Confession: Breaking the chains of our secret sins.

Granting God’s forgiveness to those who need it.

Confess /kən'fɛs/ v. Admit or state one’s sins or failings to another (trustworthy) Christian.
2. Admit or state what one believes.
[Confession /kən'fɛs.ʃən/ n., confessor /kən'fɛs.sər/ n.]

The practice of confession—heck, the very idea of confession—is controversial to a lot of Christians. ’Cause we don’t wanna.

Partly it’s because we don’t find it all that easy to find a trustworthy Christian with whom we can talk about these things. Partly because those trustworthy Christians we do know… we’re entirely ashamed to tell them such things. We worry they’ll lecture us, condemn us, shun us, try to punish us, or we imagine some other worst-case scenario.

So we pretend the scriptures never instruct us to confess our sins to one another—

James 5.16 KWL
So confess these sins to one another:
Make requests for one another, so you can be cured.
A moral, energetic petition is very mighty.

—that it’s just a Catholic thing, and that Christians in the bible never did any such thing—

Acts 19.17-18 KWL
17 This became known by all the Judean and Grecian inhabitants of Ephesus.
Fear fell upon all of them, and Master Jesus’s name was exalted.
18 Many of the believers came to confess and tell of their deeds.

—even that it’s wrong for us to share these things with one another, because what business do we have forgiving one another for their sins, or telling them to go in peace?

John 20.22-23 KWL
22 This said, Jesus blew on them
and told them, “Take the Holy Spirit.
23 When you forgive people their sins, they’ve been forgiven.
When you take charge of people, they’ve been charged.”

But in fact when we publicly, or semi-publicly, confess our sins, God forgives us. 1Jn 1.9 When we don’t—when we try to keep these confessions only between us and God, but among fellow Christians we pretend we never sin (or we admit we do sin, but make it sound like we don’t sin much), that’s hypocrisy. Bluntly we’re liars. And since God calls us sinners, we make God out to be the liar in this situation. 1Jn 1.8

And frankly, a lot of times we confess to nobody because we really don’t care to stop sinning. If nobody knows about our sins—if the only person we tell these things to is the Holy Spirit, and we assume he’d never tell on us (biblical evidence to the contrary Ac 5.1-11), we can go right on committing ’em. Secretly. Privately. Hypocritically.

Now that we belong to Jesus, we’re supposed to quit sin. Ro 6.11-12 But if we hide our sins, disguise the chains sin still has on us, and pretend we’re living like Christians… we remain the same old slaves to sin we always were. It’s as if we never had turned to Jesus. It’s like an alcoholic who never quits drinking because he’s not going to any bloody A.A. meeting. Or the addict who pretends she went to rehab, and hopes nobody notices she’s still hooked. Same fraud; different vice.

Hiding sin.

Now I know: People read passages in the bible about confessing to God, and object, “I don’t see anything in there about confessing to other people. It looks to me like they only confessed stuff to God. You’re trying to read this confession idea into the scriptures.”

Take David’s statement here:

Psalm 32.3-5 KWL
3 Since I was silent, my bones came apart. I roared all day long.
4 Day and night, your hand was heavy on me.
My freshness was turned into summer droughts. Selah.
5 I acknowledged my sin to you. I didn’t cover up my depravity.
I said, “I’ll confess my misdeeds to the LORD.”
And you took away my sinful depravity! Selah.

And let’s assume these naysayers are right: David doesn’t look like he confessed his sins to anybody but the LORD. Didn’t need to confess to anyone else.

Then from whom was he hiding his guilt? From the all-knowing Almighty? No; David was wholly aware God knows all. Ps 139.1-12 Besides which, he already stated how “your hand was heavy on me” Ps 32.4 —he knew God already knew his guilt, and was trying to make David face up to it. He couldn’t hide a thing from God. Who can?

But David could hide his guilt from others. You know, like people do.

Here’s the thing: Even when we assume our sins are nobody’s business but ours and God’s, and nobody needs to know about ’em but us two, these sins affect everything else. Sometimes in subtle ways; sometimes in blatantly obvious ways, and we’re totally lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.

If we’re in Christian leadership, and we have unresolved issues with God, how can we minister him to others? We can’t. Our estranged relationship is always gonna get in the way. It’ll affect our prayer lives, the way we study the bible, the messages we’re willing to receive from God, the prophecies we’re meant to share with others, everything. And if we pretend nothing’s wrong, that we’re as tight with God as ever—and people are dealing with us based on the assumption our relationship with God is solid—we’re living a lie. We’re practicing fraud.

