True Confessions

Let not any man publish his own righteousness, for others can see that for him; sooner let him confess his sins, and then he will be forgiven and he will bring forth more fruit. (TPJS 194-195)

Confess your faults to one another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. (James 5:16)

But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and the sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord. (D&C 59:12)

What might happen if we did?

59 comments for “True Confessions

  1. Usually everyone gets red in the face and looks away. At least, that’s my experience. :) However, great post! I’ve always wondered why we’re told now not to confess our sins over the pulpit when the scriptures seem to make it plain that we are supposed to. I think I’m going to start my testimony on the 5th with that JS quote. I want to see the look on the bishopric’s faces!

  2. Pros:

    1. We would not feel the need to project a facade of perfection.

    2. Recent converts and those consumed by spiritual struggles might find at a church a group of genuine Christians with whom they have more in common than they previously suspected.

    3. A significant decrease in anti-depressant prescriptions among the Saints.

    4. Lofty discussions of abstract doctrines would be replaced by practical discussions of how to overcome our common struggles.

    5. We would lose the self-righteousness we obtain by emphasizing our obedience to the word of wisdom.

    6. We would live the doctrine of repentence much more regularly and completely because we\’d have cast aside the veil of secrecy that allows us to remain in unrepented sin..

    7. It would be easy to stay awake in meetings and weekly attendance would triple.


    1. We might find it extremely difficult to sustain our leaders or take the sacrament from openly unclean hands.

    2. We would justify our wrongdoing by comparing it to more severe examples openly confessed by others.

    3. We might get naughty ideas we hadn\’t thought of before.

    4. We would be disobeying the instructions of past leaders who have told us to hide our faults from our bretheren (see BY manual from several years back).

  3. The problem with my ward is that many of the members don’t realize their sins. I think I would have to get up there and confess them for them. I’m enjoying the thought of it.

  4. Guys, thanks for making me laugh and think this morning. annegb, I was hoping you’d show up on this thread.

    I’m actually not suggesting that we all stand up on Fast Sunday and dump our guts all over the pulpit, as far as specifics go. But I am curious as to what might happen if we did (and nwme, you answered that question very well. I think you’re right on all counts.) And I am an advocate of increasing our candor and vulnerability within our Church communities.

    I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with that concept. In my newly converted days I was all for honesty. But then I hit a zeal-and-piety stage in which my main goal was to appear as righteous as possible. That stage lasted a long time. I didn’t snap out of it until a very astute woman I met during Segullah’s origins whacked me several times, reminding me that truth is what transforms ourselves and others. And the greatest truth I can share is the redemption I have experienced and continue to experience. And that truth loses its power if not shared in context, to some extent at least.

    Since then I’ve been committed to finding appropriate ways to be vulnerable in public. I don’t think full-fledged transparency is the answer. Forcing others to look at our most ghastly skeletons can actually be a backwards form of selfishness and manipulation. Esp. if the skeletons are still alive. In other words, sharing past sins is less threatening than sharing present ones.

    BUT. I think there are ways to be more open without making the ultra-private public. Ways that help the speaker and the listeners.

    Here I’ll quote Joan MacDonald, who wrote a fantastic book called _The Holiness of Everyday Life_ way back in 1995 (published by D. Book, believe it or not).

    “I fear it will be a long time before Mormon congregations and communities open up. How do we overcome our fear living in a culture that wears an ‘all is well’ mask? We have to start small, and we can. We can be more open at home, thus making our relationships there more honest and more intimate. We can be more open with our close friends, expressing fears and confiding failures and weaknesses. We might have difficulty being open in testimony meetings but find it easier in priesthood or Relief Society lessons. It might help us if we remember that wearing an ‘all is well’ mask is known as hypocrisy in the scriptures.” (97)


    And here I’ll quote Colleen Harrison, who wrote the LDS 12-step study guide called _He Did Deliver Me From Bondage_.

    “Even though part of our baptismal covenant was ‘to bear one another’s burdens’ and to ‘mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort’ (Mosiah 18:8-9), we hide behind our facades of “fineness” and thus withhold from each other the greatest comfort from the worst burdens–the burdens of our own foolish choices.

    “We must leave this falseness behind. We must come to acknowledge and accept ourselves as ‘mortal man’ and be willing to admit publicly that we are ‘subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind’ (Mosiah 2:10-11).

    “Many of us are petrified of this principle of confession. If we could remember one thing, though, I think we could begin to relax about this step in our journey of cleansing: We actually need to acknowledge and confess the weaknesses _in our character_. The sins we commit are really symptoms of underlying weaknesses, such as a tendency to self-pity, self-will, or self-importance.”

