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Why We Need to Practice Confession

Why We Need to Practice Confession

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News is a liar.

Or he isn’t.

The recent brouhaha over Williams’ now falsified courage is evidence, not just of outrage over the potential breach of journalistic ethics, but of cultural intolerance for liars. We hate liars. We especially hate liars who deceive for selfish gain.

I don’t consider myself a liar. In fact, I’m rather self-congratulatory about my rigorous moral code: the truth, though sometimes difficult to bear, is always best. Or so I tell myself.

But I recently lied to a roomful of people, only to later recognize my phoniness. I told a group of writers I didn’t have Twitter or Facebook apps on my iPhone as a precaution against the suck of social media (and the insatiable appetite for approval). This was true, yes. But, as I later reflected, it was also true that some days, I was maniacally connected to these sites through my Safari app, checking dozens of time in a single hour whether someone “liked” this or “retweeted” that.

I am a liar. And as desperately guilty as any other human being.

This is the inconvenient moral truth we must tell about ourselves: that our moral codes fail us, that we are sometimes liars, cheaters and adulterers despite our best intentions. One way we do that is through the Christian practice of confession. Through confession of sin, we admit our falsehoods, cite our pretense, and surrender the sham. We agree with God that our actions and inactions have fallen terrifically short of His perfect standard of holiness and can only be reconciled through Jesus. But confession isn’t just a practice of private, personal prayer. It should often be more public—with a friend or a trusted group of people.

Here are four arguments for the practice of regular, public confession:

Confession Can Clear the Conscience.

In 1 John 3:20, the Apostle John reminds us that a person can feel plagued by a sense of guilt, even for confessed sin. Though the good news of Christ’s death for every sin and sinner should free us from shame, sometimes “our hearts condemn us.” We can’t grasp the reality of our full and free forgiveness. We continue to self-punish.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that this is the precise moment we need a fellow Christian to “speak God’s word to [us].” Though sketching the depraved details of our life with another person is a huge risk (and we must wisely choose the people to whom we entrust our confessions), if they receive our sordidness and receive us, we can begin believing more fully in the enduring mercies of God. We can begin trusting the wide-enough, long-enough, high-enough, deep-enough love of Christ.

Confession Brings Healing.

There is an interesting interplay in the Scriptures between sickness and sin. When men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, the first thing Jesus does is to forgive the man’s sins (Matthew 9:1-8). In the closing words of his epistle, the Apostle James encourages the sick to seek out the church elders for prayer and anointing and asks sinners to “confess your sins to one another and pray for another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

Sin is like disease, and its effects are pandemic in the human body, not to mention the human community. “When I kept silent,” the Psalmist writes, “my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long … my strength was dried up as by the heart of summer” (Psalm 32:3, 4). Refusing the practice of confession, the Psalmist’s silence bore a heavy grief. He was listless, depressed, and physically tormented. But the pain of his refusal finally ended when he confessed his sin. Confession to other human beings (and their prayers on our behalf) can help restore us spiritually—as well as physically, mentally and emotionally.

Confession Brings Accountability for Change.

In the opening paragraphs of his first epistle, the Apostle John speaks of the essence of God’s being as “light … in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 5:5). This harkens back to John’s Gospel, where he records these words of Jesus: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).

Public confession is light to send sin scurrying. As a refusal to let sin stay hidden, it’s also an invitation to accountability. If we want real freedom from the sins that invent and reinvent themselves in our lives with guile and force, we should involve others in our confessions. Their prayers for our forgiveness are likely to become their participation in our change.

Jesus Commands That We Confess to One Another.

Evangelicals are notably nervous about the verse where Jesus insists on the practice of humanly-mediated forgiveness: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold the forgiveness, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Didn’t the Reformation throw off the need for forgiveness mediated by a priest? Doesn’t the Scripture insist that we have direct access to Jesus, the Great High Priest and Intercessor for human sin (Hebrews 7:25)? Why must we confess to another?

Of course, confession of sin to another person doesn’t effect a better forgiveness. It is no magic formula, no incantation, no talisman. But these four reasons insist that we should practice more than private, personal confession. Public confession does serious business with sin.

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