Case for Confession
James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
Matthew 5: 3,4 “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Confession is good for the soul. It is healing. It can lead to growth. It is often the first and most important step in change – think of the words, “My name is Jeff and I am an alcoholic.” That confession with conviction is necessary for sobriety to have a chance.
When we begin a therapy group at Marble Retreat and someone in their introduction uses words such as, “I struggle with pornography use” or “I have an anger issue” or “I am a recovering narcissist” then we as therapists breathe a sigh of relief. We know that the confessing person is primed for healing and growth.
Confessing is not only about confessing sin. It is about confessing brokenness, weakness, hurt, doubts, shame and fear. It is about externalizing those things we keep internalized. It is about bringing mess into the light.
While we would all intellectually assent to the truth and necessity of confession, most of us in the church are slow to do it. Why is this?
Why Not Confess?
One is because when we confess we often have an accompanying experience of shame. One type of shame, to simplify, is when we believe that we are bad, not that we have done something bad. Yes, in one sense it is true that we are bad – we are fallen, we are sinners. But this is not our primary identity as Christians. A couple of times when our son Dylan has done something bad and I have punished him for it he will then ask, “But dad, do you still love me?” It breaks my heart because I know he is connecting doing something bad with being rejected. Of course, I reassure him that no matter what he does I will always love him.
As Christians, we struggle to truly accept that we are sinners and broken but we are also loved, accepted, and saints. We say we are sinners and broken, but when we have to admit something specific to others we feel shame that we are not perfect because it is harder for us to fully embrace the grace and forgiveness than view ourselves through our shortcomings. It seems to me many Christians do not operate on the basic philosophy that I am a sinner in need of grace, but on the philosophy of “I am imperfect in need of perfection and I am ashamed of my imperfection.” To summarize, because we judge ourselves by our fallenness, not by our identity in Christ, then we try to be perfect, and when we have to admit we are not perfect we feel shame.
Or in other words we see the need to confess as a sign of weakness. As Brenee Brown has popularized, “When we see someone else be vulnerable we see it as being courageous but when we ourselves are vulnerable we see it as weakness.” And make no mistake about it, confessing is vulnerable.
Another reason we fail to confess is that we often don’t feel it is safe. We worry about being judged, rejected, or losing some kind of standing or reputation with others. And unfortunately, there can be truth to this. Ironically, it can not be safe in the church to confess. Sometimes the sense of not feeling safe that we feel is more subtle, but still powerful. We have an instinctual feeling that others will not understand us, know how to connect with us, or know what to do. We prefer to avoid the awkwardness and messiness of the whole thing.
We also avoid confessing because we don’t like to engage with the pain of confessing and at times others don’t like it either. For the most part we would rather focus on the positive side of life and the positive side of our faith. We all like the victory story, not the “I feel like I am losing the battle” story. Confessing, in addition to a sense of shame, usually has connected to it feelings of grief and regret. These are powerful, negative feelings. No fun to experience directly or vicariously.
We also do not confess because in our pragmatic, logic driven world we do not see a need to – how is it going to help? Why bring it up? We logically play out the consequences of bringing it up and convince ourselves that it is not going to make a difference anyway. And most likely, we expect negative consequences from confession.
Whatever the reasons we avoid confession, we as Christians and the church at large are missing out on a huge step in healing and potential growth in our Christ like character.
Confession for the Pastor
If it is difficult for the average Christian to confess, it is often exponentially more difficult for the Christian leader to confess their sin, brokenness, weakness, fear, shame or doubt. There is often too much at stake to take that risk. Every Christian leader knows that their position could be at risk if they confess to sin or brokenness. Many Christian leaders have learned the fine art of being authentic but not too authentic, of confessing the culturally accepted sins of their context, but not the sins that would risk undermining their security or respect.
When I worked as a hospice chaplain I saw many who waited until their death bed, their final hours, to confess and while it was good that they did, it was sad that they waited so long, unnecessarily carrying guilt and fear alone and not experiencing grace, freedom, and forgiveness sooner.
I see a similar pattern for many Christian leaders: saving confession until they are on the death bed of their ministry or marriage. While there are many “good” reasons that confession doesn’t happen, these reasons don’t make it any less important or necessary. “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” James 1: 15. Confession is the intervention that keeps sin from growing from birth to death. Not confessing is putting a sin gun to your head and pulling the trigger. It is pretty much guaranteeing the sin will continue unabated.
What to do
While there are reasons to not confess the Christian leader can be and should be wise in how to go about it. First, every Christian leader needs that safe person in their life that they can talk to about their ministry challenges and frustrations. The person who is a confidant. This person can also be a confessor for the Christian leader.
Second, a pastor or missionary can hire a Christian counselor, spiritual mentor, or coach. Not only does this relationship serve the purpose of having a confessor but has the additional benefit of helping in additional growth or insight.
Third, the Christian leader can join a “confessional” group such as Celebrate Recovery. While I do know of churches with the maturity to handle knowing their pastor is attending Celebrate Recovery, even the Celebrate Recovery within the same church where the pastor works, this is often not the case. Usually, a pastor needs to travel out of town to feel safe attending a group.
Finally, a pastor can continuously build a confessional culture within their church and hope that the day they need it, it will be there for them.
For an insightful article by Everett Worthington Jr. on confession and forgiving self or helping someone else to do so go to: https://www.aacc.net/2013/06/27/helping-others-forgive-themselves/