Why do we have to confess our sins to a priest? This is one of the most common questions that people ask about the Catholic faith, and with good reason. Nobody likes telling another person all the bad things they've done, so if we're going to do it, we want a really good reason why we should. It's just human nature to want to know the reasoning behind things we don't like.
In a nutshell, the answer is that it’s good for us. God didn’t have to institute the sacrament of confession, but he chose to forgive our sins that way because he knows it has numerous spiritual benefits. Consequently, if we want to know why we have to confess our sins to a priest, we have to understand why it’s beneficial to us, and to do that, we can divide our exploration into two parts. First we’ll look at the question of why we confess our sins at all, and secondly we’ll see why we confess them to another human being rather than directly to God.
Why We Confess Individual Sins
So why confess our sins at all? Why not just make a general confession of our sinfulness without naming individual sins? Because that's not very helpful. Imagine that you write an essay and then give it to a friend to critique. When he gives it back, would it do any good for him to simply say that it has mistakes without telling you what those mistakes are? Of course not! If you're going to benefit from his criticism, you need to know the specific things you did wrong. You need to know the specific mistakes you made so you can correct them and hopefully never make them again, and our sins are like that.
It doesn't help us to merely acknowledge that we’re sinners. No, to grow in holiness, we need to know precisely how we’re falling short. We need to know the specific sins we commit so we can root them out of our lives, and confessing them helps us do that. It makes us aware of the areas of our lives we need to improve so we can make real progress in our spiritual journeys.
Why We Confess to Another Person
Next, we have the question of why we confess our sins to another human being rather than directly to God, and I would suggest two reasons for this. First, it's good for our humility. It's one thing to acknowledge our sins and tell them to a God that we can't see or hear, but it's another thing to tell them to another human being who's physically there with us. That’s a much more humbling experience, and humility is an important virtue to cultivate.
Secondly, physically hearing the words of absolution ("I absolve you of your sins") is important for us. See, the sacraments are all about physicality. Each one of them has a physical element that symbolizes the spiritual grace we're receiving. For example, the water of baptism symbolizes the washing away of original sin, and the oil of confirmation symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is key because we're physical creatures. We're bodies as well as souls, so we need physical symbols of the spiritual realities we experience.
Consider an analogy. Married couples may know that they love each other, but they still want to hear the words “I love you.” Spoken words are an important part of how we humans communicate, a key way that we physically convey spiritual realities like love, so we naturally want our loved ones to tell us that they love us too.
And in our relationship with God, the words of absolution play that same role for us. It's great to know intellectually that God has blotted out our sins, but hearing the words “I absolve you of your sins” gives us so much more. It allows us to experience God’s love and forgiveness in a physical, verbal way, and we simply cannot do that if we just confess our sins to him privately.
We Should Go to Confession
At the end of the day, the sacrament of confession is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Not only does it forgive our sins, but it also has numerous other benefits that we can’t get from simply acknowledging that we’re sinners or confessing our sins to God in private. It helps us to confront our sinfulness head-on so we can root it out of our lives and grow in humility, and it allows us to experience his forgiveness in a physical way.
So if we want to grow closer to God and progress in holiness, we should make the most of this great gift. We should make this sacrament a regular part of our spiritual lives and receive it frequently, taking advantage of all the ways it can bring us closer to our ultimate goal of heaven.