Occasionally someone I know will ask me a general question about confessions. Often the question they want to ask is, “I have done something wrong, and I want to fix it, but do I need to talk to my bishop?” Moments like these are very personal and delicate. Admitting guilt and acknowledging our weaknesses is a difficult thing to do.
Generally, I think there is an awareness that serious transgressions require a confession. This would include deliberate offenses to another person such as intentional physical injury, sexual violations, abuse of any kind, theft, fraud, or illegal activity. Yet, if an individual’s sins are not of that magnitude, he or she may not know if confession is necessary, especially if the sin appears to involve no one else but the individual.
It is not uncommon for someone who has made a serious mistake to wonder, “How do I know if I need to talk to my bishop? What should I say? How much do I have to tell, and what will happen?” I think there are a number of people who could enjoy more peace in their lives if they knew the answers to these questions and acted on them.
The Lord, Himself, said, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins – behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” He also said, “I, the Lord, forgive sins, and am merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts….” Doctrine & Covenants 58:42-43, 61:2)
The simplest answer of how to know if you should confess to a priesthood leader is to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost. A baptized member of the Lord’s Church is entitled to the companionship of the Holy Ghost. That is what the Lord intends. In His role as the Comforter, the Holy Ghost can provide spiritual guidance, comfort, and peace. If you do not feel His influence, that may be the first indicator that something else is missing. If you have made personal efforts to repent and have confessed to God in prayer, but still do not feel divine help, you may want to council with a bishop to determine why.
Another instance that may suggest a need for confession is when an individual has sinned and made restitution, but does not feel forgiven. It’s as though thoughts of the sin continue to linger and weigh on the mind. A bishop can help an individual determine if there is more they need to do to be forgiven, or if they are simply being harder on themselves than the Lord. Let me share a personal example.
When I was fourteen, I made some poor choices that led to some poorer decisions. This led to a sin that I was ashamed of. In this case, I was not guilty of a serious transgression, but I no longer felt at peace in my life. What I did feel was sincere remorse and I wanted to do whatever it took to have that burden lifted. At the same time, I didn’t want to expose my weaknesses to anyone else. I prayed repeatedly for forgiveness, yet this didn’t seem enough.
Shortly after I prayed, the idea came to my mind that maybe I should talk with my bishop. I dismissed the thought, thinking my sins weren’t that serious, but the idea lingered. It had a presence in my mind that almost seemed to gently nag. I later recognized that persistent presence as the influence and companionship of the Holy Ghost, trying to guide me and answer my prayer.
Finding some courage, and feeling that confession would ease my conscience, I asked my bishop if I could meet with him. He kindly replied yes. Having since served as a bishop, myself, I can imagine how happy he was that I asked him for that opportunity. As we sat together in his office, I didn’t know what to say. I felt awkward. My situation was very uncomfortable. Feeling a need to do something, I began.
I shared with the bishop how I felt at the time, that something was still troubling me. I told him a little about what I had done, enough for him to understand what my sin was. I then explained what I had done to repent and how I still felt uncomfortable. I asked what I should do. He was very kind and understanding. He listened. I hope every bishop will listen as well as he did. My bishop then gave me some counsel. He offered some specific suggestions that would help me avoid the same mistake again. He helped me to clearly understand the impact of my decisions and he reassured me. In that instance, nothing more was needed. He thanked me for talking with him and offered his help again if I needed it.
As I left his office, I remember having an incredible feeling. The heavy burden I carried on my shoulders when I went into his office had been lifted. It was gone. I felt capable and happy. The peace I had been seeking had returned. At that moment, I felt the importance of a bishop as a Judge in Israel. I felt at peace with God, and that was truly worth any amount of discomfort to have it back.
A voluntary willingness to confess and admit one’s sins demonstrates a repentant attitude. Sometimes prayer may not be enough, simply because we need the help of others to overcome greater sins. When our faith is combined, it is much easier to accomplish difficult things. I am grateful to have learned that lesson at an early age.
What I Believe…