Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to confess your sins to another, part 3

Thanks for your patience for the long interval of time between my last post and this one. I’ve been distracted by ministry concerns, attended a pastors’ conference, had a personal bout with the flu, and now am ministering to my family in their time of illness. But during the month or so since my last blog post, I’ve also had time to put private confession into action in my own life, and have learned more of its benefits in the process.

Last time I mentioned how to establish and use categories as a framework for self-examination. Measuring yourself by examining your life and conduct to identify where you have fallen short and fallen into sin is a difficult—but vital—step in the confession process. But it is important that you choose the right standard to measure yourself by.

Now, here is the reality of human nature: There’s not a single one of us who doesn’t consider ourselves as somehow being better than other people. I’m not sure why that it, exactly. I suspect it’s a kind of coping mechanism: if we can convince ourselves of our moral superiority over others, we can manage to convince ourselves that we alone are unique and special (and thus important) in God’s economy. And so each of us tend to magnify certain sins as being more heinous than others, and rarely (if indeed ever) will those sins be something that we personally struggle with. Conversely, the sins that we do harbor in our lives we tend to minimize, believing them to be merely part of human nature or a natural, human, and perhaps even beneficial reaction or response to our upbringing or current life situation.

What this means is this: We tend to measure ourselves and others by our own standard; a standard we create in our own minds and is as inherently favorable to our own lives as it is unjust to others.

Let me offer an example. I recall talking with a work acquaintance once who was complaining bitterly about the drivers on the interstate during the morning commute. As people do, they would get in a hurry and in an effort to not be late for work, many would regularly break the clearly posted speed limit of 55 mph. That particular morning, he had had several drivers tailgating him, trying to push him to go faster. But he refused to change his speed. As he said, “I’ve got my cruise control set to 62, and I don’t think you need to be going any faster than that.”

You see what my friend did, right? He created a standard and made himself the judge of what speed was safe and reasonable. But the standard was arbitrary. It didn’t reflect what was actually right or wrong, on what speed would actually break the law, but only what he thought was good enough for himself, and thus good enough for everybody else. Anyone who wanted to exceed his personal speed limit was labeled reckless or dangerous, but he himself (who was nevertheless breaking the law) was okay.

And this is what you and I both do naturally inside our heads all the time. We rationalize that our standard is good and people who exceed that are bad. We determine the relative value of others by what we have chosen to use as a measuring tool. We make value judgments based upon our own standard. In other words, we set ourselves up as God. And by the way . . . when you’re God—when you’re the judge and jury of what is right and wrong—it’s not likely that you’re going to see a need to go to confession. You will miss out on God’s amazing blessing of hearing the words, “You are forgiven” because deep down you don’t believe that you really need them.

So how do you avoid that? The answer is simple: measure yourself not by your own standard, but by God’s. Measure yourself according to the 10 Commandments.

When you measure yourself by God’s standard, the false pretenses tend to fall away pretty quickly. You realize that you’re not quite as good as you thought you were when you were busy measuring others according to your own worth. But what you see as you look in the mirror of God’s standard is a sinner. A law-breaker. Peer into the mirror of God’s law and you will see that the verdict “guilty” applies to you. To you yourself.

Now I admit that’s not really all that great in and of itself. But think about all we’ve talked about so far. When you readily see your sin (and this is true sin, sin that you can clearly see has failed to live up to God’s standard), you can bring it out in the open in confession. You can take off the false mask of self-righteousness and openly acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of grace. And you can hear that those sins, those sins that have made you guilty of breaking God’s standard and therefore make you worthy of death . . . you can hear that those specific sins are truly forgiven.

You can have a life free from a false standard. You can learn to take great comfort in the fact that others don’t have to measure up to you and that you don’t have to measure up to others. And even when you fail to measure up to God’s standard, you can still know through confession that in Jesus Christ your very real sins are very truly forgiven.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

How to confess your sins to another, continued

God intends confession to be a gift for you. A gift whereby you can be comforted in knowing that a specific sin has indeed been forgiven. That truth alone should help encourage you to confession! But when you get there, how should you begin? What should you confess? You are probably already going to be just a bit nervous, so how do you even begin to identify which of your sins has burdened you enough to drive you to confession?

There of lots of times where lots of Christians are content with saying, “I am a sinner.” They will say it by rote, knowing it is true and yet not examining the depths of what that means. Looking too closely at one’s own sin presses the already uncomfortable truth of the rote statement into the realm of the concrete . . . the actual . . . the measurable. Self-examination proves to them that not only are they generic sinners, but that they can actually name real, true, gross, and all-too apparent sins in their lives. Lots of Christians don’t like that, so they don’t do it.

But not you. You’re still reading this blog series on confession, so you want something more. You’re not content with the status quo, a generic faith, an unexamined life. You have purposed in your heart that you will bravely look into the dark shadows of your own soul and drag the ugliness you find there wriggling and fighting and biting into the open and kill it through confession. So . . . how do you do it? How do you examine yourself to find that sin?

I like to suggest that you first approach confession by establishing categories that you can use to examine your own conduct. Establishing some categories will benefit your self-examination by making it more methodical and less generic. You want to get to specifics, but remember that neither do you want to get bogged down in extremely minute details. So in general the broader the categories are, the better. You might consider categories such as “work, world, and family.” I personally grew up using the categories of “thoughts, words, and deeds.” If you’re troubled by a specific a personal sin, however, you might consider getting a little more specific with that one sin and develop some categories such as “avoiding temptation, resisting temptation, and thinking rightly.”

Whatever categories you choose for your own use, what you should do with them is reflect on how well (or indeed how poorly) you exhibited the character of Christ in each of those categories in the past week. This means not only did you actively resist evil, but did you actively pursue what is good? At your work, for instance: Did you refuse to join in the slanderous office gossip? And if so, did you slink away or did you make a specific effort to speak well of the person who was the target of such talk? Remember: It is just as much of a sin to omit good as it is to commit evil.

This process of actually looking for sin in your life will not be comfortable, I’ll admit. But it will be beneficial. As you examine more and more of your life, bringing the sin you find into the light where it can be seen in all its true ugliness, you will also see more and more of the cross of Christ. You will come to treasure the cross more, to more fully understand just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Confession will be God’s gift to you.