    IMO, this is brilliant. We can stand at the pulpit and confess to being human, without confessing our specific sins. And when the spirit impresses us to do so, we can share details–esp. in private conversations.

    Have you guys had experiences where someone has been more forthright than usual, and it has changed the whole tenor of your church meeting?

  5. I gave a talk recently in which I talked about guilt caused by expectations based on incorrect perceptions of others’ righteousness. I talked, with permission, of those who see my children sitting quietly in Sacrament Meeting but don’t see the battles in our home. I mentioned how hard it is for me to remember to pray each day vocally. My wife and I both have rather prominent callings, so it surprised some people, but it would have surprised more people if I hadn’t shared similar things in private conversations and other group discussions.

    Personally, I don’t think testimony meeting is the proper place for confession – and I don’t like public confession of “serious” sins. Sacrament Meeting talks, SS discussions, PH & RS lessons, HT & VT, PPIs & interviews, personal conversations, etc. all are good places for this type of opening up. I also wish we were more true to our baptismal covenants in this regard, and I mention it fairly often.

  6. We need to share our strengths and our weaknesses. People need to know about the fall and about redemption (hence sharing our weaknesses) but without knowing what goodness looks like they have nothing to strive for. Some incredibly good people have been some of the most profound experiences in my life.

  7. I’ve become increasingly aware of the use of third-person “you” in everyday language, e.g., “when you really think about it, you know you’re not doing the right thing.” It’s generally insincere, inaccurate, impersonal, and it’s usually a common dodge to avoid real responsibility.

    As soon as I change that “you” to the first-person “I,” the statement instantly becomes more powerful, genuine, and extremely personal: “When I really thought about it, I knew I wasn’t doing the right thing.”

    I have used this simple linguistic technique in the last few talks I have given in sacrament meeting, and the results are that my talks are indeed more genuine and personal. And, as one commenter mentioned with Ardis’ Pioneer Day talk, the chapel was quiet. People listened — intently — because they knew they were going to hear something that nobody else could say…because it was me, and I hold the exclusive copyright to my memories and experiences.

    When I talked about home teaching recently, I reported some recent ward statistics that I had wheedled out of our EQ pres (see also But then I did something the congregation wasn’t expecting. I didn’t condemn or challenge. I assigned my own personal meaning to those empty numbers. I opened myself up, and I told them how I had failed a couple of men on my list, and how I was embarrassed for not finding out sooner why these people under my responsibility were not coming to church.

    I was barely able to speak as I relayed how it took one of our sister missionaries (who lived in the same apartment complex as the one man) to inform me that he hadn’t been coming to church because he was having a hard time believing in God. When I finally got around to visiting another man, I discovered he only needed a ride — that’s why he wasn’t coming — he didn’t have a car to get him there.

    When I shared these personal, self-effacing stories, the listeners understood me, they related to me, and they knew what the message was without me ever saying “please do your home teaching.”

    “Confession” (using the first-person “I”) is a powerful method of spiritual communication — speaker and listener can understand each other’s meaning through shared images, feelings, emotions, without letting too many blunt, clumsy words get in the way.


  8. Have you guys had experiences where someone has been more forthright than usual, and it has changed the whole tenor of your church meeting?

    In the Ozarks, rather than ‘get red in the face and look away’, we’d get red in the face and look down. Our approach improves the chances of finding stray Cheerios.

  9. I try to avoid using the ‘I’ many times because it seems self-centered and self-absorbed (the opposite of self-effacing, in fact), but in some circumstances there is a real power in it, no doubt.

  10. In response to Kathryn’s question:

    In a recent testimony I confessed, not a sin, but the recurring question in the back of my mind that perhaps my faith is self-delusion, and that I occasionally feel the need to re-examine my testimony to evaluate its authenticity. I thought I was confessing something that every human being struggles with. I ended my remarks with my testimony that in those challenging seasons of doubt, if we pray, our Heavenly Father will give us a personal witness of His existence and love. I thought I was sharing a faith-promoting experience of faith overcoming doubt.

    However, it seemed to me that some individuals focused more on the doubt part of my remarks than the whole “moral of the story” about God answering prayers and resolving those doubts. Although I have been an active member my entire life and recently held callings as Elders Quorum President and Young Mens President (see, that PROVES I’m a strong Mormon :)), my openness about experiencing occasional doubts seemed to cause people to worry about me. For the first time ever, my home teacher asked me during his next visit how I was doing spiritually. This experience taught me that acknowledging doubt is as taboo as acknowledging our faults.

