19 November 2020

Confession: Breaking the chains of our secret sins.

CONFESS kən'fɛs verb. Admit or state one’s failings or sins to another [trustworthy] person.
2. Admit or state what one believes.
[Confession kən'fɛs.ʃən noun, confessor kən'fɛs.sər noun.]

The way to defeat hypocrisy, plain and simple, is authenticity. We’re not perfect—none but Jesus is—and we need to say so. And in many cases need to say more than just the generic “I’m a sinner,” with no further details: We need to give some of those details. We need to tell on ourselves. We need to confess.

The practice of confession—heck, the very idea of confession—is controversial to a lot of Christians. ’Cause we don’t wanna! And I’m not even talking about people with deep dark secrets. Plenty of folks have little bitty secrets—stuff everybody kinda knows already, or can figure out easily—but the very idea of publicly admitting to such things, they find far too humiliating.

Fr’instance. Back in college, in one of our men’s bible studies, our group leader was talking about things every man does, and used masturbation as an example. And one guy in our group immediately objected: He never did such a thing. Never once. Not ever. Wouldn’t even countenance the notion he did such a thing.

“Oh come on,” was every other guy’s response.

He persisted. His face was turning mighty red, and his arguments were getting less and less plausible, but he persisted. He would never, he claimed. Never ever ever.

But he wasn’t fooling anyone, and lots of hypocrites are the very same way when it comes to our “secret” sins: They’re not as secret as we imagine. We’re fooling no one but ourselves.

These are the folks who insist confession isn’t in the bible. That the only person we’re to confess sin to, is God. Certainly not to a priest-confessor; certainly not to fellow Christians; never to air our dirty laundry, whether it be in public or private.

And of course it’s in the bible. What, do I have to quote it for you? Ugh, fine.

James 5.16 NKJV
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

I quoted the New King James ’cause it uses the word from the Textus Receptus, παραπτώματα/paraptómata, “missteps” or “trespasses.” Kinda like the Lord’s Prayer, it deals with everything we might’ve done wrong, and not just sins. Though the original Greek of James is more likely just ἁμαρτίας/amartías, “sins,” an authentic, transparent life means we oughta confess far more than just sins. We oughta be open books.

Hypocrites don’t wanna be open books, so they insist the folks in the bible never publicly did any such thing—

Acts 19.17-18 NKJV
17 This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. 18 And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds.

—that confession is just a Catholic thing, and even that it’s wrong to share such things with people. Besides, what business do we have telling people they’re forgiven, or telling ’em to go in peace?

John 20.22-23 KWL
22 And when [Jesus] had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But in fact whenever we publicly or semi-publicly confess, God forgives us. 1Jn 1.9 When Christians say, “Go in peace; you’re forgiven,” all we’re really doing is telling them God forgave ’em already. But if you wanna argue, “No, I can forgive anybody’s sins,” well… Jesus kinda backs you up in this scripture.

The reality is, people refuse to confess, and reject the very idea of confession, because we really don’t care to stop sinning. But we wanna look like we have. We’re not fooling God, but we are trying to fool our fellow Christians, and look devout and righteous when we’re no better than they. Yep, it’s total hypocrisy: We’re dirty liars. And since God calls us sinners, but we’re pretending to not be, we’re making it look like God’s the dirty liar. 1Jn 1.8 That ain’t good.

Now that we belong to Jesus, we’re meant to quit sin. Ro 6.11-12 When 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 quit 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.

So we rail against confession. If nobody knows about our sins, and how often we commit ’em—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.

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.”

Okay. Take David’s statement here:

Psalm 32.3-5 NKJV
3 When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer.
5 I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Let’s assume these naysayers are right: David sure 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 knew better. He was wholly aware God knows all. Ps 139.1-12 Besides which, he already stated how “Your hand was heavy upon 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, our sins still 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; that nobody has to know they’re suffering from serious moral failings. ’Cause they imagine they’re successfully hiding it.

Various Christians try to fudge around this by admitting vague moral failures: “I struggle with sin,” or “I fight temptation.” Well sure; there’s no individual on earth who doesn’t. But nobody knows the depth of their struggles. Nobody knows they’re drowning. Sometimes not even their spouses. Hence many of these sins and temptations eventually have catastrophic results once 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! It’s the whole point of his church. 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.


Roman Catholics have institutionalized the practice of confession. It has many upsides… and a few downsides, and merits its own article. But if you’re Evangelical like me, you realize every Christian is a priest, so you don’t need to schedule an appointment with a member of the clergy so you can talk about your sins. Any mature Christan, who knows how to be discreet, and who knows how to remind you you’re forgiven, will do.

Ask people their greatest fear about confession, and they’ll say it’s gossip: They fear their confessor will be indiscreet. Suddenly people they don’t know will know all their personal business. People they don’t like will taunt them with it. Word might leak back to the wrong people. They’re terrified lest their confessor rush to the local prayer meeting with all their 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!”

Oh, I know the feeling. Seen it happen. In seminary, one of our campus pastors shared everything with his wife. Thought he oughta share everything with his wife; you never keep things from your spouse, right? But he was a mature Christian… and she absolutely wasn’t. Tell him anything in confidence, and it was just like telling her, and she wasn’t discreet at all. A young man might confess to masturbation, and her reaction would be, “Well we have to get him to stop!”—and 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 down. 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. If your pastors are such people, don’t share anything with them! Go find another mature Christian.

Then there are the legalists. They’d be the folks who take it upon themselves to not just listen to you confess, but hand down consequences. 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 gain 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. Now 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. 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, y’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 your sins. Some of them don’t wanna be a confessor. (Some of ’em don’t believe in confession!) Or—despite what you think—they’re not ready for the job: They’re hypocrites with 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, keep their opinions to themselves, and only offer sympathy, comfort and forgiveness. Most don’t, and offer advice… and get really frustrated and angry when you don’t take it, ’cause they think you want ’em to be your 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!

So keep your advice to a minimum. You’re not qualified to be their therapist! (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 do that 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 as repentant as all that. 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 confessional secrets: When someone threatens to harm themselves or others, I tell on ’em. When someone confesses to a felony—murder, rape, child molestation, grand larceny, or criminal fraud—I call the cops. Yes I do. So should you.

Keeping it to yourself makes you an accessory. A lot of Christians don’t realize this, and think, “But Catholic priests don’t tell on the people who confess to them; I oughta get that level of priest/confessor confidentiality.” Well we don’t. And we’ll get ourselves and our churches into huge trouble when it comes out we knew someone’s crimes and kept ’em to ourselves.

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 our old karma-based thinking bubbles up. We figure they should at least feel really bad. Or cry. Or go through really complicated acts of contrition. 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.