The Discipline of Confession

Mayflower Hotel Phone

We read in the 12&12 that the practice of admitting one’s defects to another person is very ancient. And indeed it is. So is the practice of admitting one’s defects to God. The traditional name for these practices is, of course, confession.

AA doesn’t stress the use of the term “confession” for the same reason it doesn’t stress the use of the term “sin,” which it replaces with “defects.” Both have negative religious connotations. They can not only put off, but confuse the alcoholic as to what the nature and the purpose of the practice actually is in our program. Yet, AA doesn’t avoid either term; each appears 8 times in the Big Book and the 12&12.

Still, our goal is not to confess our sins but to admit our defects. In effect, while acknowledging it borrowed the concept from religion (via the Oxford Group), AA redefines confession for the alcoholic. We want to admit “the exact nature of our wrongs.” That is, we want to admit not only our wrongful deeds (typically the goal in religious confession), but the wrongs in us which caused our doing them.

Having examined them thoroughly during our inventory, we want to admit to the distorted emotions which drove us to harm others and which are harming us as well, e.g., anger, resentment, fear, guilt, remorse, shame, regret, depression, self-pity. We want to acknowledge the defects of character in us which are fueling these emotions, e.g., dishonesty, envy, greed, impatience, ingratitude, injustice, intolerance, jealousy, lust, narrow-mindedness, pride.

Thus it follows that our admission of defects—of character and of emotion—is only as good as the self-examination on which it is based. If our inventory is mostly a summary of misdeeds, all we are going to admit to is what we did wrong. Our inventory will have been mostly an account of what we remember and our admission a recount of the same. We will not have examined the deeds for what they say about us and we will therefore have very little to say as to their exact nature. We will not have done the necessary groundwork for Steps 6 and 7, where we become ready to surrender our defects and ask God to remove them from us.

As presented in our two texts, confession—or the admission of defects—is a spiritual discipline. Spiritual because it most centrally concerns God. We admit our defects to God, not just to ourselves and another human being. Spiritual too because our disease is fundamentally spiritual and not only physical and mental. It requires a spiritual solution. Our admission, we are told, allows the grace of God to enter and “expel our destructive obsessions” (12&12, S5, p. 57). Yet many of us leave God out of our confession. We make our admission to another person without having any sense of its spiritual dimensions. 

Confession is a discipline because it is designed to be practiced regularly and consistently over an extended period of time. It is not a random or occasional act but a daily endeavor. The idea is to make the practice a habit and thereby become very good at it, just like through protracted practice we can excel at playing the violin or basketball.

Unlike these two other activities, however, confession encompasses all areas of life. In AA, it is a comprehensive practice, one of the spiritual principles we practice in all our affairs. The principle is operative in Steps 5, 9, and 10. It is also operational in our sharing at meetings.

In Step 5 it is the pivotal discipline. In Step 9, it works in conjunction with the discipline of restitution. We admit our wrongs to those we have harmed and make amends for them. In Step 10, an application of Steps 4 through 9 to the present, it is one of the main disciplines, together with self-examination, surrender, prayer, and restitution. We take inventory, admit our wrongs to ourselves and to God, ready ourselves to surrender the defects in question, pray for their removal, make the admission to those we have harmed, and make amends to them. If the situation is serious enough, we may have to take inventory with the help of another person (usually our sponsor) and make our admission to that person before we proceed with the subsequent Steps.

How we order these disciplines and how much time we spend on them depends on the kind of Step-10 inventory we are doing, whether spot-check, end-of-day, or extended (covering a substantial period of time). In some spot-checks we may go very quickly from inventory to admission to amends, practicing the other disciplines perhaps in our nightly review. In that review, Step 10 combines with Step 11 and we bring in the discipline of meditation as well as of prayer. An extended review is very much like a Step 4, and thus we may work more completely thorough all the disciplines making up the process in that Step.  

Besides working in conjunction with these other disciplines, confession works together with a variety of virtues, the second major set of spiritual principles in the Steps. Most obviously, confession calls for humility and honesty. When we confess we humble ourselves. We admit there’s something wrong with us; we tell the truth about ourselves and what we’ve done or left undone. We not only tell the truth, but we are totally frank with the person hearing our admission, and completely sincere with the person to whom we are making amends.

Disclosing ourselves to another and admitting our wrongs to those we have hurt may make us feel anxious, fearful, and embarrassed. Thus we may need to practice courage and therefore faith—faith that this is God’s will for us and that he will see us through. We may also need to practice discretion in what we disclose to whom, and prudence in whom we choose to hear our confession. And if we are going to practice confession as a discipline, we need perseverance. We need to continue to admit whenever and wherever we are wrong, regardless of the obstacles we may face.

Finally, an admission of wrongs is something we do all the time in the rooms. While discretion calls for a lot of prudent editing in such an open setting, we are always disclosing ourselves to our fellow alcoholics. To share is to unveil and to reveal, knowing that we are all fellow sufferers and that others will not judge but identify with us. When we share we share not only our faults, but the solutions which by the grace of God we have found in Alcoholics Anonymous.

[Image: Mayflower Hotel phone from which Bill W. made the call that led to his meeting with Dr. Bob. For an antique postcard of the hotel, please click on link.]  