    As a previous commenter posted, you have to acknowledge the Fall in order to realize the importance of the Redemption. Likewise, I believe we need to acknowledge our Doubts in order to give meaning to our Faith. Of course, this too will need to be done carefully, making sure that we clearly make our overall point that Christ has helped us overcome.

  11. Actually, that sounds like a success story to me, Non-Winter Meat Eater. Your hometeacher should be concerned with your spiritual state, but most hometeachers don’t because the image we present is less shaky than our actual self.

  12. Ray–I’ll bet the congregation really appreciated that sacrament meeting talk. Regarding confession in testimony meeting, I mean in context only. I appreciate testimonies where the speaker doesn’t just tell me what they know, but how they came to know it. These kinds of accounts necessarily include personal experiences with divine power, and imo, the most significant manifestations of divine power have to do with healing from sin, whether one was the perpetrator or the victim. So, when I testify that Christ lives, I like to tell how he has revealed himself to me, how the power of the atonement has changed my life. (Briefly, of course.)

    Jon–thank you. That’s exactly the kind of thing I like to hear at church.

    Adam, I’m intrigued by your perception of first-person discourse. I had never considered that angle–mine is the exact opposite.

    CB, sounds like you have a little revolution to start.

  13. Adam, I’m intrigued by your perception of first-person discourse. I had never considered that angle–mine is the exact opposite.

    Its a man thing and rural thing. If you say ‘I’ you’re claiming your own authority for whatever it is that you’re thinking and feeling, plus you’re calling attention to yourself. If you say ‘you,’ you’re claiming the authority of the collective and shifting attention away from yourself.

  14. Adam (11), I agree.

    Nobody likes to hear about all my wonderful achievements, and I believe part of the reason is because those statements are inherently not genuine or personal, rather pompous and arrogant. It’s my failings and shortcomings that make me interesting. (How fantastic was the 7th Harry Potter book in this respect? Or Alma II’s conversion? Or Joseph Smith’s life?)

    But it’s not just about entertainment for the listener/reader. Communicating using the self-effacing “I” produces a quality of ownership in the speaker that otherwise evades him and prohibits him from progressing/repenting.

    I have made errors. I recognize them, and I own them. Sharing that helps you relate to me because, invariably you have made errors, too (presumptuous, but true!). As we communicate on this higher plane — I baring tiny bits of my soul, and you glimpsing them here and there — we delicately, piece by piece, become one with each other, and perhaps, as we progress through repentance (together?) toward forgiveness, we become one in Christ.

    This form of spiritual communication is difficult, and something few people understand even how to do, let alone what the implications are. (I’m not professing any authorship or ingenuity here — I’m just discovering it myself.) But I believe that as we bear one another’s burdens (“pause to help and lift another”), we take another step closer to Christ.


  15. Hi Adam,

    I agree that home teachers should be concerned with the spiritual welfare of those they teach. I was using this experience to demonstrate how strong our collective facade of certainty is. Why is acknowledging doubt in the context of expressing faith viewed as something abnormal that deserves special attention?

  16. We generally used “Like Momma always tell me” to invoke the authority of the collective, but then again, the rural experience is a multifarious thing.

  17. They already do this in some wards and it’s called fast and testimony meeting, or as the wife and I call them Confessimonies.

    Honestly though I really do wonder what would happen to the church were this true. There are so many that feel our leaders are infallible. What would it do to those members who feel this way to find out that the Bishop/Eq/RS president/Stake President and so on committed any wrong sometimes serious wrong.

  18. Adam #16:

    If you say ‘I’ you’re claiming your own authority for whatever it is that you’re thinking and feeling.

    –Often this is the only authority I have.

    If you say ‘you,’ you’re claiming the authority of the collective.

    –See, to me this is what seems arrogant in many circumstances. I need to be careful not to imply that I know how it is for other people. And for many, “you” has an accusatory connotation.

  19. My own experience is that Mormon congregations have a very difficult time dealing with sin in a public forum because public shame is a core value of Mormon culture (note the use of the word “culture” versus “doctrine”). It’s a twist on the great and spacious building of Lehi’s dream where those who choose not to “confess their faults to one another” then turn around and “publish [their] own righteousness.” In essence, as long as the confession of sin is merely an optional requirement within our religion it is going to suffer from the problem of the commons because there is power in not confessing when others are.

    Sadly, I think we are a religion that does not embrace the sinner.

  20. Interesting thoughts, Kathryn, and interesting comments from all.

    In my observation, confessing sins is viewed as generally acceptable in church settings, if they are couched in terms of past or projected recovery. I.e., people will say, “I used to have a problem with such-and-such, but then I started praying regularly, and now I don’t have that problem.” This is non-threatening, a way to affirm the efficacy of our countermeasures.

