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Telling someone what you did that injured them is one of the last steps in confession. Carol Cannon explains why.

Has anyone ever apologized for hurting you and then turned around and offended you again five minutes later? Their behavior gave the lie to their apology. This is a fairly common phenomenon. The good news is that there is a model of confession and forgiveness that steers clear of superficial apologies and leads to deep, heartfelt change. Let me introduce it by recounting how my own “theological” understanding of confession evolved.

The first crime I remember committing was when I was five. As a bright-eyed, (heretofore) innocent child, I pilfered a nickel from my mother.

When Mom questioned me about the missing nickel, I denied any knowledge of its whereabouts.

Wham! My conscience smote me mightily. To escape guilt and avoid certain punishment, I slipped the nickel under a newspaper near the spot where it was last seen. Eventually, Mom found her nickel, and I was off the hook. Wrong! Now I was a thief and a liar.

I didn’t confess my crime until age 12, when I heard a preacher say that a single unconfessed sin could keep a person out of heaven. (He failed to mention the equally credible idea that one’s salvation is not determined by the occasional deed or misdeed). In any case, his statement put me in a moral dilemma. At five, I lied to avoid punishment. But when the fear of God’s wrath prevailed over my fear of Dad’s whippings, I ’fessed up. The consequences of not confessing were greater than the consequences of confessing.

I remained stuck in this early stage of moral development well into adulthood, oriented strictly to obedience and punishment. This is not unusual. Many adults embrace technical morality or “cash register” honesty without addressing deeper character issues. Their ethical decisions are driven by fear of reprisal. To avoid God’s (or Dad’s) disfavor, they offer a hasty, generic confession at bedtime “lest they die before they wake.”

Eventually, I stumbled upon a remedial program of character development that helped me grow. I took a friend to an open A.A. meeting to help her, not realizing that I was a workaholic and that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous would save my life and help me mature spiritually. Mind you, the Twelve Steps aren’t intended for people who don’t need them, but they work quite well for people who do; that is, anyone who knows the power of a destructive habit.

12 Steps to a Better Life

The Twelve Steps help us discover who we are, what we do, and how we impact others. In the course of doing them, we become aware of our motives. We see the part we have played in our relationship problems. We discover who God is, what He does, and how He impacts our lives.

The steps offer scripturally-sound tools for transforming old, negative habits into positive new behaviors. Sounds like a process of sanctification, doesn’t it?

The heart of twelve-step programs is confession and forgiveness—not just admitting our technical flaws but acknowledging the deep defects of character that lead to wrong attitudes and actions.

The Bible says that we are as incapable of overcoming our sinful natures (hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil) as a leopard is of changing his spots (see Jeremiah 13:23). If we are to achieve internal (attitudinal) and external (behavioral) change, we need more than a miracle.

We need a strategic program of spiritual development. The genius of the twelve-step process is its simplicity and the sequence in which the steps are presented, as you will see:

Steps one and two, we face the truth about ourselves and admit that we are out of control. Our problems are bigger than we are and greater than all the human resources we can muster. Convinced that willpower alone will not free us from negative relationship habits, we acknowledge our need of help and seek wisdom and strength from a source outside ourselves.

Step three, we make a conscious decision to turn our pain and problems over to God. This is not the surrender of defeat. It is the surrender of victory. We stop pounding our heads against the proverbial brick wall and ask for help. Having turned our will and our life over to God, we let Him handle everything, resisting the impulse to try to manage the details.

The first three steps require weeks, if not months, to complete, depending on one’s level of readiness and the thoroughness with which he or she approaches the task. Each step brings added relief.

Step four guides us in taking a searching and fearless moral inventory of our lives. This frightens some people, but it is an essential preparation for confession. We begin by taking stock of backlogged resentments and residual self-pity.

Wounded people often focus on the offender and get stuck in a blaming mode, thus overlooking their own responsibility. Old resentments simmer beneath the threshold of awareness and affect our perceptions and reactions in the here-and-now. Step four helps us uncover and acknowledge these hidden feelings. Not until we bring our unconscious alibis and rationalizations to the surface and make our system of self-justification explicit can we see ourselves as we are.

We acknowledge how our ego needs are threatened when people offend us, how our sense of self-esteem and security is affected. We are actively seeking the truth about ourselves that will set us free. Gradually, we see how an inferior or superior attitude may have caused us to behave inappropriately, how our insensitivity, compulsive care giving, control, perfectionism, rageaholism, or lack of moderation affected our relationships.

Alas, we are fallible human beings just like the people who have disappointed us! It’s easier to tolerate their idiosyncrasies (the motes in their eyes) when we see our part in the problem. Perhaps we weren’t entirely honest. Maybe we didn’t express ourselves in a timely way when we felt violated. Perhaps we had unfair or unrealistic expectations.

Step five, we face our character flaws squarely and acknowledge our wrongness (not just our wrongdoings) to an understanding person. Without making excuses on the one hand or despising ourselves on the other, we admit and accept our humanity. There is no hint at self-justification.

Step six is a baby step: we become willing to have God remove our defects of character. The average go-getter may feel compelled at this point to set out on a vigorous course of self-improvement. When all such efforts fail, as they surely will, we learn the most important lesson of all: transformation is God’s job. Thus humbled, step seven, we ask Him to remove our shortcomings.

Now genuine confession is possible. Confession involves more than admitting our petty crimes (the nickels we have stolen). It involves recognizing our dishonesty, greed, and arrogance. It involves acknowledging the self-centeredness that drove us to force our will on others. We don’t have a right to be demanding and arbitrary, to expect everyone to do things our way.

There’s a vast difference between (a) confessing that you have bullied your loved ones into complying with your wishes and (b) confessing that you’ve had an arrogant attitude that led you to assume the right to manipulate and control them in the first place!

Before we will be ready to apologize to the people we have hurt, our “change of heart” must be manifested in new behavior. This takes time.

Meanwhile, (step eight) we make a list of those we have harmed and become willing to make amends. Due to the delicacy of some situations, we leave the timing in God’s hands and wait for a clear indication of His will. He makes it apparent when the time is right for us to proceed.

Direct communication with the people we have harmed is step nine. Regardless of when or how we go about making amends, the best amends is a changed life. Making amends is not about verbal apologies. It’s about change. We don’t apologize until our actions are congruent with our words. We must first demonstrate a new attitude and a new spirit.

Step ten suggests that we make it a practice to take a daily moral inventory and promptly admit it when we are wrong. What a treat for the people closest to us! At this point, we are no longer recognizable as the persons we once were.

Step eleven encourages us to maintain conscious contact with God. By cultivating a kind of God-consciousness, we are able to act with integrity. At last we enjoy a sense of wholeness, a spiritual awakening (step twelve). Our spirits are revived. We have come alive out of death. Born again, we are free to be passionately present to ourselves, to God, and to others.

A New Life Begins

When confession is broken down into these steps, it becomes more meaningful than anything we have previously known. As a result of engaging in this process of surrender, self-examination, willingness, transformation, and confession, we are free to accept ourselves and be of service to those around us, which is the goal of step twelve.

The entire process is a practical application of James 5:16: “Confess your sins to each other that [your relationships] may be healed [that is, reconciled].”

From Confession to Forgiveness

by Carol Cannon
From the March 2007 Signs  

Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

The Twelve Steps originated with Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Since then they have proliferated to a wide variety of addictions, including narcotics, gambling, food, and work, to name a few.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

*For further information on applying the Twelve Steps to relationship problems and other difficulties, see The Twelve Steps Aren’t for People Who Don’t Need Them by Carol Cannon, available from The Bridge to Recovery.