Coming Clean: The Fellowship of Confession
First published in The Bible Advocate, Jan/Feb 2004.
We live in a Survivor world.
It is the game we play; we have played for years. Even before the “reality”-based show invaded our living rooms and water-cooler conversations, the game has gone on. It is a very old game, the rules of which were established as soon as our human parents took The Fall.
Here is what you need for the game: two or more players, something to cover up, some shame for motivation, fig leaves and enough deceit for every player.
Here are the rules: player one pretends that he is perfect, that he hasn’t really done anything wrong, even though he is standing there stark naked except for the unmistakable leaflet to protect his privacy. For our example, let’s use Adam, the first man. Or you could use Eve, his spouse. Either one will do.
Player two, (in our example, GOD), sees player one. Player two says, “What’s going on here?” Player one, with as much feigned innocence and naiveté as he can muster, responds something like, “Well, ah, why do you ask?”
So the game is played, and has been played, ever since. Whenever we step out of line – sin – we attempt to cover it up, even when we know full well that God already knows all about it. It is very possible that today, sometime, someplace, you will sin. What will you do with it? How will you handle it? Who is going to know?
Survivor features players in a remote locale who have to keep voting each other off the show. In order to “survive,” a great deal of conniving, politicking, and outright deceit must go on. Because the people to whom you are talking at any moment will eventually be the people who decide your fate, you are vigilant to always put your best foot forward, always come off as a friend, and never, ever, let them see who you really are, how you really feel, or what you really are doing behind their backs. If you come clean with them, you will lose; you’ll get voted out of the tribe.
This sounds like churches I have known. Does it sound like yours?
In the church version we attempt to keep everybody happy. We want everyone to like us. If someone doesn’t like us, then we’ve probably done something wrong. We always show them our best: best clothes come out on Sunday, best behavior comes out at church, best testimony in Sunday School gets lots of “Amens” and the spiritual nods of spiritual heads.
At church, sin is a sensitive issue. Care must be taken in talking about it. We are OK talking about sin in two ways. We can talk about sin that happened before we were Christians (the wilder the better). We can also talk about sin that someone else has committed, as long as we’re careful not to gossip. (Talk about your challenges!)
We stay clear of sin that is our own. It can never be mentioned, because if we let people know that we sin, they will think less of us; they will know that we are not good Christians. In a very real social sense, we could be voted off the show. This is especially significant in the holiness tradition, where sanctification is my goal, and sin is my failure to reach it.
God, our Father, respectfully asks that we stop playing games and get real. He has made it clear that, unless we are willing to stop playing around and start being truthful, he is not eager to spend a lot of time with us. He loves us too much to do otherwise.
There are two distinct relationships where playing the game does damage. The first is our relationship with God. We all know that sin breaches our intimacy with our Father. And we know that confession is what needs to be done after we sin. But why? And how?
Imagine going in to a MD’s office. After a brief wait (we’re imagining here, people!), we sit in the room with the Doc and he begins checking us out. He pushes here, prods there, puts his well-trained finger right in the pla - - -YIKES! Don’t touch me! What do you think you’re doing? That hurts! He’s put his finger on the problem, so to speak, and he can begin to treat the pain.
Now, imagine the whole scene again, but this time you don’t react when his finger touches that spot. Inside, you’re wincing in pain, but outside, you’re cool, calm and collected. He says, “Does that hurt?” You answer, “Hurt? No, not at all.” But you feel like he just stuck a broadsword through your abdomen.
If you continue to keep the truth from your doctor, will he be able to help you?
The difference between your doctor and God is that God already knows. Before Adam and Eve were caught with their pants off, God knew. When God called out in the Garden of Eden “Where are you?” desiring fellowship with his new creation, he didn’t need an answer. He knew where they were. He knew what they’d done. He knew what they would say.
So why does he ask them, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Does God really need them to say, “Yes?”
He doesn’t. They do.
God asks the question because they need to confront the answer.
If you keep something from your doctor you are deceiving him; keep something from God, and you deceive yourself. Like the vain attempt of Adam and Eve, you hide from God. Adam and Eve needed to acknowledge the cause of the breach; they needed to own the sin that broke off fellowship between them and God. God knew what had brought pain into their perfect relationship. They didn’t know, but they needed to.
Confession means stopping the game. You’ve sinned. You’ve stepped out of his best and into your mess. Fellowship with your Abba Father has been disrupted. Confession is coming out of the shadows and coming clean with what you’ve done. Confession means the hiding is over. Confession is acknowledging to God what he already knows.
Godly sorrow asks the question: “Where are you?” Confession is giving God the truthful answer and accepting it. I remember when my mom found a so-called “men’s magazine” under my mattress. When she confronted me about it, I lied: “Magazine? What magazine? How’d that get there?” A pretty lame defense, I know. Who else would hide porn under my mattress? And, of course, my punishment was that much more severe for the attempted deception.
We do the same thing when we try to outwit and outplay God on the sin front. He knows all about our sin. And the quicker we agree with him about it the better off we’ll be.
Then God can work to heal and restore. He is a master surgeon, having already initiated the cure from the cross of his son. He is “faithful and just,” able to clean out the infection that has violated the relationship. We can’t do this; only he can.
The other relationship that is affected when we play the game is family - specifically, the family of God, the church.
In St. John’s first letter he writes what has become the definitive word on confession: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). We memorize this verse to help seal into our minds the importance of confession. But John’s point in this part of his correspondence is not primarily about confession; it’s about deceit.
John warns his readers, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). And, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1:10). The great catch-all about confession is wrapped in dire warnings about deceit.
