As I have studied the meaning and importance of confession, I have identified several fundamental ideas. First, from the beginning of recorded religious history, God has required His people not only to confess Him as their God, acknowledging His wisdom and power, but also to confess to Him. Second, our confessions of God help us overcome the pride that often is the reason we will not, or cannot, make our confessions to Him. Third, our confessions of God and our confessions to God facilitate our learning about Him and ultimately bring us to Him.
Confession involves recognizing God’s power. In our confession of God, we recognize and accept that He is, that He is greater than we are, and that His position is preeminent. We understand our inferior position before Him. So taught King Benjamin: “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9).
It is clear from the scriptures that God expects us to understand this fundamental truth:
“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3).
That was His unmistakable declaration to Moses. This first of the commandments is significantly more than a simple confession of the lips or a declaration of belief.
We have a pattern of a complete and unreserved confession of God in Peter’s response to the Savior’s question: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” It became immediately clear that it is not sufficient to generalize the answer to this question. The real question and its answer were very specific: “But whom say ye that I am?” Peter’s reply is the confession we all must make: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (see Matt. 16:13–16).
This unqualified confession of God is, or at some point will be, part of the religious experience of every individual.
“Yea, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess before him. Yea, even at the last day, when all men shall stand to be judged of him, then shall they confess that he is God; then shall they confess, who live without God in the world, that the judgment of an everlasting punishment is just upon them; and they shall quake, and tremble, and shrink beneath the glance of his all-searching eye” (Mosiah 27:31; emphasis added).
The personal recognition and confession of God’s preeminent position is the beginning point of religious experience. It encompasses all else. Practically every interview in the Church from baptism to priesthood advancement begins with this confession. It is likewise reflected in the first article of faith: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” [A of F 1:1] All else proceeds from this first and fundamental truth. Without this first confession of God, no confession to Him can have full meaning.
Confession involves conquering pride. If for some reason I choose not to confess God and His preeminent position, then I will put something else in that position. That something else in all probability will be myself or some extension of myself that I create with my mind or hands. The Lord wisely forewarned us of this dangerous tendency to worship the creation of our own hands. In the second of the Ten Commandments, He said:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4–5).
If we are successful at replacing God with ourselves, then all is permitted to us. We become judge and jury. It is we who decide what is right and wrong, if anything at all. Korihor taught that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17).
If God is not, then I am God. Here is the ultimate expression of pride—to take the place of God. It is an old story. Isaiah taught this principle in these words:
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
“For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
“I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
“Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
“They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms;
“That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?” (Isa. 14:12–17).
Confession involves learning from God. Confession of God is the first step in our divine education. David writes, “The fear [recognition] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).
We see an example of this humility in Moses, for he “beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created” and said, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:8–10). Then after his confrontation with the adversary, Moses said, “I will not cease to call upon God, I have other things to inquire of him” (Moses 1:18). Moses knew at this point that God could reveal anything He chose to reveal. Moses had confidence in receiving additional knowledge because of previous experience.
King Benjamin explains the importance of recognizing God’s greatness before we can learn more. If we “retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and [our] own nothingness” (Mosiah 4:11), we shall “grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created [us], or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4:12).
The necessity of confession of God as a prerequisite to education and revelation is obvious throughout the scriptures. “Believest thou that there is a God?” was Ammon’s question to Lamoni (Alma 18:24). It was only after a positive response that Ammon taught Lamoni about the Creation, the fall of man, the holy scriptures, the history of Lehi, and the plan of redemption.
The pattern is repeated in Aaron’s exchange with Lamoni’s father. “Believest thou that there is a God?” he asked (Alma 22:7). Only then did Aaron expound the scriptures from the creation of Adam, the fall of man, and the plan of redemption through Christ.
Returning to Peter’s confession of Christ, we note that “from that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go into Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matt. 16:21). After this fundamental confession, the Transfiguration took place (see Matt. 17). I like the first concept of the first missionary discussion, which teaches the necessity of recognizing God as the basis of further learning.
