Where's the forgiveness?

confession 01Reporter Jennifer Lebovich had a very interesting article in Sunday's Miami Herald. She looked at the popularity of online confession websites where people anonymously post their sins or read about the sins of others. She looks at I've Screwed Up, GroupHug, My Secret, Daily Confession and the now-inactive Not Proud. Sexual sins are the most frequently confessed, with theft, lying and alcohol abuse following, Lebovich reports. Lebovich begins with one of the confessions she read about a woman who regrets an abortion she had 18 years ago:

Finally ready to confess, she turned not to a minister, but to her computer.

"I am sorry God for not keeping that baby," her anonymous confession reads. "I had an abortion and had kept that secret for over 18 years. I feel so ashamed. Please forgive me!"

The confession appears at ivescrewedup.com, a website launched by the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City. It's one of a growing number of such sites across the country -- some secular and others church-sponsored -- that offer a place to spill out ugly secrets or just make peccadilloes public.

"I think it helps people understand . . . that we're not here to point out people's screw-ups, that we're here to help them," said lead Pastor Troy Gramling, whose nondenominational church launched the site on Easter weekend. "The church is made of skin and flesh and people that have made mistakes."

The 6,500-member church created the site as part of a 10-week series on the ways people mess up -- in marriage, parenting, finances and more. The goal of the series is to help congregants learn from their mistakes.

As I said, very interesting and well-written story. That last line -- and many others from the story -- gave me pause, however. In churches like mine where private confession is taken very seriously, the reason why people do it before a priest is not primarily to "learn from their mistakes" or confide in someone therapeutically or reveal some past transgression. The primary purpose is to be absolved. When I confess my sins to my pastor, he forgives me in Christ's stead. Other churches have variations on this, but in the whole "confession and absolution" structure, the emphasis is on forgiveness. As Luther said:

Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul. The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His Word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting.

Now I know that this is an area where many Christians, particularly many Protestants, have a different understanding of the role of the pastor or priest in regard to forgiveness from God. But as I read the story, the question kept popping up for me: Where or how does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In other words, are these online confession sites more like what you might get from a traditional church's confession mechanism or more like what you might get from watching Oprah? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Does the magical internet forgive? Here the reporter approaches the question:

The church has received some criticism, Gruenewald said, from people who think that "we're trying to encourage people to confess to a computer instead of God. We just believe it is a catalyst to have people open up to family and friends and God. I think sometimes it can be misunderstood."

A recent redesign gave readers the option to post prayers or responses to the confessions.

The Catholic Church is among those who reject the idea of confessing online.

Confession is "the opportunity to confess sins to someone ordained as a priest who is a representative of Christ," said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Miami Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

That quote from Agosta is rather weak in terms of how well it conveys beefs the Roman Catholic Church might have with online confession. It's hard to know if that is a reporter error or a missed opportunity on the part of Agosta.

But the article goes on to say that the Web sites make people feel better about their own behavior and moral values. I have no doubt that's true. But that also is a huge dissimilarity to historic Christianity's private confession and absolution. I'm sure I'm not alone among penitents in being absolutely mortified when I speak my sins out loud and have to confess the same things over and over and over again to my pastor. In traditional churches, the practice of private confession and absolution reminds the penitent how sin separates the believer from God and how merciful God is to forgive us -- it isn't supposed to make us feel better about our sin.

This wasn't an article about traditional churches but the comparisons being made -- from the first lines to the last -- were to the practice of private confession and absolution. I wonder if the contrasts between the two aren't more interesting -- particularly how or whether God's mercy is distributed through the online forum vs. the traditional practice. Perhaps some better questioning of online confession's proponents or its detractors is in order.

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