It’s only a matter of time before such Christians turn into straight-up false teachers, false prophets, or antichrists. Won’t take as long as you think, either.

But such Christians, because they’re ashamed of their sins, keep ’em hidden. Confess them to God, yet keep slipping up, and practicing them again and again. And think they’re good. And conveniently, nobody has to know they’re suffering from serious moral failings. ’Cause they’re successfully pretending otherwise.

Various Christians try to fudge around this by admitting vague moral failures from time to time: “I struggle with sin, same as everybody else.” Or “I’m not perfect; I have to fight temptation too.” Of course, there’s no individual on earth—not even their spouse—who knows what these sins and temptations and struggles specifically are. None of ’em have been invited to help.

Hence many of these sins and temptations eventually have catastrophic results when they finally come out in the open. Many a Christian leader has lost position, or gone to prison, because they avoided admitting they were tempted by sex, wealth, power, self-glorification, self-justification… you name it, it’s been done.

These disasters could’ve been easily avoided. God surrounds us with help! Plenty of Christians can have our back, praying for us, encouraging us to resist temptation, serving as partners who keep us accountable. After all, they’re in the same boat as we: They’re fellow sinners, trying to follow Jesus. They can help. We need that help. All of us do. Only our pride (and fear) is keeping us away from it.

Confession as a sacrament.

Roman Catholics are particularly known for practicing confession. They have their system all sorted out, and institutionalized: On a regular basis, you sit down with your priest and admit your sins. Yes, he’ll famously keep it just between him, you, and God. He’s sworn to God he will. He gets fired otherwise.

Catholics call this “the sacrament of penance,” or reconciliation: By sinning, we ding our relationship with God. We stop worshiping, praying, serving, or whatever, ’cause our sins made us feel too dirty to do so. But we repented, and wanna make things right with God.

The sacramental part—the ritual which represents God’s reality—is when the priest declares we are right with God: “You’re forgiven. Go and sin no more,” as Jesus probably told the adulterer:

John 8.10-11 KWL
10 [Standing, seeing no one but the woman,
Jesus told her, “Woman, where are they? No one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, master.”
Jesus told her, “I don’t condemn you either. Go home. From now on, don’t sin.”]

When we forgive ’em, they’re forgiven. Jn 20.23 Not maybe forgiven; really forgiven. ’Cause we Christians have that power Jesus gave us to spiritually bind and loose stuff on heaven and earth. Mt 18.18 And lest you think this is an abuse of this power, it’s absolutely not; we’re doing as we see our Father doing. It’s based on God’s grace. When we confess our sins to him, he forgives us everything. 1Jn 1.9 Absolutely, positively everything. No exceptions.

Many people focus on the prayers the priests instruct people to pray afterward: “Say five Our Fathers.” They tend to think of these prayers as if they’re our “punishment” for sinning. As if prayer is punishment. (It exposes their own lousy attitudes about prayer.) Of course prayers aren’t punishment. They’re meant to realign us with God. In praying—assuming we’re paying attention to the words of our prayers—we’re meant to think about what God wants and expects of us, as described in rote prayers. They’re meant to help us know and follow God better.

The Orthodox churches also have a form of institutionalized confession. As do Anglicans and Lutherans. But Evangelicals have largely adopted the Calvinist point of view—that since this practice is never explicitly spelled out in the bible, it wasn’t important enough for us to do regularly, so we needn’t do it. So Evangelicals pretty much don’t confess to anyone… unless they go to 12-step meetings and confess their sins there, unaware of the fact it’s precisely what they’re doing.

Okay, Evangelicals: Since every Christian is a priest, you don’t necessarily have to go to a member of the clergy to talk about your sins. Any mature Christian, who knows how to be discreet, and who knows how to remind you you’re forgiven, will do.

Well… nearly every Christian.

What your confessor oughta look like.

When it comes to confession, ask people their greatest fear and they’ll say it’s gossip. They fear their confessor will be indiscreet: They’ll rush off to the local prayer meeting with all your juiciest personal failings, and announce, “Man alive do we need to pray for [your name], ’cause you won’t believe the things I was told.” Next thing not only do the church gossips have all your dirty laundry, they’re waving around the undershorts shouting, “Lookit how brown they are!”

In seminary, one of our campus pastors regularly made the mistake of sharing everything with his wife. Hey, one should be able to do that, right? But he was a mature Christian, and she was a nightmare. Tell him anything in confidence, and it was just like telling her, and she wasn’t discreet at all. Say a young man admitted he was masturbating: Her response would be, “He shouldn’t be doing that!”—and she’d tell everyone, trying to shame him into stopping. If she knew your sins, and you annoyed her for whatever reason, she’d bring those sins up, just to shut you up. Thanks to her, this pastor didn’t keep his job long. (Doesn’t keep any ministry job long.)

