St. John Chrysostom encouraged the penitent to view confession in a way that helps combat feelings of shame.
It’s tempting to view the sacrament of confession as a sacrament of “judgment,” where God looks angrily at us and is ready to strike us down with a lightning bolt from Heaven.
If we’re giving into this erroneous view of confession, even subconsciously, it will naturally incite strong feelings of shame for what we have done.
Shame in itself is not a bad feeling, as it can encourage us to feel sorrow for our sins. However, we can easily allow shame to dominate our thoughts and prevent us from ever going to confession. If we think that God is angry with us, we can be afraid of the sacrament.
St. John Chrysostom understood this common feeling, and instructed penitents in the 4th century to avail themselves of the sacrament, viewing it in an entirely different way.
Be not ashamed to approach (the priest) because you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says: Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians and apply remedies. We (priests) know well how to pardon, because we ourselves are liable to sin. This is why God did not give us angels to be our doctors, nor send down Gabriel to rule the flock, but from the fold itself he chooses the shepherds, from among the sheep He appoints the leader, in order that he may be inclined to pardon his followers and, keeping in mind his own fault, may not set himself in hardness against the members of the flock.
The key lies in seeing the sacrament of confession as a visit to the doctor, a doctor of our soul.
Now, for some people even this image can be frightening, because they don’t like going to the doctor. However, everyone can agree that when you are physically sick or severely hurt, you need to go to the doctor. The doctor is not your enemy, but your advocate who is there to show you the path of healing.
This is why viewing the priest as a “physician of souls” can help ease any feelings of shame or fear. Entering the confessional is like walking into the doctor’s office. After entering, you reveal to the “doctor” all the areas in your life where you are hurting, the sins that plague your soul. The priest stands in the place of a “specialist,” and saying the words of absolution, allows the “Divine Physician” to use his gentle hands to remove the ulcers in your soul.
It’s not always easy or painless to confess our sins, but that is the way of all “medicine.” Whatever suffering we may have to endure to enter into the confessional, when we come out, our soul is wiped clean and we can start fresh on the path of sanctity.
Confession is a beautiful sacrament, if only we have the eyes to see it.