Christ insisted that those who were cured from their diseases or physical disabilities not go back to their old ways of sins and wrong doing: "See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." [Matthew 8:4]
The first step in order to change one's own mind is to admit that there is a need for a change. Admitting our wrongdoings and feeling sorry for having committed them is the first part of Confession.
The second step in order to change one's own mind is to realize the kind of change needed. If we are to change our minds, we better have an alternative. In order to find a ``way out'' of our ``sinful mindset'', we need advice. That's also achievable through confession.
The third step in order to change one's own mind is to ``act''. Now that we know where we are and where we want to go, we must take the necessary steps to induce the change. Such steps must be prescribed to us through confession.
Repentance is a ``process'' of recovery. Like any process it has to be monitored to ensure that progress is made. Progress does not have to be – and most of the time cannot be -- ``immediate'' or ``sudden''.. Who is to monitor such a process?
Origins of Confession
The sacrament of confession was known and practiced from the very first days of Christianity. Even St. John the Baptist (the messenger who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord) was asking people to repent and confess: ``Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him & were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins'' [Matthew 3:5].
During the early days of Christianity, the book of acts tells us about the many Christians who ``had believed'' & ``came confessing & telling their deeds'' [Acts: 19:18]. So in the early church confession was made publicly.
Repentance and Communion
The crucial role of repentance as a precondition for forgiveness was emphasized by our Lord Jesus Christ in His Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, & there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, & then come and offer your gift." [Matthew 5:23-24].
St. Paul in his writings about Communion emphasizes the importance of repentance & confession, saying: ``But let a man examine himself, & so let him eat of that bread & drink of that cup. For he who eats & drinks in an unworthy manner eats & drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body'' [1-Corinthians 11:28-29]. Later in that same chapter, St. Paul emphasizes that one has to examine closely one's own self: ``For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.'' [1-Corinthians 11:21]. Similarly, St. John in his first letter writes: ``If we confess our sins, He is faithful & just to forgive us our sins & to cleanse us from all unrighteousness'' [1-John 1:9].''
The three elements of confession
1. Between ``Me and myself''
We must be convinced that we need to repent. It doesn't help if we confess ``just to confess'', or because ``this is what everybody does'', or because ``we have to do it''... We confess because we ``need'' to confess. Let's listen to the Prodigal Son: ``But when he came to himself, he said, How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough & to spare, & I perish with hunger! I will arise & go to my father, & will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven & before you & I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'' [Luke 15:17-18]
2. Between ``Me and the priest''
We must speak out. The priest is there to listen, to give advice & encouragement, & to monitor our progress in repentance. When you sit down next to your father of confession, forget your relationship to him & talk to him as if you were talking to God. Confess all kinds of sins: sins of deed, thought, or feelings. Be honest in your confession and remember you are really confessing to God through the priest. God knows all that goes into your mind! Confess also about your negligence. Listen carefully to the advice of your father of confession. If you don't feel comfortable, say so!
3. Between ``Me and God''
After confession, you stand up & receive the absolution from God through the words of the priest. The role of the priest in granting absolution can be traced to the words of Jesus Christ when talking to his disciples ``And whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, & whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.'' [Matthew 16:19 & 18:18]. Be convinced that God has forgiven you & remember his words: ``Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.'' [John 8:11]. God is waiting for one step from us & He does the rest. He has already paid the price on the cross, but we still have to ask for forgiveness. Look at how the story of the Prodigal Son is concluded: ``But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe & put it on him, & put a ring on his hand & sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here & kill it, & let us eat & be merry; for this my son was dead & is alive again; he was lost & is found.' And they began to be merry. [Luke 15:22-24].
Other benefits of confession
Confession satisfies a psychological need for every human being. As good & honest people we often need to ``relieve our conscience''.. People outside the church nurture such a need by seeking help from peers in what is called ``peer support groups''. The need might even be more serious & professional help from psychiatrists is inevitable. Our church as a community, as a family that cares for its children, provides us with a first line of defense. Confessing our sins to a father of confession should not be more difficult from speaking about our wrongdoing to a psychiatrists.. Think about the father of confession as a mentor, as a friend of the family, & not only as representing the ``authority of the church''.. This is why it is a good idea for a whole family to have the same father of confession.
In our Coptic Orthodox church, the father of confession has much more leverage than what we think!