So no, you don’t want a blabby confessor—and if your pastors are such people, you don’t have to share anything with them. Best if you don’t. Go find another mature Christian.

Then there are the legalists. These are the folks who take it upon themselves to not just listen to you confess… but hand down consequences and punishments. They may tell you, “You’re forgiven,” but they gotta add, “And here’s what you gotta do before you’re totally forgiven.” Or if they’re in church leadership, “Here’s what you gotta do before you get our trust back.”

In one church I visited, if you confessed certain sins to the pastor, he’d demand you step away from certain church activities for a few weeks. That’s right: You were grounded. He’d have people watch you, or oversee you, lest you fall into temptation. You weren’t forgiven till you jumped through all the hoops he set out for you. Often not even then.

It’s entirely inappropriate. Confession’s about grace, not merit.

So: Find a Christian who’s totally honest about their own sins, whom you trust to keep things confidential. You can pick more than one. If you’re in a 12-step program, technically everyone in your group is a confessor, of sorts. For that matter, you can publicly confess everything to everyone… if your self-esteem can handle the criticism you’re inevitably gonna hear from judgmental people. But I’d pick no more than five confessors.

If you’re worried your confessor, or the leadership of your church, will in fact make you go through some sort of restoration program… well, you might be in a cult. Find a better church.

Your confessor should know they’re your confessor. Don’t just start unloading on somebody without having first talked to them about confessing their sins to them. Some of them don’t wanna be anyone’s confessor. (Some of ’em don’t believe in confession!) Or—despite what you think—they’re not ready for the job: They have their own sins and issues to work out.

Your confessor should also know confession consists of forgiveness, not advice. They’re not your therapist! Some of ’em are wise enough to keep their mouths shut, their opinions to themselves, and only offer sympathy, comfort and forgiveness. Most don’t, and offer advice… and get really frustrated and angry if you don’t take it, ’cause they thought you want them to be their mentor, not confessor. It only means they lack patience, and aren’t as mature as you need ’em to be.

So if at any point they stop comforting and forgiving you, but instead burden you with recommendations or penalties, find another confessor. Confession should (after your initial discomfort) be a huge relief. Not a trial.

When people confess to you.

And at some point people are gonna want to confess their sins to you. ’Cause they think you’re a mature Christian. Hopefully you are.

Keep your advice to a minimum. You’re not their therapist: You’re not qualified. (Unless you are qualified, and have a license, and all that. But even then, that’s not really why they came to you.) I know you’re gonna want to point ’em to resources, or suggest techniques, which have helped you personally overcome temptation, which might work for them. Don’t. Not unless they ask.

It is okay to advise people to apologize, or make restitution, or try to restore relationships. In the scriptures God advised, or even commanded, such things. If they’re truly repentant, they’ll take such advice. But here’s the lousy part about being a confessor: Sometimes they’re not all that repentant. They don’t wanna make things right; they just wanna hear, “You’re forgiven.” And we gotta forgive them anyway.

Yeah, even when they’ve committed felonies.

I’m not Catholic. So I’m not bound to keep every confessional secret. If someone threatens to harm themselves or others, I’ll tell on ’em. If someone confesses to a felony—murder, rape, child molestation, grand larceny, or criminal fraud—I’m calling the cops. Keeping it to yourself makes you an accessory—a fact a lot of Christians don’t realize, and get themselves and their churches into huge trouble when it comes out. As it will.

Even then, even when they’re confessing to something awful, which hugely offends me personally, the only response I as a confessor am permitted to give them… is Jesus’s. And God forgives all. “You’re forgiven. Go and sin no more.” Period.

God’s forgiveness isn’t earned. But we will be tempted to make ’em deserve it. That’s why confessors gotta fight the temptation to turn into legalists: All that old karma-based thinking bubbles up. We figure they should at least feel really bad. Or cry. Or go through really complicated acts of restitution. Sometimes we figure they totally deserve the death penalty. We discover just how gracious and forgiving we actually aren’t.

If there are any nasty, icky, blasphemous sins which you figure can’t be forgiven, I guarantee you’re gonna eventually hear them. People are capable of anything. But the confessor’s job is to respond, every single time, without exception, “You’re forgiven. Go and sin no more.” It’s what Jesus says, so it’s what we must say.

This is why I warn would-be confessors: If there’s any situation where you won’t end with these words, don’t listen to confessions. You’re not ready.