Mar 19, 2005

The Pain and Beauty of Confession

Children are big sinners, they are just small in size. Recently I was watching my wife’s grandchildren play together (I have a personal aversion to being old enough to have grandchildren). Her grandson was playing with his younger sister; actually, he was not so much playing with her as he was aggravating her.

Finally, she attempted to “get her pound of flesh” and bit him. Her transgression was promptly reported by her brother to the proper authorities—replete with convincing evidence: teeth marks. As I listened to his rendition of the crime to his mother, I noticed he said nothing of his mistreatment of his sister that preceded her retaliation. His mother, having become wise in the ways of sinful children, asked, “What did you do to her?” She was suggesting that just maybe her son had some culpability. How did he reply? You already know. You know because as children we all said it and as parents we have all heard it. “Mom, I didn’t do anything.”

Brothers and sisters take great pleasure in reporting the misbehavior of their siblings. The same thing is true inside our church families, even though we are no longer children. All too frequently, we are more interested in the sins of our neighbors than in our own. We easily report and condemn the sins of brothers and sisters in Christ with no mention of personal offenses against God and fellow human beings.

How many times did Jesus speak of the self-righteous attitudes of the Pharisees who constantly found fault with others and recognized no errors in their own lives? In the Old Testament, God placed the altar just inside the entrance of the temple. Every worshiper could see his neighbors confess their sins — and his neighbors could see him confess his sins. For the Israelite, this was not some kind of ambiguous admission of guilt before God one time in his life as he confessed his faith. Time after time he came to the temple and confessed his personal sins. Confession of sin before God and man is a hallmark of biblical faith.

We have placed convenient limitations on God’s mandate to confess our sins. We go all too easily before God and confess our sins, and excuse ourselves from public confession by saying, “This is a personal matter between a sinner and the God who forgives.” In much evangelical worship today there is no place for worshipers to confess their sins in solemnity. And we certainly make no effort to follow the instruction of James to confess our sins to each other (5:16).

Have you ever done that? It is a humbling thing to sit down with another Christian and confess your sin. What does it say about our communication of the Gospel of grace as ministers when our congregations think that we live some sort of “higher life” that has been inoculated against the common everyday sins they commit? What does it say about our lives as Christians if our brothers and sisters think that we do not suffer the same temptations and failings that they do? How are we called to be different from the world? We are called to confess our sins and not to hide them. The world hides their sins or makes excuses justifying their behavior. The first mark of the Christian is confession of sin — whether he is a Christian of one hour or seventy years.

Why is it that the world thinks that the way of salvation is by works? Certainly there is the innate pride of the sinful nature that desires to earn salvation. However, we Christians don’t help to correct the world’s view when we hide our sins and demonstrate no sincere and public confession of personal offense against God and man. When do we say to the world: “If you knew my heart, you would wonder that I call myself a Christian?” When do we say to our fellow worshipers: “If you knew my heart, you would wonder that I dare to come and sit in the pew with you?” When do we say to our congregations: “If you knew my heart, you would not want me to be your minister?”

I read recently about a young Christian who had not yet fallen into the “ten spiritual habits of a successful Christian.” She did not know that confession of personal sin to other Christians was passé. So she made a list of her sins, sins that she did not want anyone to know. She realized that her confession would be valid only if she confessed to the “dirt” that every fiber in her being resisted admitting. She made an appointment with a minister and recited her long and detailed list. The minister realized that he was hearing something all too rare in the church today. When the young woman came to the end of the litany of her sins, the minister took the list from her and tore it to pieces. He said while tearing the pages, “The blood of Christ has cleansed you of all your sin.” Then what did he say? He said something that demonstrated he understood her sin from his own personal experience. He said, “Pray for me, a fellow sinner.” Janet’s grandson needed to say, “Mom, Phoebe bit me, but I deserved it. I had said some terrible things to her.” Families thrive with such confession and so does Christ’s Church.