Can’t I just confess right to God?
Whew! It’s been a long time since I last updated the blog. Too long, in fact. I confess that I’ve allowed other concerns of ministry and life to overshadow this important discussion.
Which, incidentally, brings me to the next topic in this blog series on confession. When teaching or preaching about the churchly practice of confession and absolution, I routinely hear the same argument. I get asked, “Yes, I understand what you are saying about confession, pastor . . . but why can’t I just confess right to God? Why should I confess to anyone else, pastor or not?”
Strangely enough, this is a variation on the oldest copout for not attending church: “I can worship God on my own just as well as I can in a church!” It’s what I call the “This is just between me and God” argument. And the thing of it is . . . it’s true.
Sure, it’s true. You can worship God alone in a field or on a mountaintop just as well as you can worship alone in a church. And it’s true that you can confess your sins privately to God and receive His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. These things are true because Jesus Christ comes to each of us personally and offers His gift of life and salvation to us as individuals. Intimacy with God, salvation from God, is an intensely personal thing.
Yet exceedingly rare is the person who can live privately without any need for community. People tend to seek people out for friendship, for partnership, for the blessing of togetherness. People are inherently social animals, and so they will join clubs founded upon their unique interests. They will form casual groups at water coolers. They will seek ways to be with other people or they will pine away without interpersonal contact.
Community is especially important to people. And nowhere on Earth is the sense of “community” stronger or more firmly grounded in a bond of common experience than it is in God’s church. For there are two fundamental realities that bond me as a church attender to every other single church attender: the reality that I myself am a sinner and the reality that I am forgiven in Christ.
Therefore, I suggest that the last place on earth that you would want to hide your sins away from another person would be in the church! Rather, the church should be the safest place in the world to be able to confess to weaknesses and failures and frustrations and struggles and temptations and yes, even sins . . . because our sin is one of the only two good reasons there are for going to church, and the other is because we are forgiven of them.
When you force yourself to verbally confess to another Christian (or, again, especially your pastor), you are actually receiving several gifts—each of great value—from God:
To begin with, you receive the gift of obedience. God’s own Word says in James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” It is a simple command with profound implications. In that passage James indicates that everything from personal physical health to the vitality of the spiritual community could be negatively impacted by unconfessed sin. God therefore commands that we not try to hide away our sin and thus let it fester, but confess our sins to one another.
A second gift from God in confession is that confessing a particular sin has a way of killing off that sin. There is something about the nature of sin in that is like a nasty fungus or a mold: it thrives in the shadows, unobserved in the corners, it lives best when it dwells in secrecy and darkness. When sin is hidden away and not talked about, when it is not openly confessed, it has a tendency to grow stronger. But when it is dragged into the light and revealed for what it truly is it tends to wither and die off (For a Biblical reference, see I John 1:5-10 as John explores this connection between light/darkness and righteousness/sin.).
Openly and verbally confessing your sin to another individual drags your sin into the light in a way that privately confessing to God simply does not. Of course, that’s probably going to be very uncomfortable for you, at least at first. It means that somebody you know will know your specific sins. That will feel risky to you and more than a bit dangerous to your carefully cultivated mask of holiness and good works. But that mask hides the reality underneath that sin nevertheless exists in your life! Confessing your sins to another takes off the mask, brings sin into the light, and allows you to live under the cross and not behind a mask.
The third gift in confession is directly related to the second. It is the gift of humility—both for the one confessing as well as the one hearing the confession.
Paul speaks highly of the virtue of humility, saying in Philippians 2:5-8, “5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” Jesus Christ did not falsely exalt Himself, but was willing to be numbered among the sinners. This was humbling for Him, and a great departure from the way the world operates.
Humility is a virtue worth cultivating in your Christian life simply because it is Christ-like and un-worldly. And there is no better method I know of by which a right view of oneself (read: humility) can be actively cultivated than by the regular, routine, and habitual confessing of personal sins to another person. It is a regular reminder that I am not holier than others, that I am not superior to other, that it is as impossible for me to please God apart from Christ as it is for me to touch the sun on Icarus’ wings. And so I begin to think not more highly of myself than I ought, but think of myself rightly, and thus depend upon Christ, His grace, and His cross all the more. And what a blessing that is for a Christian to do!
But even beyond that, it is an extraordinarly humbling experience to hear the confession of another. The temptation even of the father confessor (the fancy name for “one hearing the confession”) is to keep the lie of the sinner’s mask of false holiness intact and let the other’s sin remain in the dark. It’s easier that way because it’s difficult to know a person’s deepest failures and sins without looking at them differently. It’s more comfortable that way because, after all, hearing the sins of another confessed out loud tends to make one squirm. But the mask is a lie, and the father confessor would rather see sin brought into the light of God’s truth, and so he listens and is humbled.
But the single-most humbling thing in hearing confession is not actually the hearing, but the proclaiming. No Christian confession is complete without Christ’s forgiveness being proclaimed! And when the father confessor proclaims that forgiveness it feels to him presumptuous. It feels like as though it smacks of pride to dare speak those words of forgiveness. “After all”, he thinks, “who can forgive sins but God alone? How can I dare stand in God’s place and speak words that only belong to Him?”
Yet it is those words, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven” that are the very words that the confessor’s brother or sister in Christ need to hear. They need to be comforted with words of grace and mercy and Gospel. And so the confessor swallows his pride, wraps himself in the clothing of God’s servant, and humbly serves his brother in Christ by giving him the words he needs most. He may tremble at the responsibility of offering Christ’s forgiveness, but he nevertheless does so that his brother’s conscience may be salved with the soothing balm of pure Gospel.
And there we have it. The benefits of confessing sins to one another are benefits for the whole community of Christ: benefits of a humble walk of faith, lives lived without masks, and mutual dependence upon God’s Word and Christ’s cross. Yes, it is true that you can confess to God and God alone, but in doing so you rob yourself and the church of Christ of a rich and yet humbling act that brings God’s blessings to the entire community.