    Straight confession without a remedy at the end — simply saying, “I’ve been having a problem with drinking lately” or “I’ve been having trouble with porn” or even “I keep yelling at my kids for no reason” — is threatening. It implicitly questions the efficacy of our defenses.

    So much of the Sunday School or testimony experience is couched in the narrative of “had problem, had faith, problem went away.” If we simply say, “I have a problem,” it raises questions. Why isn’t Brother Z’s problem going away? Is it that he doesn’t have faith? Or is it that these problems _don’t_ go away so simply?

  21. Kaimi, well said.

    “had problem, had faith, problem went away”

    This little equation, while often a true one, is the source of a whole lotta secret suffering in the Church. Because it doesn’t always work. At least, not the way we expect it to. And so we blame ourselves for continuing to have problems, not realizing that “weakness made strong” does not necessarily mean the outward problem disappears, but that the continuing presence of the outward problem draws the suffering person to Christ. I think we often have a faulty definition of “efficacy.”

  22. Well said Kaimi. Do you think that Mormons typically infer the inverse of your position? That if someone sins it’s because they stopped praying, reading scriptures, going to church, etc.

  23. This is an interesting discussion. Public confession often causes me some squeamishness, but that is probably just my problem. On the few occasions where I have seen a frank confession, it has been very powerful. Once in quorum meeting, a man revealed that he was really struggling as a parent. The result was that the quorum administered a priesthood blessing. I think that it worked better there than it would have in sacrament meeting.

    It also helps if some of the prominent people in the ward set the example. I used to know a stake patriarch who routinely disclosed the measures he took to shield himself from porn because he knew it was a weakness, and a RS president would often, as part of her testimony, describe the guilt she felt for losing her temper with her children. If we really think of ourselves as brothers and sisters, there ought to be some setting where we can say: “I have this problem. I need help.”

    Nobody wants to be around Zoramites and their rameumptoms, but when we put our church faces and voices on, that is often the result. If the administrators of this fine site will allow me some tomfoolery, I’d like to offer the example of a man who is the antidote to smugness. Who is this paragon of humility, you ask? I answer: Homer Simpson.

    Once on Thanksgiving, the Simpson family had spent the entire day proving Murphy’s law. Everything just kept getting worse and worse, when finally Homer prayed and offered thanks “for the occasional moments of peace and love our family’s experienced … well, not today. You saw what happened. Oh Lord, be honest. Are we the most pathetic family in the world or what?”

    Homer Simpson, keepin’ it real. Who among us hasn’t sometime wanted to offer the same prayer?

  24. This is going to sound really weird, but the whole struggle to find a proper balance between public vulnerability and private confession – between trying to live an ideal but recognizing and accepting our inability to do so – all of these things that are emotionally difficult – forms the basic of one of the reasons I love the Restored Gospel so much.

    IMO, the Atonement was not an easy accomplishment. It took sweat and blood and tears – at an incomprehensible level. Accepting and embracing it (and its accompanying responsibilities) fully also is not an easy accomplishment. It also requires blood (sometimes) and sweat and tears, and it requires introspection and repentance and service and sacrifice. Finally, it can’t be forced or coerced; it has to be attempted from an internal motivation that perseveres even in the absence of communal support – even though it flourishes best in an atmosphere of communal support. It requires we yearn for community (communal unity) and strive for community but don’t condemn each other for our failure to achieve true community. It means I need to be willing to bare my soul and hope others join me, but not condemn or judge them if they don’t. It’s complicated and profound and beautiful and painful – just like the Atonement itself was.

  25. Kaimi- Great point about our comfort with acknowledgements of past weakness but discomfort with acknowledgements of present weakness. Reminds me of a couple present-tense acknowledgements of weakness by some pretty powerful individuals. Think of Paul’s present-tense acknowledgement of the thorn in his side, or Nephi’s present tense acknowledgement that he allows his sins and anger to so easily beset him.

    Endless negotiation- I agree that we tend to see ourselves more as a museum of saints than a hospital of sinners. That’s one thing I think separates us from our Protestant brethren. I’ve seen in their meetings that openly identifying themselves as sinners is an article of faith.

    Mark IV- Loved the account about the man acknowledging weakness and getting a blessing from his priesthood brothers in the quorum meeting. We need more of that. I think we unfortunately view priesthood blessings as nuclear weapons that should be used only sparingly and as a last resort. I think a lot of people would think this type of blessing-giving in a quorum meeting would be “weird” but I think a lot of others would find it meaningful and refreshing.

    Ray- Loved your identification of the inevitable paradoxes in living the Gospel, like being willing to confess faults but not fault others for failing to do so. There is a lot of self-rightousness we can develop by pointing out others’ self-righteousness.

