Originally published on May 20, 2016.
“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Recently, a couple from our church returned home after a mission trip. They met many seeking hearts in their travels – people who felt the need to change and who wanted something new. But when they talked with people about the forgiveness Jesus offers through the confession of sins, they were met with mixed reactions: “God has already forgiven me.” “Do I really have to confess my sins in order to be forgiven?” “Isn’t God’s grace sufficient?”
God’s grace indeed abounds, but this is especially so when we unburden our lives before another person. Sin and guilt always work in secret. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard, we continually scheme to avoid it. Yet in the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother we experience our rescue and salvation.1
Confessing one’s sins to someone – even someone we trust – is never easy because it means becoming vulnerable; it means admitting we need help. In a world that exalts individual achievement and despises weakness, revealing one’s sins to another feels extremely uncomfortable. Then there is the fear of gossip which can so quickly circulate, especially in tight-knit Christian groups.
But all this can be an excuse, a copout for not really turning away from sin. Hiding behind our Christianity, we keep our sin secret, not because we feel forgiven but because we fear wounded pride. Self-righteousness and the desire to look good have become so entrenched in us that instead of being the sinners we are, we lock ourselves behind a spiritual façade of our own making – a prison that keeps us isolated from each other and from God.
My wife and I founded our marriage on our urge to follow Christ above all else. We have fallen short of this many times, but just as often we have experienced that by confessing our failings openly to each other we find a deeper unity and love and are able to help each other. It has become blindingly obvious to me that keeping secrets from my wife – particularly about my temptations and sins – only damages our marriage.
Isn’t the same true of all our relationships? If we long for peace, unity, and love in our fellowship with one another, then we must become vulnerable and reveal what we are hiding in the dark. When the apostle Paul urges us to carry each other’s burdens, he means this to lead us nearer to Jesus and, in the end, to one another. It is a gift, not a begrudging duty. The First Letter of John is as sharp as it is hopeful: “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”
What does it mean to walk in the light, to come clean? To truly give up what Christ wants to take away? Like the paralyzed man described in Matthew 9, we are all afflicted with some kind of sickness or infirmity. More importantly, most of us are weighed down by our sins and failures. This is why the apostle James urges us to call the elders of the church to pray, as well as to confess our sins to one another. Through confession, we can unlock the bars that keep us bound up inside. Then we find true and lasting healing. But for this to happen, we must be ready for Christ to change us. Perhaps this is why we resist confessing anything to anybody. For to admit our wrongdoings to another person would mean we are ready to change the way we are and live. Jesus promises to make everything new, but also says, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Yes, God knows everything, and we can always come directly to him. His forgiveness is a wonderful gift. But its power to free and heal comes at a cost: we must allow ourselves to be made low so that Christ himself can truly lift us up to new life.
When we confess our sins to one another, we go the lowly way of Jesus, who was born in a manger and died on a cross. We meet this Christ in our brother and sister. It is a mystery, but the humble way is the only way that leads to light and hope, freedom and joy. Then, as Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (HarperOne, 2009), 114.