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Confession of sin can be training in obsessive-compulsive thinking. Through the ideas of sin and god, we create an inner judge in our minds. In fundamentalism, we are taught to search our minds for any unworthy thought. We thought-police ourselves for unsanctioned thoughts, emotions, and desires. The compulsive ritual of confessing a sin, in prayer or verbally, brings us temporary relief (“grace”) from the inner judge. It is supposed to bring strength not to repeat the behavior. But as any person with struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder knows, giving into the compulsion only strengthens the urge; it makes things worse.

The negative thought or behavior makes us feel bad, so we obsess over it. We compulsively engage in the ritual that’s meant to cleanse us, but this only serves to strengthen whatever it is we’re trying to fight. Thus, confession makes people more reliant on the belief system, on god or the people receiving confession, because you have to keep going back to them over and over again. Reliance, dependence, and attachment is created. And it doesn’t even work! What it does is create a harsh internal struggle that can sometimes consume all of the believer’s attention. It can create despair, helplessness, low self-esteem, powerlessness, a sense of being at war with oneself.

Often, people caught in this trap apologize profusely and inappropriately for little things, like failing to hold the door for someone. Sometimes they confess sins thousands of times a day in their heads or out loud, being threatened from the pulpit they could die at any moment, and might end up in hell if they have unconfessed sin. This can make it hard to go to sleep at night. Sometimes they pray “the sinner’s prayer” over and over to be sure of their salvation, because, can you really know for sure? The divine standard is exceedingly high, and the penalty for imperfect or unsanctioned thought (which isn’t even necessarily “wrong”) can even be infinite (the “unforgivable sin,” hell, judgment). The stakes for having right thoughts and emotions is very high. The behavior of judging and searching, feeling guilty and bad about oneself becomes a kind of self-flagellation, internal self-mutilation–like cutting. Confession may be appropriate in some instances (to restore relationship against someone I wrong, for instance), but not in this manner or to this degree. It really is some crazy-making stuff.

It can take a long time to get over this harsh internal judge and the immensely disproportionate and pervasive sense of guilt it creates. We have to repair our relationship to our self, recognizing this voice in our heads isn’t us, and it isn’t god. It’s programming and it’s not serving us: it’s an “idea monster.” We can relate to it differently, and learn to speak to ourselves with compassion and realistic standards. And we can learn more effective ways of getting rid of unwanted thoughts and behaviors. One of them is learning to simply observe without judging (the opposite of confession)–or even with loving attention. By observing without judging, we can get curious about what’s really going on–why am I doing this, how do I feel when I do it, what are the memories and images? We learn that change comes not through self-judgment, but through awareness with compassion.

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