Confession is a much neglected discipline in Protestant life, despite the clear biblical command to “confess your sins to one another and academic help pray for each other that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) Speaking your depravity out loud to a listening brother or sister in Christ is one of the most powerful means of sanctification I’ve ever seen. I’m a big proponent of it, because nothing frees me from my sin faster than shining the cold light of my brother’s gaze on it.
There’s just one problem. I hate confessing my sins.
I mean I really hate it. Viscerally. It makes me squirm and writhe down to the very core of my soul to say out loud what I was thinking or what I was doing or what I was looking at. You’d think I was undergoing exorcism (which, in a way, is exactly what’s happening). I’d almost rather do anything than confess my sins. I’d rather hide my sins and play the “Oh-I’m-fine” church game for all eternity.
So I’m still learning the discipline of confession. My counsel to seminary students is to join me.
Since most of our readers are from Christian traditions in which confession is not a formal practice, I offer a few thoughts on its implementation
Choosing a Confessor. You need a mature Christian friend of the same gender who knows you well enough and is mature enough to handle your depravity. They should love you and you should be reasonably comfortable with them. If you don’t have any relationships of this quality, you can go to a pastor or counselor as an intermediate measure.
However, the absence of quality friendships in which confession of sins is possible is a big problem. You need friends like this. Be sure that the real problem isn’t your unwillingness to be transparent.
Beware of confessing to new Christians or emotionally immature people. I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone can handle the responsibility of hearing about my depravity. This is especially true for people in ministry, because ordinary Christians sometimes put us on a pedestal. It’s important that we find safe people.
Full Honesty. God desires “truth in the inner parts (Psalm 51:6) Even as we confess our sin, we’re inclined to qualify, justify and minimize it, giving reasons why it’s not as bad as it sounds, etc. Forget that. In confession, we embrace the glorious truth is that Christ is our justification and we need no other. True confession abandons all self-justification, looks our depravity full in its face and holds nothing back.
Don’t Play Language Games. When you’re confessing, do not qualify your sin by saying you’re “struggling” with it. No you’re not. You’re sinning. Deliberately.
Abraham Piper is incisive:
We’re not porn-addicts; we “struggle with lust.”
We’re not arrogant; we “struggle with pride.”
With a simple cliché our sins become palatable.
C. J. Mahaney has great counsel, too:
A sincere confession of sin should be specific (“I was arrogant and angry when I made that statement; will you please forgive me for sinning against you in this way?”) and brief (this shouldn’t take long). When I find myself adding an explanation to my confession, I’m not asking forgiveness but instead appealing for understanding.
I have a close friend from college who’s also in ministry. We call each other when we’re facing or giving in to sexual temptation. It’s always best when I call him at the first sign of trouble:
- It halts the downhill slide of my depravity
- The earlier I do it, the less I have to confess
- My confessing inspires him to come clean about his failures (and vice versa)
I’m not of the school of thought that we have to verbally name every sin we commit. I’m not even sure that’s possible. There’s no question, however, that we would benefit greatly from a regular pattern of confession of sin. Think of how much pride would be derailed if every week we named our sins out loud to a loving friend in Christ!
When hearing confessions:
Be gracious. Once a person has come to a point of admitting their sin, they usually don’t need us piling on telling them how awful it is, unless they’re being evasive. Our primary function is to minister the grace and forgiveness of Christ to them. “Watch yourselves, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1) Beware of any arrogance of superiority about your brother’s failings.
Don’t say it’s all right when it’s not. Say only things that are true: You have sinned, you are loved, you are forgiven. It’s a chance to be priestly to each other.
Encourage preventative and restorative measures. This may mean memorizing scripture, praying in a certain way, confessing sin to an injured party, taking steps of restoration or repayment, the end of a relationship, a change in schedule, a filter on a computer, or even counseling or some kind of intervention.
Don’t try to fix them. You are not the Holy Spirit. It’s not your job to sanctify them, or to “make sure this never happens again.”
Don’t get over your head. Remember that you’re a brother and not a professional counselor-don’t try to solve problems that are too big for you. At my church, we refer people with serious issues to Christian counselors all the time. We still love, pray and support them,
Always pray together. Prayer brings the presence of God into the confession experience in a very cleansing and affirming way.
“A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”