Spiritual health, mental health, and physical health

“Confession is good for the soul,” is a truism that most of us grew up with, despite the fact that confession and absolution are practiced by fewer and fewer of us.  I have come to understand that, the soul notwithstanding, confession is good for our health.  By that, I mean our spiritual health, our mental health, and our physical health.  The curative effect of confession is recognized throughout the religions of the world, as well as in psychology.  As many have observed, religion and psychology both meet at the crossroads of guilt.
All of us have had the experience of saying something malicious or doing something that has wounded others.  We have also been treated with disrespect and contempt, deception and betrayal.  With suffering from such transgressions we are alienated and sometimes isolated from members of our family, faith and civic society.  We feel uncomfortable and cut off from the very communities that give us our identity, our comfort, our security, and maybe even our livelihood.  The story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit is not a story about horticulture.  It is a story about pride, disobedience, and the severing of trust.  And as soon as that happens we feel naked and vulnerable and we can scarcely say the words, “Good morning.”  The guilt for the thing we have done wrong becomes shame where our value as a human being is in grave doubt.
Confession, and I don’t mean a post on Facebook like “my bad”, is the ownership of an offence against God and neighbor.  Confession admits, “I did this.  I am responsible.  I have hurt others.  I have hurt you;” followed by the absolutely necessary, “Please forgive me.”  Until we confess, we carry the burden of our sin every place we go.  It haunts our waking hours and intrudes on our sleep.  Guilt is like a veil between ourselves and the very people we love.  Yes, we see them, but there is a dark shadow that inhibits the freer expressions of love, concern, hope, and ideas.   We cannot even become honestly angry.  We are cautious and uncertain of our relationships.  The longer we carry that burden the more remote we become.
Such shame adds fuel to our generalized anxiety in a world full of political and economic uncertainty, terrorism, and the stresses of our daily lives.  Guilt feeds our anxiety and we know that anxiety often expresses itself in headaches, fatigue, nausea, breathlessness, back and neck aches, gastrointestinal distress, and insomnia, which contributes to hypertension and cardiac issues.  Guilt and shame impede recovery from illness and accident.  Soon we are facing the kind of social anxiety that is characterized by the sense of being watched and judged.  Emotional withdrawal or outbursts of anger are typical of a troubled human being that is plagued by guilt.  As Gina Barreca wrote, “We ache to tell our stories, to relieve the stress of secrecy, and to have someone listen.  And the motives and effects of confession are as cataclysmic as they are universal.”  
Even on the deathbed, guilt and shame haunt the dying with a deep fear of the future, a fretful sense of being lost.  The shamed patient has lost his or her moorings, despite their chosen faith tradition.  Their doubt cuts to the core of their being and they do not trust that God will bring them into a home that some call paradise, or eternity, or heaven.
Some pastoral theologians have argued that as corporate and private confession have fallen into disuse, more and more people are relying on psychotherapy and medications.  Psychotherapy and medication have their important uses, if you can afford them.  But it is important to know the relationship between anxiety disorders, poor health, and the deeper causes of human sin, guilt, and shame.  I propose that at the very least each of us begin and end the day with a prayer of confession.  I love the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18.  He stood in the shadows of the temple and could not even look up to heaven.  He prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We all need time for contrition, confession, and absolution.  We may even need to speak with another human being, such as a rabbi, priest, minister, or imam to speak the words of truth about who we are and what we have done.  We are desperate to hear the words, “You are forgiven.”  Only then can our healing begin.

Chaplain Gary Blaine, D.Min., provides Pastoral Care at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital.  He received his Doctorate of Ministry from Emory University, and holds certifications as a grief counselor and a grief group facilitator.  He can be reached via e-mail at jblaine@sbamh.org.