The word “confession” is part of our nomenclature in Churches of Christ. It’s one of the big five–hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. James tells us “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.” Do we as followers of Christ believe in the benefit of confession? For some, the only experience of confession is of a person going forward during the invitation song. They confess their sin and ask for the forgiveness of the church. We may have been the person who has done so.
Going forward in a worship service and confessing our sins is indeed a beneficial act. It allows the body to assist in carrying the burden of sin and helping hold the individual accountable to walk a better path. However, there is also a more personal way to confess and this is what James refers to as he speaks of one person confessing to another. This form of confession is a vital part of the life of the believer and the whole church. It is without question, a necessary component in our preparation to serve as God’s instrument in this hurting world.
I want to share the story of a good friend that is a wonderful example of the true purpose of confession. I am not proposing formal confession as is practiced in the Catholic Church, but this is the context of the story. This friend of mine is a Jesuit priest. He grew up in the Catholic tradition and shares a story of a time in his life when he went to confession. He was ten years old and observed the practice of going to confession every three weeks. He was particularly troubled on this occasion. He had been studying the Ten Commandments in class and was stuck on number seven–thou shalt not commit adultery. He had ascertained that this was a really bad sin–one that would send a person straight to hell. However, he could not get anyone to explain it to him. He had tried repeatedly to get an explanation, but when he asked the adults around him, they would say “oh don’t worry about it” or “you’ll understand later.” Finally in exasperation, he decided that he would have to work it out on his own. So he thought about the word. “‘Adultery’ it must have something to do with adults. Something bad. Oh my goodness! Adultery is when you don’t obey adults! I commit adultery all the time!” He added up the times in the past three weeks and estimated that he had committed adultery more than once a day. He decided a low estimate was thirty times. He had committed adultery thirty times in the past three weeks!
He knew he had to confess it to be absolved of this sin. But, oh how he worried about telling the priest. If a person would go to hell for doing it once, he might be too far gone. What if it was so bad, he couldn’t be forgiven? There was only one way to find out. So, he went to the church and got in line to confess. There were two lines. One was for the elderly priest who was hard of hearing. Only other hard of hearing folks were in that short line as you had to yell your sins in order to be heard. The other line was for the new young priest. This line was quite long and he knew it would give him time to gather his strategy for his confession. He decided to go with the “sandwich method.” The strategy was to sandwich a big sin in the middle of two insignificant sins. Perhaps the priest would not notice the big sin and just forgive the entire bunch. He mulled over other small sins and decided to go with “forgetting his morning prayers” and “picking on his little brother” as the outsides of his sandwich of sins. Once his strategy was in place, he was eager to get it over with. The long line now seemed to last an eternity, but at long last it was his turn and he slipped in to the booth. He said “Forgive me father for I have sinned. It’s been three weeks since my last confession. I FORGOT MY MORNING PRAYERS TWENTY TIMES. I committed adultery thirty times. I WAS MEAN TO MY BROTHER TEN TIMES.”
He was relieved to finally get it out, but then it was another eternity to wait as there was silence from the priest. The priest finally asked, “how old are you?” “Ten.” The priest then gave him an answer that forever changed his image of God. He said, “I don’t think you committed adultery, but if you did, God forgives you.”
When James said “confess your sins one to another,” this was the intent he was advocating. At the heart of confession is love. We serve each other as incarnational companions–God with skin on. We offer to each other the opportunity to love and be loved. We offer to each other the opportunity to receive grace for the mistakes we make–whether intentional or not. This is why Christ came to the earth–to show us the magnitude of God’s love for us. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It does not say that God loves us after we get our act cleaned up. The apostle Paul assures us that God loved us and Christ died for us while we were still sinners. What a relief! And we, the church, the body of Christ, have the opportunity to carry on this work as we do our best to love each other. We confess our sins to each other in order to bring them out into the open and give each other the opportunity to show God’s love.
I taught an undergraduate course for a number of years that was entitled “Disciplines for Christian Living.” One of the assignments I gave to the students was to create the ideal church. They did this in groups and over the years, there were about 50 groups that presented their perspective of the ideal church. Without exception, each of these groups included the characteristic of “nonjudgmental.” They long for a church that accepts them for who they are—faults, sins, and all. That was telling to me. It is a loud statement that we as the church need to love while we are still sinners. God already knows our sins. Confession is not for God’s benefit. It is meant as a gift. We confess for our sins to allow us as the church to accept each other without condition—as God’s instruments of love on earth.