By The Very Reverend Victor Potapov
Before confession, each person must attempt to recall all of his sins, voluntary and involuntary, must attentively go over his life in order, to the extent possible, to recall all of his sins, not only those committed since his last confession, but also those past sins which through forgetfulness have not been confessed. Then, with compunction and with a contrite heart, approach the Cross and the Gospel, and begin to confess your sins.
1. Confess your sins honestly, remembering that you are disclosing them not to a man but to God Himself, Who already knows your sins, but wishes you to admit to them. There is no reason to feel shame before your spiritual father. He is a person just like you. Because he knows human weakness and man’s propensity to sin he cannot be your judge. Are you embarrassed before your spiritual father because you are afraid to lose his good opinion of you? To the contrary, your spiritual father will love you all the more, seeing your sincere confession. Moreover, if you are ashamed to disclose your sins to a single spiritual father, then how will you be able to bear the shame if you have not cleansed yourself of your sins through true confession, and those sins are laid open before God Himself, before the angels and before everyone, acquaintance and stranger alike?
2. Confess all of your sins in full, each sin separately. St. John Chrysostom states, "One must not only say: I have sinned, or I am a sinner, but one must declare each form of sin." I.e., one must list each sin. St. Basil the Great states, "Revelation of sins is subject to the same law as the relating of physical ills…" The sinner is spiritually ill, and the spiritual father is a physician or healer. It follows that you must confess or relate your sins to your spiritual father in the same way that a physically ill person relates his symptoms to a physician, thereby hoping to be healed.
3. Do not mention others during confession. Do not complain about anyone, for what kind of confession would that be? Instead of confession, it would be a condemnation, and thus, another sin.
4. In confession, do not attempt to justify yourself in any way, blaming weakness, habit, etc. The more you justify yourself during confession, the less you will be justified by God, while the more you denounce, condemn and accuse yourself, the more you will be justified by God.
5. When questioned by your spiritual father, do not say "I do not remember, perhaps I am not guilty of that." God directed us to always be mindful of our sins. In order not to justify ourselves by forgetfulness, we must confess as often as possible. Those who out of carelessness confess infrequently, and as a result forget some of their sins, are themselves to blame, and therefore cannot hope to be absolved of the sins not confessed. Thus it is imperative that we strive to remember all of our sins. If someone is in our debt, we are sure to keep it in mind. Yet we forget our own debt before God! Does this not betray on our part a lack of concern for our soul?
6. Unless asked by the spiritual father, do not talk about sins you have not committed, or about what you have not done. That is to say, do not emulate the Pharisee in the Gospel, who only praised himself, and did not confess his sins; thereby he only caused his condemnation to be greater.
7. We must confess with sorrow and a contrite heart the sins by which we have grieved our Lord God. It is not good that many relate their sins matter-of-factly, without any remorse. They speak as if engaged in some casual conversation. Even worse, some allow themselves to laugh during confession. These are all signs of a lack of repentance. By confessing in this manner, we are not cleansed of sins, but only increase them.
8. Finally, confess your sins with faith in Jesus Christ and with hope in His mercy. Only with faith and hope in Jesus Christ can we receive forgiveness of sins. Without faith, we can in no wise be forgiven. Note the example of Judas the betrayer.
This, then is how we must confess in order to receive from our Lord God remission of sins. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness…." (1 John 1:9)
Very Reverend Victor Potapov is the rector of St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington DC.