Confessing to God
Understanding these three introductory principles helps us to understand what confession means and how it benefits us.
The scriptures teach us exactly what we should confess to God. We are told that we are to confess our sins (see D&C 19:20), our iniquity (see Lev. 26:40), our transgressions (see Ps. 32:5), and our faults (see James 5:16).
I have asked myself, Why would the Lord require confession of us? He already knows everything to begin with. If He knows what we need before we ask, He must also know of our sins, iniquities, transgressions, and faults. Why would He require us to confess them to Him? I realize that there is probably no better answer to the question than to say simply that we confess because He requires it of us. However, in pondering this particular topic, I have come to the conclusion that there are some very substantial and practical reasons why He requires us to confess.
Confession helps us take responsibility. Confession is a statement of personal responsibility for our actions. The battle over responsibility is a familiar one, and it reaches back far into the past even before our mortal existence. To Moses, the Lord revealed that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). What is the agency of man but the right to make choices within a framework of opposition and the assumption of responsibility for those choices? The Lord has made it clear that through the Atonement of Christ, “the children of men … have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26).
Our accountability to God, as our Father and Creator, is one of the most basic lessons of the gospel. Likewise, the assumption of responsibility for our own actions is one of the strongest indicators that we are becoming more like Him. We cannot develop ourselves spiritually by blaming another for our condition. To do so would be to deny the Atonement of Christ, which purchased our spiritual independence from the effects of Adam’s transgression. In this light, it is only through the Atonement that we can truly stand accountable before God for our actions, thoughts, and deeds. Were it not for the Atonement, as Jacob teaches, “the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration” (2 Ne. 9:7).
It is a frightful thought to be in a condition in which there is no choice and no personal accountability. Yet there are many who find this alternative attractive. For me, one of the most obvious characteristics of an anti-Christ is the teaching that one need not be accountable for his sins. Nehor falsely testified that “all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4).
Korihor taught basically the same doctrine, saying, “When a man was dead, that was the end thereof” (Alma 30:18). Nephi warned us in these prophetic words: “There shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Ne. 28:8).
Indeed, if there is no God, how can there be ultimate accountability to Him, either in a time to come or here in mortality?
As in the spiritual realm, so in the temporal. How often do we hear that society is to blame for the wrongdoings of its members, as if this brings absolution and freedom from the consequences? There comes a time in our lives, temporally and spiritually, when we must assume responsibility for our choices. In a spiritual sense, confession is our statement to God that we are responsible and accountable to Him for our actions. Confession is, and must be, more than an admission. President J. Reuben Clark Jr. (1871–1961), a member of the First Presidency, stated: “I would like to point out that to me there is a great difference between confession and admission, after transgression is proved. I doubt much the efficacy of an admission as a confession” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1950, 166).
A true, honest, and willing confession brings us closer to God. President Stephen L Richards (1879–1959), a counselor in the First Presidency, taught: “Why is confession essential? First, because the Lord commanded it, and secondly, because the offender cannot live and participate in the Kingdom of God, to receive the blessings therefrom with a lie in his heart” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1954, 12).
Confession helps us to be healed. Confession is the beginning of the healing process. Sin destroys our unity with God, for as He says, He “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). I love to hear those coming back into the Church after having lost their membership say that they feel whole again.
As we know, healing or becoming whole is centered in Christ, in His Atonement, and in His suffering for us. Isaiah teaches us that He “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5; see also Mosiah 14:5).
Our entrance to the restorative benefits of the Atonement is our faith in Christ. Faith leads to repentance. Repentance requires confession. I cannot believe that Christ’s statement “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Luke 8:48) referred only to the healing of the body. As we desire full and complete healing, so must our confession be full and complete to the Lord. It must also be completely voluntary. There can be no coercion in the confession that leads to healing.