Bill W."My self-analysis has frequently been faulty. Sometimes I’ve failed to share my defects with the right people; at other times, I’ve confessed their defects, rather than my own; and at still other times, my confession of defects has been more in the nature of loud complaints about my circumstances and my problems.”
– Bill W., As Bill Sees It

Big Book"Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation." – Big Book 

"Most of us would declare that without a fearless admission of our defects to another human being we could not stay sober." – 12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” – Proverbs 28:13
"Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed." – James 5:16  

Publilius Syrus
"To confess a fault freely is the closest thing to being innocent of it." – Publilius Syrus 

"I am not ashamed to confess that I am ignorant of what I do not know." – Cicero   

"Why does no one confess his sins? Because he is yet in them. It is the man who has awaken from his sleep who tells of his dreams." – Seneca  

"There are some faults which men readily admit, but others not so readily.” – Epictetus  

"The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works." – St. Augustine  

Pope St. Gregory the Great
To do penance is to bewail the evil we have done, and to do no evil to bewail." – Pope Gregory the Great 

Bernard de Clairvaux
"If you would know whether you have made a good confession, ask yourself whether you have resolved to abandon your sins." – Bernard de Clairvaux  

Thomas Aquinas"Three conditions are necessary for penance: contrition, which is good for sin, together with a purpose of amendment; confession of sins without any omission; and satisfaction by means of good works." – Thomas Aquinas   

Dante Alighieri
"The weapons of divine justice are blunted by the confession and sorrow of the offender." – Dante Alighieri  

Book of Common Prayer
"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done." – Book of Common Prayer  

William Shakespeare
"Confess yourself to heaven; repent what's past; avoid what is to come." – William Shakespeare, Hamlet 

Matthew Prior
"He's half absolved, who has confessed." – Matthew Prior  

William Winstanley
"Confessing a fault makes half amends for it." – William Winstanley  

Thomas Brooks
"We’re all sinners; but the true penitent confesses his sins by retail." – Thomas Brooks  

William Secker
"Many blush to confess their faults, who never blush to commit them." – William Secker  

Charles H. Spurgeon
"It does not spoil your happiness to confess your sin. The unhappiness is in not making the confession." – Charles Spurgeon  

Oscar Wilde
"A man's very highest moment is, I have no doubt at all, when he kneels in the dust, and beats his breast, and tells all the sins of his life." – Oscar Wilde  

George Eliot
"It is because sympathy is but a living again through our own past in a new form, that confession often prompts a response of confession." – George Eliot  

William James"For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have begun; he has exteriorized his rottenness. If he has not actually got rid of it, he at least no longer smears it over with a hypocritical show of virtue.”– William James 

Mahatma Gandhi
"Confession of errors is like a broom which sweeps away the dirt and leaves the surface brighter and clearer. I feel stronger for confession." – Mahatma Gandhi   

St. Faustina "The soul neither knows how, nor is willing, to probe with precision the depths of its own misery. It puts on a mask and avoids everything that might bring it recovery." – St. Faustina 

Ludwig Wittgenstein
"A confession has to be part of your new life." – Ludwig Wittgenstein 

Germaine Greer
"Psychoanalysis is the confession without the absolution." – Germaine Greer  

Frederick Buechner"To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn't already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate Bridge." – Frederick Buechner 

Albert Camus
"A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is such a confession." – Albert Camus  

Bill Hybels
"Confession is probably the most neglected area of personal prayer." – Bill Hybels  

Pope John Paul II
"Confession is an act of honesty and courage—an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God." – Pope John Paul II  

Georgia Harkness
The great danger is that in the confession of any collective sin, one shall confess the sins of others and forget our own." – Georgia Harkness  

Paul Ekman
"The wish to relieve guilt may motivate a confession, but the wish to avoid the humiliation of shame may prevent it." – Paul Ekman 

Scottish Proverb
"Confessed faults are half-mended." – Scottish Proverb

English Proverb
"Confession is the first step to repentance.” – English Proverb  

"He who denies all, confesses all." – Unknown  

Twenty-Four Hours a Day "Strength comes from honestly telling your own experiences with drinking. In religion, they call it confession. We call it witnessing or sharing . . . This personal witness lets out the things you had kept hidden, brings them out into the open and you find release and strength.” – Twenty-Four Hours a Day  

PTP123"In Step 5, “admitted” takes on a broader significance as an expression of honesty and humility, and becomes operative through the discipline of confession, of character defects and of past wrongdoing." – PTP123  

PTP4"We want to know what our real defects of character are, what is really wrong with us emotionally, the harm we have actually caused others. These are the things we need to admit to and make amends for." – PTP4  

Practice These: Confession - Proverb
Practice These: Confession - Scottish Proverb

For more PTP123 passages on confession see pp. 15, 17, 20, 21, 29, 73; on admitting, pp. 72, 138, 153, 182, 218. For PTP4, see 17, 355, 358, 387, 405; and honesty, 388, 406; as admission of defects/faults/laws/wrongs, 11, 23, 33, 121, 172, 177, 182, 183, 192, 197, 205, 220, 222, 232, 257, 265, 326, 338, 349, 406; as spiritual discipline, 10, 11, 46, 272, 379, 396; in religion, 7, 8, 10. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages click on and search confession and admission and their cognates.  See also entries under admission in As Bill Sees It. For an audio of Step 5 in the12&12, please click on link.  

To return to Practice These, please click on link.