  26. Endless (22), the statement “we are a religion that does not embrace the sinner” is not quite accurate. We belong to a religion that very much embraces the sinner, but a lot of us individual members of that religion still have to figure it out.

    Perhaps “we are a *people* that does not embrace the sinner,” but even then I’d have to dispute that, or at least exclude myself (and many others) from that, because I really do try — my very good friend who just got out of prison (after five years) would likely attest to that.

    It’s a bit of a semantic nit that I’m picking at, but I believe it is important to distinguish between the religion, which does embrace the sinner (up to a point [I heard Adam rumbling already]), and the members of the religion, who too often don’t.


  27. Threadjack alert!

    Mark IV (26), that’s a great scene from a great show. As dysfunctional as Homer Simpson might appear on the surface, he has consistently returned to his wife and kids at the end of every episode. How many other TV shows can you say that about? The Simpsons have remained a timeless (literally!) family for 20 years.

    In fact, there was that one episode where Apu (the Indian guy who ran the Kwik-E-Mart) was caught having an affair with the Squishee lady (she refilled the colored-icy-sugar-syrup drink dispenser machine). I remember that episode having the wrong feel to it because it did not fit in with the otherwise standard concept that normal, married, family guys don’t fool around on the show. (Mayor Quimby and his ever-photographed harem being the satirical exception.)

    Even when Homer was so tempted by the country-singing babe, Lurleen Lumpkin (yes, I’m getting help from Wikipedia), who basically threw herself at him in her trailer late that one night, he ran out and quit as her manager, returning to his wife. (Am I revealing a little too much with my knowledge of Simpsons trivia?)

    So Homer’s not the brightest fork in the drawer, but he knows where he belongs at night, and he’s humble enough to admit when he screwed up — again. Doh! And he usually only needs 23 minutes or less to get to that point. He could certainly teach those other fictional TV dads a thing or two about solid family values.


  28. Jon,
    You’re completely forgetting Homer’s temptation with Mindy from the nuclear power plant! Excellent episode, and it makes your point as well. :)

  29. Have you guys had experiences where someone has been more forthright than usual, and it has changed the whole tenor of your church meeting?

    One time in Austin an inactive member came to Church after a long absence, stood up in our EQ, and basically said that he didn’t come to Church because he knew deep down that nobody at Church really cared for him or if he came to Church or not. Which was probably pretty much true. We all sat their stunned. And here I am, five years later, still thinking about it.

    I think anyone who hasn’t had the blessing of living in an inner-city ward or branch in a large city with a large minority population should sell their nice suburban home and move into a row house to enjoy fellowship with the new converts who haven’t been socialized to keep their sins to themselves.

    Living in DC, we heard lots of stories about the past lives of the new converts–as well as the off-their-medications-visions-of-the-bloody-feet-of-Jesus. What can you do when a 35 year old grandmother stands up in fast and testimony meeting and says how grateful she is for the gospel and that she no longer carries a knife and “cuts mens”? Either quietly or not, you shout “Amen” and you cherish that sister, and her testimony, forever.

  30. I don’t think public confession will make any sort of comeback in our services, because we don’t believe in shame as a means of regulating behavior anymore. No matter how robust and compassionate the community, public confession will always shame—was always intended to shame—the sinner. (And frankly, I’m don’t have confidence that my own charity—or my ward’s—can compassionately embrace adultering husbands, chronic porn users, murderers, or child abusers, especially when the wounded parties are likely to be in the same ward—nor am I absolutely convinced that it should.)

  31. I confess to two sins: 1) that I have not read every single post above this, and 2) that I cannot put my finger on the examples, but I have read the minutes of earlier meetings where the people confessed their sins. However, it was usually a matter of confessing in general, not in particular. It seemed that these general confessions were simply a method of humbling yourself by acknowledging your overall lack of perfection.

  32. RW:

    What’s wrong with using shame as a means of regulating behavior? Are you lamenting, applauding, or merely noting the fact that we don’t believe in using public shame to regulate behavior? Frankly, I don’t think shame, in and of itself, is a bad thang. If everyone in the community exposes themselves to the ordeal of confession and the resultant shame then I think we learn to be more compassionate, forgiving, and charitable because we know eventually we’re going to have our own turn in the confessional. Church would be transformed into a community of sinners in need of the Atonement. Instead, what we get in Mormonism is just the exposure of a few people with very public sins with the rest smugly thinking to themselves, “I need the Atonement a whole lot less than he does.” Your comment #35 gives me the same sort of vibe. Mormons tend to fear hanging out with sinners (the public ones at least), terrified that those sins will somehow rub off on them (similar sentiment to what Kaimi expressed). How many times have we heard the phrase, “Stand ye in Holy places.” Too many Mormons extrapolate that commandment to mean avoid the sinner and I find that truly sad.