Confession eliminates adversarial feelings. Confession eliminates every adversarial relationship in our reconciliation with God. Bishops and stake presidents are set apart as common judges in Israel. It seems to me that some members of the Church perceive them to be like a trial judge in a criminal proceeding who listens to advocates for and against a person and then must make a judgment as to who is telling the truth and who is not telling the truth. This type of adversarial relationship has no place in the gospel. The work of a common judge operates best when there is true, open, complete, and voluntary confession of wrongdoing. The proper role of a common judge is the application of appropriate discipline in order to bring forgiveness and the resultant healing and wholeness to the individual or individuals concerned.
Healing cannot take place in an adversarial relationship. I have noted in successful interviews for restoration of priesthood and temple blessings that there is an absolute absence of bitterness or anger over the discipline imposed because of transgressions. Quite the contrary: these brethren and sisters have come to the interview with a sense of wholeness that they had not enjoyed since their transgression.
Contrast this with others who will not or do not confess their transgressions. Their lives are filled with bitterness, anger, impatience, and harsh judgment toward others and with fierce justification of their actions. In the absence of true and full confession, we witness the presence of pride and a lack of responsibility for their own actions.
Confession opens the way to forgiveness and compassion. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught that “since there is no repentance and no forgiveness without confession, all sins must be confessed to the Lord, and serious sins must be confessed to the bishop” (Counsel for Stake Presidencies, videocassette). Too many Church members fear that confession to the bishop or stake president will bring harsh judgment upon them. This indeed might be the case in some instances, but confession is not the key to judgment; confession is the key to compassion.
Not long ago, my brother was ordained a bishop. He asked me whether I had any advice for him. I didn’t really have any advice or counsel for him, but I did tell him the Lord would put him in a position to feel compassion for His children. I told my brother he would sit on the stand and know there were difficulties among the members of his ward, but the Lord would fill his heart and mind with compassion for their sufferings and for their difficulties. There is no feeling of judgment at that moment. I learn this from the Lord’s visit with the Nephites. He had taught them and requested that they return to their homes to ponder His words. We read in 3 Nephi 17:5–6 [3 Ne. 17:5–6]:
“When Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.
“And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.”
Their faith was sufficient for Him to heal them. All this compassion was expressed despite their difficulties. We read further, “Jesus groaned within himself, and said: Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel” (3 Ne. 17:14). I suppose the Lord could have expressed His judgments and warning to the people in harsh and unmistakable terms, but just the opposite occurred. His knowledge of what lay before them created in Him deep compassion. When we bring difficult problems to our bishops or to our stake presidents, there may be judgment, but with that judgment comes an incredible amount of compassion. In the compassion of our leaders, we find the confidence and hope that are necessary for us to overcome our problems.
Now, when we speak of confession there is always a question of what we need to confess, how we should confess it, and to whom? President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), then an Assistant to the Twelve, provided this clear explanation:
“I would assume that we are to confess all our sins unto the Lord. For transgressions which are wholly personal, affecting none but ourselves and the Lord, such confession would seem to be sufficient.
“For misconduct which offends another, confession should also be made to the offended one, and his forgiveness sought.
“Finally, where one’s transgressions are of such a nature as would, unrepented of, put in jeopardy his right to membership or fellowship in the Church of Jesus Christ, full and effective confession would, in my judgment, require confession by the repentant sinner to his bishop or other proper presiding Church officer” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1955, 125).
The words “I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” contain the true spirit of confession. What would happen in the Church if, when appropriate, a husband or a wife would come to his or her spouse or parents to their children and say meaningfully: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I didn’t mean to say what I said. Will you forgive me?” If we can do this with each other, then we begin to understand the power of confession as it relates to the principles of the gospel.
The rewards of confession are many. I have pointed to only a few of them. Confession helps us to assume responsibility and accountability for our actions. Confession initiates the healing process. Confession removes adversarial relationships. And confession is the key to forgiveness and compassion, which all of us desire from our Father in Heaven and from those who surround us.