Celebration of Discipline: Confession

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through an annotated translation of Pascal’s Pensees called Christianity For Modern Pagans, I’ll post the thoughts I’m emailing the students here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2020. The reading schedule is online.

This week we’re talking about confessing our sins to other people. Biblically, we always confess our sins to the Lord in prayer and then we usually also confess directly to those we have wronged. Sometimes in addition we confess our sins to other believers for the sake of their or our spiritual health. As an example of confessing for the sake of someone else’s spiritual health, I might confess a sin while preaching about how growth comes in a certain area. As an example of confessing for my own spiritual health, I might confess a sin to a friend while requesting their counsel.

“Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another in live in veiled lies and hypocrisy.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p 145 9

A few thoughts about confession:

  • Foster’s advice is spot-on when he says, “…we must be prepared to deal with definite sins. A generalized confession may save us from humiliation and shame, but it will not ignite inner healing” (page 151). This related quote has often run through my mind, “We confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no large ones” (Rochefoucauld). If we confess in a way that makes us look good, there’s something amiss. When you confess, don’t merely confess that you are not perfect. Draw attention to one or more of your particular imperfections. Not simply “I can be greedy sometimes”; rather, “I have been so consumed with desiring that new iPhone that I almost stole money from my mom’s purse. I was shocked at my level of greed.”
  • I said we usually confess to the person we have wronged. That is not always the case, however. For example, if you’ve been staring lustfully at someone, it’s generally unwise to tell that to the person you’ve been lusting after. You are relieving your emotions by burdening theirs. It’s selfish.
  • To whom do you confess when you are not confessing directly to someone you have wronged? Foster’s counsel is wise: “The key qualifications are spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humor” (page 153).
  • In university ministry I sometimes observe two extremes: a community where no one confesses anything to anyone else (usually because of fear) or a community whose worship services sometimes become public confession ceremonies. I have thoughts about both:
    • A community where no one confesses anything to anyone else is held in bondage to sin. People convince themselves they struggle alone, and as result half of Satan’s work is done for him. He desires to isolate Christians as a prelude to destroying us, and yet we foolishly isolate ourselves.
    • A community where people regularly confess their sins in a public forum runs the risk of indirectly elevating sin. If you’ve never seen this done it is hard to describe, but I have seen it several times. Someone heads to the microphone and asks if they can share something that they feel like they have to get off their chest. And then they confess a sin. And then someone else wrestling with that same sin or a related sin makes a beeline for the microphone after this. And then the dam breaks and it takes over the entire service. This is sometimes a genuine response to the guiding of the Holy Spirit (we see an example of this in Acts 19:18–19), but sometimes it is an indicator that healthy interpersonal confession is not happening and so this substitute is emerging as a replacement. The dangers are (a) it can make sin seem more pervasive than it is (5% of the people spending 95% of the time talking about their biggest mistakes creates a distorted impression of the community), and (b) without wise pastoral leadership the normal emotions that accompany public confession can be mistaken for the working of the Holy Spirit.
    • That’s in a worship service. It’s usually a healthy thing when this happens in a small group (although here, too, it can sometimes normalize sin and minimize the transforming power of grace).

Here is my suggestion to you: today or tomorrow examine your conscience and identify a specific sin to confess. Meditate upon the sin until you clearly see its wrongness. Then this week find a fellow believer (perhaps in Chi Alpha, perhaps in your church) and confess the sin to them. Then ask them to pray for you that God will liberate you from the power of that sin. See what happens and iterate moving forward.

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