  33. , what we get in Mormonism is just the exposure of a few people with very public sins with the rest smugly thinking to themselves, “I need the Atonement a whole lot less than he does.”

    This would be worse if we had public confessions, a lot worse. When people around you are confessing to adultery or p*rn or wife-beating it would be very, very easy to say, ‘well, not doing my hometeaching isn’t so bad. I’m a pretty good guy.’

  34. Adam:

    Is that you speaking or some hypothetical someone? The confessional examples you use are the exceptions rather than the rule. I think public confession would help head-off most of the behaviors you and RW mentioned. The confession would first emmerge as, “I am having a very hard time controlling my temper,” or, “I find myself lusting after other men,” at which point the church community would be in a position to help said confessor before more serious harm befell him/her. Under the current paradigm church members are discouraged from confessing these precursor sins for fear of them being outed in a community that places so much empahasis on “worthiness.” You might respond that members can seek help in private through priesthood or auxilary leaders but that assumes that those leaders are capable, on their own, of helping troubled souls– an assumption I don’t think accurate nor fair.

  35. Back in the days of public confession, people did confess to things like adultery. Public shame may have reduced the incidence, but it sure didn’t prevent it. I might be open to public confession because I think it would reduce serious sin from a sense of shame, but I don’t think it would reduce the amount of judging or increase the amount of tolerance. Quite the opposite.

  36. Adam (38) I think you’re right. That’s why the concept of weakness-confession, rather than sin-confession, is so appealing to me (as I noted back in #6).

    Rick’s description (36) sounds ideal–rather than posturing at church meetings, members are open about their humanity. And it’s interesting–when I trace my sins to their origins, there seems to be only a few core weaknesses that everything stems from–most notably, pride.

    In Church I would love to hear about how others battle their pride, how Christ strengthens them, how they manage to press forward in their imperfect state. I absorb doctrines and principles much more readily when they are discussed in context. And I find much nourishment from the community which springs up when people share pieces of inner lives, as Mark and Ray and others have described.

    In sum–I think there’s a rarely explored, highly valuable middle ground between reticence/hypocrisy and garment-rending self-abasement.

    And as far as shame goes–I think shame is what keeps us silent. It’s still used as a means of behavior management, very much so. Just in a more subtle way.

    Rob (33)–beautiful story. Amen and amen.

  37. the concept of weakness-confession, rather than sin-confession, is so appealing to me

    This appeals to me too. Quite a bit of it happens in my neck of the woods, though, which is for the good though it often seems pro forma. It seems less pro-forma when it becomes more like confessing sins.

    Also, folks should be careful when confessing weaknesses that they aren’t humiliating members of the congregation, their family, e.g.

  38. endless negotiation, I was merely noting that we don’t use shame to regulat behavior—in fact, we generally condemn shaming practices. I don’t know how I feel about that: shaming (and shunning, which always follows; I’m sorry, but I think the vision of a community compassionately embracing those who harm its members is a fantasy, albeit a warm and fuzzy one) can be brutal on the sinner, but it’s probably a pretty effective cultural (as opposed to structural) deterrent of antisocial behaviors. So I don’t know.

    I don’t follow the end of your comment at all. In our present system of private confession, I have no idea which members of my ward cheat on their spouses, watch porn, hit their children, are addicted to prescription drugs, and I frankly prefer it that way precisely because it shields me from the disgust and disdain I’d instinctively feel for them if I knew. (Exceptions, of course, for intimate friends who disclose their struggles privately, in the context of a relationship that mediates my negative reactions.)

  39. I think RW just hit an important point. If there is an existing relationship that can feel compassion and empathy, then admission can be a wonderful thing, but the more serious the sin, the deeper the relationship needs to be to be supportive and caring. I want to draw a distinction between admission and confession.

    The official Church teaching regarding confession is that it needs to occur before God and those who were hurt. By extension, if public harm was done to a reputation, restitution should include public confession/retraction/apology. My problem with public confession of “sins” rather than admission of weaknesses is that those who have not been harmed are pulled into a process that is meant to heal harm – both for the harmer and the harmed. Public confession of sins tends to make people think they are part of the forgiveness process, and that often leads to “I forgave him; why can’t you?” – when usually, in reality, the one making that statement has not been harmed in any measurable way while the one being judged has been harmed deeply. I like public admission of weakness and struggle and failure to live the ideal, but I prefer “confession” to be limited to those directly affected by the sin.

