Some Cautions About Confession

Anybody who has followed our teaching for any length of time knows that we believe that confession of sin is good for the soul. I learned this emphasis from my father, and find it to be preeminently biblical. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9). If you hide your sins you will not prosper (Prov. 28:13), but if you confess and forsake them you will find mercy. And James tells us to confess our sins to one another (Jas. 5:16). So honest confession is a good thing, and a sign that the Spirit is moving.

But however healthy, it can also be a complicated thing, and it is quite possible to screw it up. Here are a few thoughts on that — some basic principles to remember.

First, confession of sin should be thought of as a matter of tending to relationships, and it should not be thought of as a matter of karmic bookkeeping. You are dealing with people, not ledgers. Unfortunately, many people who are carrying a burden of guilt around have bookkeeping hearts (part of the problem), and they think of confession as though it were “making a payment on a debt.” This means that wrong-headed confession can make things messier. Confession and forgiveness are functions of grace, not bookkeeping.

Second, when the Spirit moves us in true confession, it humbles us. The Comforter is always after humbling, which is our true consolation. The Accuser is after humiliation, which simply breeds more humiliation, which tends to look around in resentment for an opportunity for retaliatory accusation. Accusations breed more accusations, and the wrong kind of confession can kick it all off. The right kind of confession is a way of making peace. If you are challenged with making a confession in a situation where anything you say “can be used against you,” you are making confession in the devil’s courtroom. This may still be necessary, depending on what it is about, but it should not be done lightly or without taking counsel.

Third, and closely related, God can be entrusted with any confession whatever. Fallen men and women cannot necessarily be entrusted with one. There are some confessions that must be made to your neighbor whether they handle it right or not (e.g. when you embezzled thousands from your boss). But there are other confessions which should be made, or not, depending on the situation you are actually in, and provided you are not trimming and reinterpreting that situation to make it easier on your flesh. It is fine to avoid humiliation. It is not fine to avoid humbling. And neither is it fine to confuse the two.

Confession of sin directed toward God can just be dumped out on the table. That is actually the best way to do it. He can handle it. That is often not the way to go with a room full of accusers. If confession must be made, room full of accusers or not, then make it. But don’t kid yourself with dreams of a group hug right after.  

Fourth, confession is not synonymous with oversharing. Confession is honest, not tawdry, and not a hyperscrupulous inventory. It addresses the sin, as God defines it, and not the lurid details.

Fifth, confession should not be a crowning selfish act, stacked on top of a bunch of other selfish acts. When true confession is made, the result for others is most often relief, and joy, and a sense of resolution. When a selfish confession is made, the result can be consternation, dismay, anger, and more. Confession is not supposed to give you an opportunity to “get something off your chest.” It is not about you. It is designed to put things right.

Jesus teaches us (Luke 12:2) that a good antidote to hypocrisy (a calculated way of hiding one’s sins) is the realization that everything is one day going to be broadcast. While the Last Judgment will not be the gossip-monger’s dream (as such a one will have other things to think about right then), at the same time, this kind of declaration makes us all flinch and go white, because all of us have said, thought, or done things that are perfectly appalling and, as the Victorians would have quaintly put it, this does not exempt the present writer. Sin is a universal reality. And if we try to deal with that by means of a thin veneer, by saying something like, “One does realize, going into the Great White Throne Judgment, that one’s actions at the end of the day were at times ‘open to criticism’,” this is not embracing the doctrine in quite the right spirit.

True confession, therefore, is characterized by an honesty that goes clean to the bone. False confession is often a way of perpetuating the folly of the sin itself, and that can go clean to the bone also. I mention these things simply to show that confession should be an act of love and submission, and not a manipulative way of covering your tail.

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