A few days past, I wrote about some cautions when it came to confession of sin. If you missed it, you can read that here.
I wanted to follow that general set of cautions up with a handful of “fer-instance” situations. These might illustrate better how we must remember at all times that we are dealing with people, and not counting rocks. People are complicated. This includes our own complicated and tangled desires to not confess in the way that we should, but also includes our complicated and tangled desires to confess in ways that we shouldn’t.
The Golden Rule is a good master rule to follow. What confessions would it delight you to receive? What confessions would you think it only right that you receive, however painful it might be? Then that should be the kind of confession you are willing to render.
Some of the scenarios I will set up here are scenarios that I feel pretty confident about, and others simply reflect my current thinking — but I am not nearly as confident concerning them. Like I said, these things can get complicated.
1. An example of hyperscrupulosity would be if a fellow spends half a day on the phone with Apple, trying to find the right human being to confess to, because he had once clicked on an upgrade button that said he had read and agreed to all their terms when he had in fact not done so.
2. A good example of a needed confession at a general level would be if a suitor, when asked by the father of the girl he was interested in, confessed that he had been guilty of fornication with three different girls five years prior, two years before his conversion. I don’t think anything more specific than that would be helpful, unless of course, more than that would be helpful. Suppose one of those three women was the sister of the girl he was now interested in. Now names are relevant. Leaving names out in the latter scenario would be high dishonesty. Leaving them out in the former situation is fully honest.
3. A third example would be found in the modern gotcha games of contemporary journalism. Suppose a man had been guilty of fornication thirty years ago, before he got married. Before he was married, he had gotten right with God, and had gotten accountability from his pastor. When he was engaged, he had told his fiance about his sin, and so everybody who needed to know about it did know about it. So decades later, he is involved in a political campaign, and a gotcha journalist asks him whether it is true that in 1983 he had been involved a torrid affair with a classmate back in college. The one thing he must not do in his response is step into their world of accusational dodge ball. The people asking don’t have the right to know anything, and yet they have the power of the microphone, and “I am not going to dignify these charges with a response” will not work. That is politicode for “guilty, so run with it, boys.” Two honest responses that would not step into the trap could work well — one low key and the other more aggressive.
Low key: “I don’t think I have the right to name other people in a situation like this, and I don’t think you should either, but it is true that in the early eighties I was a fornicator.” If there is anything that modern journalists hate, is an appropriate use of the word fornicator.
More aggressive: “I presume that you asking this question because the office I am seeking is a position of weighty responsibility, and you believe the American people have a right to see to it that their candidates are thoroughly vetted, is that right?” Upon receiving an affirmative answer, he goes on to say, “Then it would seem to follow that the right to ask such weighty questions is itself a weighty responsibility, and those who ask them should also be vetted. So I hope you don’t mind me asking you when you lost your virginity, and under what circumstances. Could you please fill us in?”
The issue here is polemical accusation, not confession. But the words of confession are being used, and a person in this situation has to play it according to what it is, and not in accordance with what it pretends to be.
4. A fourth example of unhelpful confession would be when it is used by passive/aggressive types as a way of manipulating or punishing others. A husband uses porn, for example, and then “confesses” it to his wife as a way of criticizing her, punishing her, or keeping her off balance. Or say that a counselee has an unhealthy dependency on a counselor, and so they keep sinning so that there is something to confess/talk about at their next appointment. Some time ago, someone decided to do something about a rat population by offering bounties on rat tails. As a result, some enterprising fellow took up rat farmimg. One of the results of the counseling revolution is that some needy types have taken up sin farming. In such circumstances, the confessed sin is not actually the real sin, it is rather the steering wheel of the real sin. Real repentance could well mean a decision to stop confessing those sins (which would mean that the whole reason for committing them is gone).
5. Here is another complicated example, one that is admittedly thorny, but which illustrates the kind of tangle I am talking about. Suppose a pastor goes to see someone on his or her deathbed, and that person confesses to him that in the waning days of the Second World War, during a time of separation, he or she committed adultery. It was a one night stand, never happened again, and absolutely nobody knows anything about it. The pastor knows the couple, and the family, and knows it to be a wonderful family, and knows for a fact that if confession were made to the spouse and family now, the results would be devastating. Oh, great. What do you do now? And since the devil finds such things amusing, this happens to a new pastor who has been out of seminary for about three months, and he doesn’t remember any class that even remotely addressed this kind of thing.
Now the person who committed adultery had an absolute obligation to confess it at the time it happened. Their spouse had the right to know about it, and had the corresponding right to seek a divorce because of the offense. The guilty party did not have the right to withhold that information for the sake of “not hurting” their spouse because he should have thought of that before the adultery. On top of that, there is no reason to believe that the adulterer was withholding information in a disinterested way. He doesn’t know (before the fact) that he won’t be unfaithful to her (or her to him) over the coming decades in just the same way. After he has been faithful for decades he knows, but not before. There is a sense in which such a deathbed confession could be interpreted as going to meet God in a spasm of selfishness.
But there are five fingers on the other hand. There are also many circumstances where a late confession would not be devastating, but would actually have the effect of “explaining everything.” Suppose a husband committed adultery thirty years ago, got away with it, thought he covered it up successfully, but as a result of that guilty conscience gnawing away at his insides he has been an absolute bear to live with. Here the confession could well be followed by the wife saying that “she knew something like that must have happened,” and that she was glad her husband was finally putting things right with God. In my view, as compared with the first, this would be, by far, the more common scenario.
6. In addition to the Golden Rule application, and the “need to know” issue, I should say something quickly about compounding sins. There are some sins that might be all right to “leave right there,” glad for the forgiveness of Christ, except that your roommate asked about it, and you lied through your teeth. Suppose a young man looks at a skanky web site that he shouldn’t have. He needs to be brutally honest with himself, and if he has a porn problem, he should get help with it. He should talk to his father, or his pastor. He has no obligation to confess it to his roommate. Unless, of course, his roommate had asked him directly about it. “Are you using porn?” If he lied about it, he needs to go and confess it.
7. One more quick thing. If a person holds a position that entails leadership trust, and there is a sin problem that directly affects his qualifications for that post, he needs to bust himself. Example: a principal of an elementary school with a child porn problem.
The real issue in all such matters is submission to God. If God wants it known, are you willing for it to be known? If God does not want it known, are you willing for that? In short, are you willing for you and your pride to die? Pride can talk and pride can be silent. Pride can confess and pride can hide. Humility can confess and humility can be silent.