  40. In RS the last few weeks, there have been several ‘confessions’ about weaknesses and sins. They are things like someone confessing a bad temper because she got angry at a driver who cut her off, confessing temptation because she wanted to eat extra cookies (the confessor was maybe 110 pounds), confessing that a sister published an angry letter on a myspace page, stuff like that. They’re confessions that would make people with real problems think that they just don’t belong with someone whose greatest physical temptation is eating three Oreos instead of one, or whose temper is directed only at strangers in separate cars instead of family members.

    I see public confessions the way I see that most awful of job interview questions: “what are your weaknesses?” You always pick to confess something that’s either really minor, or that makes you look good in a backward way, like, “I know I shouldn’t worry so much about keeping my house spotless.”

    So there are confessions, but they are such wimpy little problems that they’re as bad as not confessing anything at all. The speaker still sounds like they don’t really have a weakness. So the rest of us sit there and think, “if people knew what I was really like, they’d release me from my calling and make me a service project.”

  41. Very good point, Melissa.

    I put on weight just looking at chocolate, so I have to shake my head whenever I hear some naturally skinny person complain about how fat they are. In this whole discussion of admission and confession, I think we also need to remember that “group admission” often fosters shallowness – and can result in little more than emotional purging, with the same general effect. Generally, if the overall environment is not focused on admission or confession or communal sharing (e.g., AA meeting or Bishop’s office or F&T Meeting), I would say that the power and impact of admission diminishes directly proportionate to the number of admissions – especially if they are consecutive comments. In that case, it almost feels like a competition – trying either to top the last person or at least not be excluded. (Frankly, I think that is the primary reason behind the counsel to keep testimonies reasonably short and focused on Christ and Gospel principles – to maximize the potential spiritual impact in a setting that naturally tends to allow for long and meandering and shallow expressions.)

    The kind of cathartic experience I value most is personal – whether it is shared between two people or with a congregation.

  42. Ray, glad you brought up AA. The kind of sharing I’ve experienced there is extraordinary. It strikes me that the premise of an AA meeting–we all share a similar problem, and a similar path to solving it, and we’re here to remind and support and encourage each other–is the same kind of approach I’d like to feel more of at church. Of course, church meetings have a vital central element–worship–that makes them essentially different from any other kind of meeting.

    I just realized I’m not used to thinking about my interactions with others at church as part of my worship. I think of fulfilling callings as service. But how about going to church with the express purpose of listening to others, supporting them, being open in helpful ways? That’s something I’d like to try.

  43. Ray:

    The problem with your distinction is that it assumes that all sin requires some sort of victim. Your paradigm removes thoughts, desires, and emotions from the ledger of accountability for sin. What happens to “victimless” sins? With whom does the single man addicted to pornography make restitution? With whom does the man who beats his dog make restitution? Is the letch given a pass for invisioning nude every woman that passes his way merely because he didn’t actually see the woman in the nude? Who is harmed by the person who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner every evening? What would that apology even look like? What about lying to one’s father in order to get off the phone and get back watching “The Sopranos”? Sins and weeknesses– that’s a distinction without a difference.


    Shaming and shunning do not of necessity go hand-in-hand. I have felt shame for my actions without being shunned. I have shamed people for their actions without shunning them. I think shame is an effective tool that can lead one to a “mighty change of heart.” I’m also saddened that you would feel “disgust and disdain” for you fellow man rather than compassion and sorrow upon finding out that they are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. Don’t mistake me for one squeemish about exacting justice where it is deserved but I prefer not to dwell on the past but rather focus on the individual’s future development. My father-in-law is a long, lost member of your ward in St. Louis. In the last twenty years the only time he has entered the building was for our first child’s blessing more than a decade ago. He feels great shame for his lifestyle and refuses to return to church because of sentiments such as yours. Without the love and support of the entire ward I don’t think he’ll ever come back. If confession of sins were a standard part of Mormon practice his, and others similarly situated, return would be much easier because they would be fellow travellers rather than made to feel like the exception.

  44. I’m also saddened that you would feel “disgust and disdain” for you fellow man rather than compassion and sorrow upon finding out that they are imperfect beings in an imperfect world.

    RW is being realistic about how she and the vast majority of people react. Unfortunately, your response to her tends to prove her point.

  45. Kathryn, your last paragraph describes my motivation for attending church pretty well. At the risk of this coming across incorrectly, most of the words I hear in talks and lessons don’t teach me anything I don’t know already. Most of what I learn each week, and I do learn something new most weeks, comes either from the spirit (something that hits me – that I realize – after someone says something) or from a comment from another student in a class. My “traditional worship” in Sacrament Meeting depends to some degree on others’ reverence and preparation, but my “growth” throughout the meetings (Sunday and other days) is dependent almost wholly on how I interact with others.

