“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” – James 5:16, KJV
In a world full of weakened and shallow visions of Christian community, many significant modes of involvement in Christian community have become similarly weakened, shamefully distorted, or even utterly neglected. Perhaps no single such concept has experienced this deterioration as corruptedly yet unobtrusively as confession.
I don’t know what connotations that word carries in your mind when you think of the ways in which it appears in practice among Christians, but I know that in a large portion of my past experience the idea of confession seems to have devolved into something like “putting forth semi-personal information that shows oneself in a moderately detrimental light, with the purpose of inspiring pity or commiseration and achieving a cheap and comfortable catharsis (‘It’s not that bad!’) without having to undertake the lengthy task and the weighty, awkward burden of admitting, dealing with, being forgiven for, and repenting from deeper and less palatable concerns.”
The related concepts of accountability and discipline have also succumbed to commensurate devaluation. Accountability has become the commonplace noun for “regular meetings during which one person in an arbitrary authoritative role awkwardly asks the other if he’s read his Bible every day, after which both participants proceed to partake in pleasurable activies like movie-watching or fast food consumption, to the main end of negating the forced discomfort of the earlier portion of their meeting.” Likewise, church discipline has become such an altogether unheard of practice that even such whimsically warped definitions cannot perhaps be offered to describe its current state. But if one were to make the attempt, maybe such a summary would describe discipline as “openly criticizing, usually by ensuring that one’s opinion is made as widely known as possible while still maintaining deceptively good relations with the offender.”
Obviously I’m indulging in a bit of exaggeration at the expense of a very large swath of church-goers who I’ve shamelessly overgeneralized. I have no doubt that many well-meaning people have simply not ever reflected on the importance of genuine confession amongst brothers and sisters in Christian community. Similarly, I am under no delusions that I or my community understand and practice confession perfectly, and I do not attempt to claim that we are the only Christians striving to do so. But it does seem to me that as members of our culture, as part of the American church body, and as prideful human beings, we have allowed ourselves to accept easy definitions of confession and its correctional counterparts, accountability and discipline.
True confession is a difficult thing to submit to–something I’ve discovered since my pastor read the section on confession in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together to the mid-week group a few months ago. And whether you’re the one confessing or the one to whom confession is being made, the Scriptural call to confession is by no means a light, easy, or comfortable thing.
I found myself on the confessing end of such a situation this week, and never before have I experienced so profoundly what truly “open and unashamed” community means. Those words are something of a catchphrase around Hill City Church, and what I’ve learned about that phrase probably deserves a blog post all its own. In specific relation to confession, however, it is important to understand open as involving complete and unrestrained honesty with oneself and others, and especially to understand unashamed as something very, very far from brazenness, flippancy, or lack of conviction for sin. Furthermore, in unashamed and open confession, and in the way I was responded to by a very dear sister in Christ, two key factors impressed themselves upon me as both necessary to all true confession, accountability, and discipline, as well as particularly difficult for our human pride to stomach–those qualities are trust and humility.
On each side of confession, there must be present a degree of trust far beyond what our controlling, individualistic, self-sufficient society finds comfortable. And, indeed, such trust (or faith) in God is at the heart of Christianity–in order to trust Him properly we must admit our own weaknesses, our neediness, and our utter helplessness. Such must be the attitude of the repentant towards his sin. He must recognize that only by God’s strength and redemption is he able to conquer the sins in his life, and that only in submission to the loving and consistent discipline of a mature fellow-Christian does he make certain that he does not succumb to what Bonhoeffer warns us against–that our confession of our sins to God be not in actuality merely a confession to ourselves.
Confession to another requires from us not only trust that God can redeem us from our most bothersome or shameful or tempting sins, but also that He can use another person in that process. It requires that we trust the other person not to be condescending in condemnation, not to be nagging or presumptuous in accountability, and not to be motivated by selfishness, opinion, or the impulse to appear right or authoritative in discipline. It requires that we trust the other not to use the information we’ve shared to coerce us, and not to break our confidence by communicating our sinfulness unnecessarily or in ways that damage our reputation before the body of Christ or the world to which we hope to bear witness.
Similarly, confession requires that the one to whom we confess also trust the work of God for us. It requires the other to hope all things for us, pray for us, and be both firm and loving in a balanced response to the shortcomings we’ve expressed, all the while trusting God’s control in the situation rather than attempting to assume control by human means.
But such trust, it seems to me, cannot exist without humility–for we must humbly submit to the fact that God does not always work in ways that make sense to us. We must humbly admit those weaknesses and that helplessness that drive us to place our trust in Him. And we must humbly recognize that in terms of sinfulness before God, we are no better than the one confessing to us, nor the one to whom we would confess.
Confession is more than that easily fabricated humility, which even the prideful self can misguidedly appropriate as a perfection of his character. Confession is sheer humiliation–it is embarrassment, it is nakedness, and it is discomfort. And yet what edification, boldness, and peace can result from such a confession when it is laid at the feet of a sinful but humble, firm but forgiving brother or sister in Christ. What incredible communion in the mutual recognition of sinfulness, the mutual plea for God’s aid in repentance, and the mutual willingness to submit to one another in obedience to this Scriptural command!
It is only on these terms that one can experience the true benefit of confession, accountability, and as necessary the proper model of church discipline. Only when bowed in humility and bolstered in trust can we glean that gorgeous, mysterious strength that God lends us in our weakness. And though sinful creatures we may be, in confession we can experience palpably the forgiveness we’ve been granted spiritually. I can only surmise that the more any given community understands and practices this difficult yet beautiful command, the more that community will grow together in Christian unity and in humble submission to all the other commands of that marvelous Redeemer whose humility in the sacrifice of taking our sins upon Himself is the only reason our confessions are of any effect.