“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16, ESV)
Over the next few weeks and months, I hope to reflect on a series of verses from the study guide of a Bible study my church’s men’s ministry is following [A Man and His Traps, Volume 3 of 33 The Series, published by Authentic Manhood/LifeWay Church Resources (2013), pp. 56–59 of the study guide]. The series focuses on the idols that lead men into temptation. The verses provide ammunition for renewal of the mind (Romans 12:1–2) to transform our perspective from a worldly attitude of defeat to Christ-centered victory. The study participants are urged to meditate on these Scriptures, memorize them, and gain a new perspective as a result.
Personally, I find that writing and study are a great way to assist myself in this process: A blog post challenges me to think thoroughly about a passage, and the feedback and other responses that follow (comments, readers clicking “like,” and so on) allow me to come back and think some more throughout the days that follow.
Although inspired by a men’s study, the reflections should help women as well. In Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), and although we may struggle with different temptations, we share access to the same spiritual blessings.
With that preface in mind, let us reflect on James 5:16.
Many Christians are uncomfortable with confession. Some will say that it sounds too “Catholic” and therefore should be avoided as a form of legalism. Others say it is unnecessary: Since we are forgiven, why should we even think about our sins? Isn’t this just heaping condemnation upon ourselves?
Perhaps these arguments are merely excuses. The verse above is clear. It is a command: “confess your sins” is not preceded or followed by “if you wish” or “you might want to try this sometime.” James also commands us to confess your sins to one another. Some people are not afraid to confess their sins to God, but they do not want another person to hear it. Those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians should not avoid a command of Scripture merely because another denomination emphasizes it more, or it is uncomfortable.
The root of this perspective is pride. We like to pretend that we are better than we really are, and we do not want others to think we are imperfect. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic Life Together, proposed that when someone is uncomfortable confessing his sins to another person and only confesses privately to God, he is merely confessing to himself and granting himself absolution: “Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”
It is important that we find someone through whom we can experience the presence of God. Twelve Step programs like Alcoholic Anonymous urge their members to take a personal moral inventory and then admit the exact nature of their wrongs to themselves, God, and another human being. That other person should just listen: They should not judge or condemn; they should quietly listen, without interrupting to interject advice or ask questions. Most importantly, they will not tell anybody what you have said: Your admitted failings should be a secret shared by the two of you and God alone. Through that time of listening, the person who is making confession can find healing by unloading their spiritual garbage.
So, if you are struggling, you may want to consider some kind of confession. Take some time first to reflect on your life and note the areas where you have failed: Twelve-Step programs frequently have excellent resources to help you with this. Then, find a trustworthy confidante. If you attend a church that offers formal sacramental confession, you may speak to the pastor; if not, find a trusted mature believer, one with whom you have a close relationship and who you know will never gossip about you.
If you are asked to hear such a confession: Sit back, listen, and do not say anything. Maybe, after the person has completed their confession, you may offer some guidance, if you feel the Holy Spirit has revealed anything to you or you have successfully overcome one of the person’s besetting sins. Most importantly, do not judge or belittle the person.
Finally, pray for one another. When one believer has admitted his sins to another, they should pray for deliverance and for the power to resist temptation. Confession is the first step to repentance, restoration, and deliverance. Your prayers are the greatest tool you have to bring this to fruition.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.