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What Sobriety Has Taught Me About the Purpose of Confession

When many of us in recovery approach Step Four (make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”), it often seems like a daunting task. Most of us living with an active addiction do not spend a lot of time looking at ourselves in a critical way. For many in recovery, approaching Step Four comes with a certain degree of fear.

My Personal Experience With Step Four

Different individuals will approach Step Four using a variety of methods. My fourth step in recovery was probably the step that took the longest. My sponsor had me begin first by writing down an exhaustive list of all the things I had resentment toward: individuals, institutions, and principles. Beside the individuals, institutions, and principles, I also listed the reasons why I was angry with them. In a third column, I listed how the offenses had affected me personally, often stemming from or creating fear within me. After asking God for the grace to show the people involved forgiveness for how they had wronged me, I created a fourth column. This fourth column was all the wrongs that I had done to these individuals, without concern for the wrong that they had caused me. In other words, Step Four is an extremely long and thorough examination of conscience.

A Step Further: The Fifth Step and the Sacrament of Reconciliation

After completing this fourth column, I did Step Five (admitting “to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs”). Many Catholics, when they learn about Step Five, think right away of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as “confession”), in which you admit your sins to God and to a priest on behalf of the Church. My sponsor and I sat down together to do my fifth step so that he could get a better idea of my habits and tendencies. He later encouraged me to go to confession with a priest, which I did.

Learning the True Purpose of Reconciliation

Growing up and going through Catholic school, I had learned about confession and what it meant, but I do not think I ever understood the true purpose of the sacrament. I once had a conversation with my spiritual director about confession and how the fourth and fifth steps had really opened up my eyes to the freeing power of confession. From working through those two steps, I discovered how my own selfishness was the cause of most of my problems with other people. My spiritual director then told me something that I will never forget: “confession has become more of an exchange of goods and services rather than being what God has designed it for.”

Essentially, confession as it is commonly practiced now, is more like us saying, “Here are my sins, so please grant me forgiveness.” And this is then followed by the priest saying, “You are forgiven and here are some prayers.” However, this is not what confession is all about. Repentance really means to get down to the deepest roots of what leads us into sin, namely selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear, and have Christ heal us of those wounds by our confessing them to a priest.

A Recent Experience in Confession

I recently had an excellent experience in confession. I was nervous going in because I had heard from a friend that his family member had told him that this priest “dug too much.” Upon going to confession with this particular priest I could see why. After I finished naming my sins the priest said, “Why did you commit those particular sins?” I instantly tried to make up some sort of justification that I was frustrated that day and some other excuses. He replied, “No, that’s not why. You committed those sins because you were focused on YOU rather than God and others.” At first it floored me because I was not used to hearing this in confession. I then replied, “Father, you are absolutely right. It was all about me.”

Approaching the confessional with a humble heart can be one of the most liberating experiences one can have. I thoroughly enjoyed that particular confession and am strongly considering asking that priest to be my spiritual director. I have been fortunate enough to receive the type of freedom that such a thorough review of my life can bring due to my recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. Had I not had that experience through the Twelve Steps, I may have left the confessional angry, resentful, and probably would have gossiped about this priest. This priest really just wanted me to see my interior motivations that set me up in a moment of weakness to commit a sin that had harmed another person. In essence, he was helping me to see the root of my sin.

The Gift of Recovery and Catholicism

Recovery from drugs and alcohol has given me a greater understanding and appreciation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I am extremely grateful for the fact that I was fighting for my life and that God showed me this freedom through my sponsor, the Twelve Steps, my spiritual director, and the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. Not only did I discover freedom from the bondage of my addiction, but God has freed me from the bondage of self, which I had asked Him to do during my third step! What a truly amazing gift that is.

Jonathan has been in recovery from drugs and alcohol since 2010. The Catholic faith has always been part of his recovery. He found freedom from his addiction in modeling Christ through service to others through 12-step groups, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, youth ministry, and really any other outlet he could find. He is a strong believer in the power of Christian fellowship in recovery.

4 Comments

  1. Monica Driscoll on June 18, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you. I’m currently in search of a sponsor who’ll take me through the steps again. I just celebrated 17 years.

  2. ConcordPastor on July 3, 2019 at 10:46 am

    As a priest I’ve heard many fifth step confessions, a number of them with men in prison. What the fifth step and the sacrament of reconciliation offer is nothing less than the ocean of God’s mercy that waits for those who need to swim in its cleansing waters – reconciliation is a sacrament of pure joy when it’s approached and celebrated in just this way!

    • Sebastian Sebastian on May 14, 2020 at 9:34 pm

      I hope that I am responding to ConcordPastor…I am in the midst of doing the 4th Step. I am in the NA Program here in Australia. There are no practising Catholics in my Home Group or indeed in any of the Meetings that I attend in Brisbane. Therefore, there are no common experiences from which I can draw. I do attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly but my Priest is not well-versed in the Program. Of course, that is not an issue. Sin and confession are not just the domain of the Recovering Addict. However, as it says in the Big Book, the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is unparalleled. My question is, am I right in thinking that 4th Step should be of no surprise or shock to anyone who attends the Sacrament regularly? I am not burdened with tremendous fear or dread as I work my 4th Step. God is merciful and I am a sinner who is saved on a daily basis by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. His death and Rising have given me life. Many of the listings that I have put on my 4th Step, I have already taken to Reconciliation. My peers in the Program approach the 4th Step very differently from me. My Sponsor, who is not a Catholic but who respects my strongly held beliefs, does not really ‘get’ how I feel about this step. Of course, none of this is impeding my progress, but am I right to feel that I would love to have more of a ‘Catholic’ support on my journey through the 4th Step. For me it is about the rightful relationship that I have with God, whose Will I seek to do, now more than ever, now that I am in Recovery (what a gift that has been…O Happy Fault! O Felxi Culpa!) I do work on the similarities and not the differences, but I do yearn for a Catholic ‘mate’ (very Australian term for ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’…) to work with me on my journey of Recovery.

  3. Michelle Davis on July 3, 2020 at 8:16 am

    I really want to start by saying I’m a catholic who is currently an addict but wanting to get clean. I’m currently trying to get detox and rehab programme but I’m currently struggling to get the right help. Recently I’ve been praying a lot more. I want to go to confession and have sacrament of reconciliation but obviously I’m not sure if I can. I’m truly sorry and realise I’ve always thought of myself. I’m ready to get clean but what help being in the position I’m in.

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