Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
Confession is one of those things we think about doing when we get to Lent and try not to think of the rest of the year. Most of us do not do it well. We either choose to ignore unhealthy and sinful patterns in our lives or we are debilitated by shame and self-loathing. Mostly we vacillate between these two poles. We minimize our sin (or simply don’t acknowledge it) or we obsess over it and are destroyed by it. We see this in religious communities. Some churches never get around to naming evil. Other churches obsess over their total depravity, making God’s grace opaque. Confession steers us between the extremes of minimizing sin’s seriousness or feeling disqualified by it.
Our sin is not that serious!
In the primaries, president Trump famously asserted that he doesn’t think he’s ever asked God for forgiveness. He later stated that he think’s “repenting is terrific,” that he goes to communion which is a form of confession and that he tries to live his life so that he doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. His famous public apology for his 2005 lewd remarks, “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize” may be one of the few examples we see from him of confession. Unfortunately, he followed up that confession with political doublespeak designed to minimize his wrongdoing:
“I never said I was a perfect person,”
“These words don’t reflect who I am,
“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”
Trump gives us the anatomy of a poor confession: (1)minimizing the seriousness of sin ( ‘I am not perfect,’ (2) separating his actions from his character (‘these words don’t reflect who I am’), (3) misdirection (pointing to someone else’s sins). There was an apology, yet this was not repenting with sackcloth and ashes.
We shouldn’t make this about Trump. We are also bad at confession and we try to minimize the seriousness of our own Sin. If a tape of our past indiscretions surfaced, we may also seek to downplay its significance. More often we distract ourselves so we don’t have to take an honest look at ourselves.
Our sin disqualifies us!
The other side of the coin is that we may carry the weight of past wrongs, wishing we had acted differently. We beat ourselves up asking “If I only didn’t . . .” We are ashamed of friendships that fell apart because we acted selfishly, and opportunities missed. We regret rash actions, unkind words, angry flare-ups, and untruths. Sometimes the past holds us in paralysis. We are ashamed of what we have done and what we have not done. We keep all this hidden. This was the first reaction of Adam and Eve in the garden before their excuses (Genesis 3:6-7).
These two poles are not mutually exclusive. We can outwardly act like we have it together or that our sin is insignificant. Inwardly, we may carry the shame of personal failings. I do. I can be gregarious and charming, quick-witted and fun, while privately I may be a mess—full of self-doubt, insecurity, shame for ways I fail and have failed. Publically present, but isolated from others.
Why confession is good for us
Confession is good for the soul precisely because it cuts through our tendency toward both excuse making and self-loathing. When we name sin for what it is, we break its stronghold in our lives. We hear words of abolution—that in Christ we are free and fully forgiven. We are accepted by God and restored to fellowship with others. There is no morbid self-loathing here. We are set free from Sin’s death grip on our soul and set free to live life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
The sinner surrenders. giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and congessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community (Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015, 88).
The fruit of confession is that we act differently in the wake of Christ’s forgiveness. We are forgiven when face-up to the seriousness and consequences of our actions. When we do, we live differently. We repair broken relationships (where they can be repaired), we live and act from a new center. We own up to our missteps and begin the journey back to the right path.