What is Confession?
There is a long history of confession in the Christian tradition. Perhaps most notably there is the practice of confession of sins to a priest in some liturgical churches such as the Catholic Church. Even outside of this formal act of penance, Christians of all stripes have put value on confessing our sins to brothers and sisters in Christ (James 5:16) and to God. In the Christian tradition, confession is a part of repentance; sin is admitted in confession because the desire of the one confessing is to turn away from his or her sin. As a person turns away from their sin, he or she reorients towards God. Confession is an admission of wrongdoing and part of the goal is to cease the wrongdoing.
Within popular culture a different sort of “confession” has arisen. It shares some similarities with the Christian notion of confession, but its goal is wholly different. This sort of confession is exemplified by The Weeknd in “Sacrifice.” Essentially, The Weeknd’s confession is designed to work as a self-disclosure that aims to garner acceptance from others without changing anything. Where Christian confession says, “This is what I have done and I want to change,” this other sort of confession says, “This is what I have done and I don’t plan to change it, but now that I’ve been honest about it I expect you to accept me.” In some cases, this other sort of confession does not just say, “I expect you to accept me for my honesty,” but goes so far as to say, “I expect you to admire me for my honesty.”
Confession for Acceptance
The Weeknd makes it clear that sacrifice doesn’t fit into his definition of love. Rather, he wants to be free to do as he pleases. He sings,
I don’t wanna sacrifice
For your love, I try
I don’t want to sacrifice
But I love my time
Rather than investing in the giving and receiving that characterizes true love, The Weeknd would forfeit love for the freedom to indulge in “more of the night,” partying and chasing his own desires:
Your love for more of the night
I try to put up a fight
Can’t hold me down
In these lyrics, as well as in the rest of the song, there are no hints at remorse in The Weeknd’s admission that he is unwilling to sacrifice what he wants for the sake of another, no suggestion that he is interested in changing his ways. But we may suppose that The Weeknd is not intending to smear his own name through these admissions—by a backward sort of logic, his listeners are supposed to like him more at the end of the song, admiring (or at least, accepting) his “confession” of unrepentant selfishness. The logic of such a “confession” is flawed but seems to work: when someone gives the appearance of vulnerability by admitting things about themselves that are not attractive, many people may feel understanding and empathy rather than contempt or disapproval. In the very act of admitting his selfishness, The Weeknd compels his listeners to accept his selfishness.
It isn’t just The Weeknd who is indulging in the practice of “confession for acceptance” (see also Adele’s “Oh My God,” or perhaps Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.”) The practice of admitting one’s faults with no intention to change now has the potential to be seen as admirable. Self-disclosure itself has come to be seen as virtuous, regardless of what is being disclosed. This is a far cry from the Christian practice of confession for repentance.
Why confession for acceptance seems to work in our culture might be attributed to a number of things. It could be associated with a soft moral relativism that encourages people to live by the slogan “you do you” and accept the actions of everyone indiscriminately. Perhaps this sort of confession is more widely accepted because when we see others accepted despite their unrepentant flaws, we don’t have to feel bad about our own sins. Whatever the reasons, it is evident that such confession, though it may seem virtuous, is not true confession.
How we as Christians respond to this sort of “confession” begins with recognizing that it is not virtuous and not even a true display of honesty. While the Weeknd may sing “I don’t want to sacrifice for your love,” and Adele may sing, “I know that it’s wrong, but I want to have fun,” they have admitted neither their depravity nor their need to change, and therein lies the dishonesty of such “confession.” They are honest about their feelings and desires, perhaps, but they do not give an honest or accurate account of what is most true and good. The Weeknd sings, “I don’t want to sacrifice for your love,” but what is love without sacrifice? In the Incarnation and crucifixion of Christ, we see that God’s most extravagant exhibition of his love for us is a sacrificial love. Jesus tells us that the greatest form of love is sacrificial (ohn 15:13J). To desire to love without making sacrifices or to desire to confess without repenting, is to desire an impossibility.
Next, we might consider Jesus’s parable of the two sons in Matthew 21. A father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. The first says he will not, yet later he changes his mind (he repents) and goes. The second says that he will go, but then fails to do as his father asks. Jesus uses this parable to demonstrate that the sinners of the world who later repent of their sins by turning from them and following Jesus are true followers of God, whereas the “religious” people who give mere lip service to God are not true followers. More broadly, the principle of the parable can be stated as “God honors true repentance, but is not impressed or honored by feigned repentance.” Confession for acceptance without repentance does not glorify God; it glorifies only the one who confesses to magnify his own name.
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