I was talking with two Christians recently who disclosed that they felt very distressed by their constant desire to ask God for forgiveness. Initially I didn't think too much of this, other than that these people were correctly confessing their sins and receiving the forgiveness offered them in Jesus Christ. However, after some further discussion, it transpired that far from being confession in the normal course of life, this was in fact a compulsive ritual to an obsessional concern with sin.
It was apparent that the individuals I was working with were in great distress as a result of this compulsion and were spending several hours a day in an ongoing confessional dialogue within their minds. It occurred to me that this was a stage on form the struggle many people have with 'feeling forgiven' by God. Unlike other obsessional concerns: Knowing whether we are forgiven is not empirically testable it is dependent of faith and belief. If someone was obsessing over whether they had locked their front door, they could ultimately check that it was locked, but how to you check to see if your sins really have been forgiven?
Obsessional behaviours are typically safety behaviours, and despite the fact that many rituals are disconnected from the protection they offer, understanding what safety they provide is an important step forward. Classic OCD rituals like repeated hand washing intend to protect individuals against contamination from harmful germs, lock checking intends to protect against being robbed and hyper-vigilance protects against harming others. Obsessional confession appears to offer an individual protection from God's judgement. Considering the gravity of the biblical consequences from facing God's judgement it is not surprising that many Christians get obsessional about confessing their sins.
Of course what we need to do is actually look at the compulsive behaviour a little more closely in order to get some relief from it. It would obviously be wrong to suggest that a Christian should not confess his or her sin to God - after all 1 John 1:9-10 says, 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives' The Bible is absolutely clear that confession is an essential aspect of living the Christian life it's not something that we can stop doing. But what if obsessional confession was not really confession at all? Well then obviously it would be fine to stop, so long as the individual could discern when they were really in confession with God, and when they were fulfilling an empty ritual.
Often when people are carrying out obsessive behaviors it is the belief that they are doing something essential which keeps the ritual alive. Through graded exposure to their fear a person can get free from their obsession. For example, someone who constantly washes their hands will stop washing so much and find out that they are still healthy. The person who constantly checks locks will do so less and not be robbed. You can see that with regard to God's forgiveness, such exposure is just not testable in the same way.
Obsessional confession requires a slightly different approach for freedom. Fortunately most of the people who get caught in obsessional cycles of confession are extremely scrupulous and have a strong desire to live in a biblical way. With this in mind we might explore what forgiveness really means.
Obsessional confession presupposes that every single sin ever committed must be consciously thought of and confessed, if it is to be forgiven. This is obviously contrary to the nature of God who is full of grace and love. What is essential is not a formula but the forgiving nature of God. It is also important to note that God knows us completely and forgives us completely when we come to him in the spirit of confession, not knowingly holding anything back. The difference here being, 'I know that I have done x but I don't care, I am going to do it again, I don't have to be forgiven.etc.' This is a million miles away from the obsessive, 'Oh no, what if I have forgotten a sin, or didn't know it was a sin etc'. The heart of the obsessive is definitely in the spirit of confession.
Obsessional confession often asks for forgiveness for sins that have been confessed to God before. This is problematic biblically and the obsessive confessor needs to hold on to what the bible says about God's response to confessed sin: Psalm 103:12 says, 'As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.' Isaiah 43:25 says, 'I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.' These two passages from the Bible are absolutely clear that God both removes and forgets confessed sin. You can see then that it is problematic to believe that you can make God remember a sin that he has already removed from you and chosen to forget. The absolute most you should confess a sin is once and once only. Therefore if you feel compelled to confess it again try and stay with the anxiety and refuse the ritual.
Finally obsessional confession really reflects a misshapen view of Jesus Christ. Jesus went to the cross for our sakes to overcome sin and death. He ushered in the law of grace and peace. Obsessional confession is looking for concrete feelings of forgiveness. Being a Christian is to have faith in God and the death of His son Jesus Christ in our place, we will struggle if we are looking to find validation for this in our feelings. As people who often carry low self esteen anyway, feeling forgiven will often be a struggle, what is important is the truth and not the feeling, we must trust in Jesus' once and for all sacrifice for sin. Your salvation is His work and not yours, he is a loving father and is completely trustworthy. Learn to rest in his peace and trust his character, give up rituals and stick with real one time confession when you sin.
* Read up on obsessive thinking
* Try not to ruminate on you old sins
* Distract yourself if you find you are going down an old track
* If you have any doubt about whether a sin is confessed or not it is an obsessive confession and not a real one
* Learn about the character of God
* Don't immediately give in to the compulsion, try to resist ritual confession
* Pray to Jesus and talk with him about your fears
* Trust in the cross and God's salvation
* Live with doubt and uncertainty
Will Van Der Hart, 24/07/2008