    Further, I feel a deep, driving need to lift others, especially at Church, in whatever way I can. I find this hard to say and make it sound humble, but at this point in my church life my attendance at church meetings is not about me. When I walk through the doors at church, my responsibility is to greet and hug and smile at and talk with others – to share and listen and cry and bolster and play and do whatever else someone else needs. Again, at this point in my own life (not anyone else’s, just mine), my interaction with others is the biggest part of my worship – and I have never felt more joy in worship than I do now.

  46. endlessnegotiation – Don’t split hairs that don’t exist. If restitution cannot be made, restitution cannot be made. I used one narrow example; don’t turn it into a blanket statement it wasn’t.

    Further, all sin DOES require a victim. If that were not the case, there would be no sin. By definition, the sinner ALWAYS is a victim of his/her own action. I know that personally, as I have sinned in ways that only hurt myself. I also have sinned in ways that appeared to only hurt myself, but in reality hurt my wife and children, at least, because of how it hurt myself. Again, all sin hurts at least one victim. If the only victim truly is the perpetrator, then confession to God alone probably is good enough, although there are some situations where I believe a Bishop should be involved to help abandon the sin completely.

  47. endless, I’d be very interested in anthropological accounts of public shaming rituals that are not accompanied by some sort of ritual or social shunning. I honestly don’t know of any; do you?

    I suppose I’m also saddened that I feel disgust and disdain toward those who harm others in very serious ways; this probably shows the limits of my Christian charity, though I’m not completely clear on what charity requires in those situations. But I’m candid about my limits, and the limits of my community.

    As for your father, please let him know that he is welcome back anytime to worship in company with the rest of us sinners. I believe he may in fact be relieved to know that if he comes in good faith, he will be accepted cordially without regard to his background. Again, I believe that if your father were expected to confess his serious sins publicly, he would feel very much more like the exception than under the current situation.

  48. I have a confession to make. I look at this website while I’m at work! Wait. . . confession only works when you tell the people you’re sinning against. . .

    I have another confession to make.

  49. RW:

    Regarding shame without shunning– ask any member of the military if they’ve experienced such a situation. Basic training in all branches of service is about breaking down the individual (often using shame) while teaching the group to remain cohesive and united in achieving a common goal (something impossible to achieve if shamed members are shunned). Such tactics are employed even more often in the most elite of units. I suppose that could count as an “anthropological account” that fits the given criteria.

    My father-in-law’s problem with returning is that his lifestyle has been very public. He was a serial adulterer before he gave up completely on marriage. He’s a drinker though not a drunkard. He smokes. There’s no way to hide his shortcomings. He feels alien in a Mormon congregation because he feels like he’s the only sinner there. Others may profess weaknesses (a la Ray) but somehow those weakness never materialize into real sins. That makes him different, weak and worthy of others “disgust and disdain”. He’s attended other congregations from time-to-time where public confession of sins is acceptable and he feels more comfortable there (he’ll attend one of those congregations two or three times a year at the behest of his latest girlfriend) though he has a hard time buying into the rest of the stuff (he’s a Mormon at heart).

    May I recommend that you and your spouse speak with the stake president and request that you be assigned to the Pagedale Branch. There you might get a little idea about what it’s like to live and worship with sinners who can’t hide their sins and are more than willing to publlicly confess them. I know my own time there several years ago was priceless and taught me a lot about accepting all willing to make even the most minimal of efforts. If you would like I could pass your name on to Br. Pres. Erikson.

  50. Basic training isn’t an analogue. The kinds of things you get shamed for there aren’t the military equivalents of adultery or alcoholism or whatnot. The unit is often shamed and punished collectively, which tends to overcome the shunning that might occur. And ‘shunning’ does occur–if soldiers are too ate-up, they don’t make it.

  51. endlessnegotiation – There are some things that really need to be said in order to address #56, but I am not going to say them. I don’t know enough about your father’s situation, even with what you shared, to feel right saying what needs to be said about what you describe – and the charges you imply about wards without public confession of serious sin. I also don’t want to share in a public forum how I would respond to the situation you describe, since it is not a hypothetical anymore. Therefore, I am bowing out of this particular discussion. If you feel that verifies your assertion, so be it. I do not, but, of course, that’s my perspective.

  52. 56. “Such tactics are employed even more often in the most elite of units.”

    My brother is in special ops. From what he’s told me, you’re overstating the use of shame in basic training. Once through basic, it’s non-existent.

    As a football coach, if I used shame to try and motivate my team, I would lose them. I would also deservedly lose my job.

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