A Non-Concealing Confession
“So, it really wasn’t good and I feel kind of bad, but it wasn’t totally a lie.” I found myself uttering these words as I explained to my friend the story I had told my professor about skipping class earlier that day. I had written in an email that I was feeling very unwell. It was partially true in that I was indeed feeling unwell, but not sick in the way that I implied. Rather, I had stayed up too late procrastinating the night before and had not done enough to study for a midterm after the class I had skipped. Instead of telling my professor this, however, I implied that I was too sick to come to class. Immediately, I knew I had done something wrong and resolved to confess to my friend in order to relieve my guilt. Rather than fully acknowledging and owning up to my sin, I tried to qualify it and thus relieve myself of some of the blame. “Well, it wasn’t good, but it definitely was not as bad as a straight up lie.” I have since come to realize that when I made this qualifying type of confession, it negatively affected my ability to overcome my own sin and to grasp the goodness of God, and resulted from an incomplete understanding, or refusal to understand, the true nature of God’s gift to the world through Jesus.
In case you are wondering why I felt so bad about such a seemingly small thing, I would like to take a moment to discuss the nature of sin and why Christians talk about it so much. The Bible refers to sin as any action we take (or even think about) that is a break from what God wants from us, and represents disobedience to him as the Lord of the world. If we consider that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” then living up to what God wants is an impossible mark. It feels completely unfair for God to expect that from us, but we should keep a couple of things in mind. First, God, as creator of the universe and humanity, knows what is best for us and thus commands us to live in ways that are consistent with our flourishing, even when that does not seem to make sense to us. In Psalm 19, the writer understands this and realizes that the law, or commands of God, are perfect, even “refreshing to the soul.” Therefore, sin represents us telling God that we actually know more than he does or that we somehow have figured out how to live life better than the person who actually gave us life in the first place and designed every aspect of it. I think this perspective helps me to see more clearly why the Bible talks about sin, even small things, in such a negative way and as a direct insult to God. Even the smallest or seemingly inconsequential lie that I committed was a break from the command God has given us not to lie, and accordingly, represents sin.
That being said, God’s perfection still seems impossible to live up to, and sin an inevitability. However, God recognizes our shortcomings and in an act of mercy to us, sent his son Jesus to die for us to take on the punishment of our sin. Now, in order to be forgiven and perfect in God’s eyes, and accordingly to receive eternal life, all one has to do is believe in Jesus and declare that he is Lord. I sometimes feel that the impact of this tremendous gift and act of grace is overlooked by Christians, myself included. If God has sent his son to take on the burden of our sins and pay the punishment we deserve so that we now may be reconciled with God, that is the best news in the world. The result should be that we strive to follow God’s commands more and live the perfect life he has called us to, not out of obligation or a sense of duty, but out of thankfulness and a recognition that the words and laws of a God who truly does love us beyond what we can comprehend are worth following. We will never be without sin in this world, but through Jesus, we can be redeemed in God’s sight for our transgressions.
This leaves Christians in a constant state of tension between being forgiven and still committing sins. The Bible, however, emphasizes repentance, the process of continually turning away and working to move past one’s sin as essential to becoming forgiven. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction to what I said above. After all, isn’t accepting Jesus the only thing we need to do to be forgiven? However, repentance is not described as a task or something that must be done to earn God’s gift–which, remember, is freely given–but a response to the goodness of God. Repentance is the natural reaction to being offered such a gift of forgiveness. I knew repentance was essential, and I understood that confession of sins both to God in prayer and to others was also commanded in the Bible. However, I did not understand the fundamental relationship between the two until very recently, thanks to an experience I had with a couple of friends wiser than myself.
The Biblical mandate for the confession of sins is very clear. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus models how we should pray, and includes the phrase “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” 1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Similarly, John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus, proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Furthermore, the Bible tells us that we should be confessing sins to each other and that doing so will actually bring healing. That is one of the reasons a good friend of mine invited me and another friend to start an accountability group together, where we could come together and confess to one another our sins. Knowing that the confession of sins was Biblical and encouraged by my church, I gladly accepted. Yet, I approached confession without an understanding of why it was important, and, accordingly, my attitude towards my accountability group was one of obligation, not sincere transparency.
Right away, I struggled to be honest with my accountability partners. It was really hard to say all the bad things I had done. I found this rather strange. After all, I confessed my sins to God on a regular basis, and I was hardly afraid of the judgment of those in my group, who I would trust with my life. Rather, by saying my sins out loud, they felt more real and more painful to me. I was laboring under the conception that I was an okay person who did bad things sometimes and had to confess those so that I could be a good person again. By merely saying my sins in my head, I was able to avoid feeling their sting and able to convince myself that I could somehow fix myself. Confession had become a checklist for me, with none of the weight of Biblical confession or the healing that James talks about. Right away, I grasped why confession out loud and to others was so important, but rather than embracing true and full confession, I once again reverted to minimizing the role of my sin, by only half acknowledging where I had gone wrong.
Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” In only partially confessing my sin I was still concealing it, thus not forsaking it and obtaining the mercy that God is more than willing to give out. Furthermore, I quickly found out that I was not actually able to change myself. I had thought of my lying as a small thing that I could easily manage, and in doing so, I not only failed to manage it, but also lost of sight of the goodness of what God has promised.
To be able to fully accept the amazing gift of forgiveness through Jesus that God has given us, I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on God for forgiveness, and that any action I take will be enough to bridge the divide between me and him that my sins have opened up. This is very hard and painful to do, but it is completely necessary for obtaining the new life that God has promised us. Only Jesus offers true forgiveness and the ability to overcome sin for good. What need had I to conceal my sin? God offers forgiveness freely to all who come to him and truly repent. To do so I had to leave my pride behind. When I was finally able to recognize my total helplessness on my own, I experienced a feeling unlike any I had ever known. I vividly remember breaking down into tears upon comprehending exactly what it meant to be forgiven undeservedly. My shame melted away as I realized the truth: by turning away from the wrong I had done and asking God humbly for forgiveness, I was free and no longer under the burden of condemnation–not only from God, but from myself as well.
My experience with my accountability group made me more open to honestly confessing my sins not only to them, but also to God. I only realized I was not doing it authentically when I met authentic repentance. This repentance must come from confession of sins and asking for forgiveness from God through prayer, but I also have come to believe that confession to others is at least a helpful, if not absolutely necessary part of this process. Throughout the Bible, Christians are called to live in community with one another and build each other up, and I believe a large part of that comes through small groups who hear each others’ sins and can encourage and challenge each other to take those sins seriously and embrace repentance. For those of you who do not know Jesus, I want to offer my story of the overwhelming peace and freedom he gave to me and countless others over the years through forgiveness and the hope of life to come. For other Christians who are struggling with living in sin or feeling like they cannot fully repent from what they know to be wrong, I encourage you to strongly consider finding a friend or two with whom you can be completely honest. Trust me, it’s hard, but it will be worth it.
1. Romans 3:23
2. Psalm 19:7
3. Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9
4. Romans 10:9
5. Isaiah 30:15; Acts 3:19
6. Romans 2:4
7. Mark 1:4