There is more here besides just coming clean with God. John’s broader context is the fellowship, the church. He has just finished explaining that walking in the light gives us fellowship with one another, “and the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from all sin.” The Message refers to this fellowship as the “shared life.” It is the life of the Body.
John’s starting point is the life we share within the context of our relationships with one another. Then he talks about deceit.
Deceit to whom? Scary question. John says twice, “If we claim . . .” Claim to whom? Are we really claiming to God that we don’t have sin? Are we really claiming to God not to have ever sinned?
So much about John’s point here has to do not only with our penchant for hiding from God, but hiding from each other, too. Our claims of sinlessness void the family bond. Those claims might be the outright verbal expressions of our arrogance, betraying the lack of humility. More often, they are embedded in our religious bearing – in the way we carry ourselves and display our lives. Our biggest problem is usually not what we put on display. It is what we hide, the things that we refuse to show one another. The presumption of being OK, when the reality is that we’re falling apart, not only hurts us, it hurts the fellowship: “When one member suffers, all members suffer with it.”
I sat in my office with Jon, married with three kids, in Christian ministry, but having an affair. Until that day, anyone in church would have considered Jon a good, healthy Christian. But on that day he asked four men from the church to come and hear his confession. He wept as he poured out the story of his sin, and he moaned for the damage he had done to his marriage and family. After spending time in the context of grace and love available at that moment, there was a visible change in Jon. His sin was still real. The consequences lived on and demanded his attention. But his load, the burden of sin, was gone. His shoulders broadened. His face brightened.
Jon had already brought his sin to the light of God’s holiness and confessed it there in authentic repentance. But by bringing it into the flesh-and-blood arena of relationship he experienced forgiveness - in person. What had been nearly breaking his back in secret was now shared with others who cared.
It was not only Jon who was better for meeting that day. All of us in the room benefited from the experience. Each of us approached closer to the vulnerability that heals.
There is no “shared life” if we do not share, in honesty and humility, the brokenness of our lives.
Elsewhere in scripture we are admonished to “confess our sins to one another.” I have always understood I John 1:9 to be a God-ward confession. Closer inspection, however, does not allow so narrow a view. Could it be that John’s warnings apply when we pretend to be holier than we really are? When we, absent of confession, presume not to have need for confession at all?
Practice tells me this is, indeed, the case. I was part of a small accountability group whose members, after years of meeting, continued to keep up appearances and never reveal the reality about sin in their lives. That group never reached the same depth of relationship and healing grace as the group down the hall in which people were confessing the truth. The success or failure of real fellowship (not the red-punch-and-cookies variety, but the real thing), hinges on the vulnerability of confession.
FINDING A SAFE PLACE
We need a safe place to confess. Confession behind closed doors, in little closets where we do not have to see a real person face to face, but can tell the truth anonymously, is not the answer. If John says anything, it is that reality, bite though it may, is essential to community. Without real confession, community is a myth.
If we cannot find a safe place within church to confess, we have limited options. As a pastor, it has been difficult to find that safe place, because sometimes there were no safe people. At those times, I found it more comfortable speaking to a counselor. Even though I was paying someone to hear me confess, it was necessary because of the environment. Others have found a safe place in “Anonymous” meetings, or groups at other churches where people are understanding.
My friend Rosemary once decided that she needed to confess her alcoholism to the church body. After doing so in a Sunday worship setting that was appropriate, she began to feel an isolation take place. Over time, that isolation forced her to leave the church.
What we need are churches where confession is the norm of the place, rather than a freakish sideshow where the confessor feels like a seven-year-old on the high dive taking his first leap, and the spectators watch with a simultaneous snicker and gasp. We need to be fellowships of the unfinished, where sin is seriously acknowledged and graceful love is immediately applied. We need to create safe places where confession can be practiced and normalized.
How can we create those places? How can we take the stigma out of confession?
First, it’s important to remember that embarrassment will always be a consequence of sin. Confession without some sense of godly sorrow is not healthy because it does not see the sin as a violation of God’s holiness. In fact, it is that very embarrassment that informs our decisions about where and how to confess.
Here are some guidelines for creating safe places for confessing in the church:
1. A safe place needs to be built, not assumed. It will take time and practice to build trust. Confessional spaces do not pop up overnight. They need patient care and protection as they grow into environments of honesty.
2. A small group, probably not more that six people in size, is the best place for confession. Intimacy within a larger group is nearly impossible simply due to limitations of time and confidence.
3. Baring your soul to a person of the opposite sex outside of marriage is risky and potentially dangerous territory. Groups should be gender-specific.
4. Group members need to know, going in, that confession will be an expectation. They will also need to see it modeled, which means that you, if you are the leader, must take that first step.
5. Confidentiality must be assured. Be sure and discuss confidentiality issues with a pastor or leader from your church to make sure of the policies which help protect a church legally. In some instances, the phrase “keeping trust” may be a safer term to use.
6. Any group where sin is confessed on a regular basis needs to ask God to protect against two extremes. On one side, the group could become casual about sin, treating it in ways that minimize the truth of God’s holiness. In contrast, a group could also consider itself the “shame agent” for God, meting out guilt on confessors. Group members can get caught up in a kind of strong-arm accountability which will shut down future intimacy and honesty. Between these two extremes is a demilitarized zone called Grace. This is where you belong.
“The tribe has spoken.” And with that another Survivor has-been walks out of the picture, off of the island, and into obscurity. If our shared life in the church mirrors the tribal hypocrisy of Survivor life, we are probably better off to walk away. The place to be for growth and vitality in our walk with Jesus is with people who, like God himself, “understand that we are dust,” and love us anyway. The church can be, and desperately needs to be, a place where we can come clean, confess, and receive grace.