– Notes –
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed…My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
– James 5:16, 19-20
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done? If you could go back in time and erase one thing from happening or ensure that no one would ever find out about it, what would it be? You know, we all come from different backgrounds and all have different stories, but one thing that we all have in common is a desire to escape embarrassment. We all naturally want to be well thought of by our peers. No one out there is like, “Man! I LOVE it when I’m just humiliated by everyone around me – that’s the best!” We don’t love that. And at times, we will actually bend the truth a little bit to keep embarrassing things hidden, and to make ourselves sound a little cooler than we really are.
For example, when I was in elementary school, one day I was running through the kitchen, unaware that my mom was boiling a pot of spaghetti. As I ran, I didn’t notice my mother was turning around to drain the water into the sink, and I crashed right into her and the pot of boiling water was poured onto my back. It was terribly painful; I still remember the agony of trying to peel my shirt off from clinging to my back when it felt like it was on fire. Luckily, no permanent damage was done. My mother, however, did have to come to school once a day for weeks to put a medicated burn cream on my back to prevent it from scarring – so naturally, kids in my class asked what happened, and I told them what I am telling you now. Bumped into mom, didn’t see each other, hot water on back. However, what I didn’t mention was that I wasn’t necessarily running…
The reason I didn’t see my mom when “running” through the kitchen was because I wasn’t really running. MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” was a pretty big hit in my family, and on that sunny afternoon in my kitchen, it was Hammertime. While paying tribute to the great MC, (after my mother had told me several times to stop) I decided to dance around the kitchen, doing the running man. Backwards. That’s when tragedy struck. Bumped into mom, hot water on back, Hammertime over.
The irony of me crashing into my mom, and then falling to the ground crying, while dancing around to a song called “Can’t Touch This”, was too embarrassing to handle. That’s like a flashback scene that plays in a comedy when they are trying to show how dorky someone was as a kid. So, long story short, I doctored up the story a little bit and just told my classmates I bumped into my mom (who obviously must not have been paying attention, and should really be the one to blame), and I was nothing more than an innocent bystander.
That story is funny now, but wasn’t so funny back then. That being said, I know without a shadow of a doubt that you have stories like that, some you probably wouldn’t mind sharing, but others you have done your best to cover up. You know how I know? Because, think about this, nobody had to teach me to lie about what happened in the kitchen. Nobody taught me to tell half-truths, stretch words, and make myself sound a little more heroic than I really was. No, that just comes naturally; it came naturally to me, and it came naturally to you. Do you know why? The Bible says that when we are born, we are born with a sin nature. Meaning, we naturally drift towards sin; that’s what the Bible calls “our flesh”. This is why we have to teach little children to be honest.
So we are born with a propensity to sin, and here’s the main point of this, one of the major effects of sin is that we want to hide. We experience a shame over our shortcomings, and naturally want to present a fake version of ourselves that we think looks better than the real us. And over and against this temptation we have to hide, and live in the shadows, the gospel invites us to live in the light of community and the confession of sins.
The Need to Confess
In James, we read here about the classic Christian discipline of the confession of sins to one another. James tells us that all Christians need to be confessing their sins to one another, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” (James 5:16). That is an imperative command – meaning, it isn’t given as a recommendation for us to consider, but a directive to be obeyed. Friends, let me say this very plainly: you need someone else in your life that you can be regularly confessing sin to. I meet with a handful of guys every week and we confess and pray for one another. I need it, and you need it.
But why? Why do we need to confess?
Well, first, let’s be clear about what confession doesn’t do: it doesn’t save you. Here’s what I mean: if you tell a lie on Monday, and then die on Tuesday before you confess your sin on Wednesday, you will not go to hell. We don’t fluctuate throughout our life from being saved and not being saved by confessing sin. When we put our faith in trust that Jesus died and rose for our sins, that is what saves us. We confess sins because we already are saved, not so that we might be saved.
So why do we need to confess our sins to other people? Three reasons:
- It helps us see sin rightly. Sin is a shape-shifter. When I never confess my sin with someone else, and it only exists in my mind, then it almost always will disguise itself as bigger, or smaller than it really is. In Genesis, before Cain killed Abel, God warned Cain that, “sin is crouching at the door,” of his heart (Gen. 4:7). Sin is appearing smaller than it really is. There is sin in your life that you are unaware of or you think is no big deal, and you need someone else who can point that out to you.
Some of our sin, on the other hand, inflates far and beyond what it really is. In the darkness of the secrets of our mind, sin often will make itself sound much more intimidating, much more shameful, and much more apocalyptic than it truly is. This is one of the most crippling things I’ve seen just paralyze people; they nurse a secret sin because they are afraid to let anyone else know about it or think they can handle it on their own, and then eventually they become so bound by the shame and guilt that have compounded over time, that they are certain that either they are going to hell or that God must not exist. Sin thrives in the dark. Confessing our sins is like ripping the curtains of self-righteousness down and letting the light of truth pour into our hearts so we can see our sin rightly. Sin is never so small that it should be ignored, but never so large that it cannot be forgiven.
- We experience true community. If I never confess my sins, if I’m never transparent about who I really am with anyone else, then I will begin to feel a deep sense of isolation. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you have no friends, or are the most popular person in the world – if you never can open with someone about your deepest flaws and failures, you are going to be experiencing a deep, deep loneliness that no amount of friends or laughter will ever fix. Why? Because slowly you will begin to believe that people wouldn’t accept you if they could actually know the real you. So what do we do? We create a public version of ourselves for others to see, and keep our secrets hidden. Guys, there is no other generation that is more ensnared in this than we are. Through technology today, we have more opportunities to stay connected with one another than ever, but we are more alone and isolated than ever.
Recently, in an interview Lady Gaga talked about why a few years ago she almost quit the music industry. She admitted that she was burned out by how our entire culture has become obsessed with perpetuating a false version of ourselves, to the point where we feel anxious about what emojis to send people when texting. She says, “This is the age that we live in. We are not actually communicating with one another, we are unconsciously communicating lies.” In other words, we are so intensely paranoid about people not accepting us, that we all are just lying to each other about who we really are. What about social media, friends? Does your Instagram account reflect your actual life? Or is it an advertisement for the kind of life you hope other people think you have? If we never honestly, and transparently say to someone else, “Here’s who I really am. Here is where I’m weak, here is where I’m failing,” then we will be trapped in isolation.
James says we are called to confess to and pray for one another, and that we are to have such openness with one another that when we stray from the path, our friends come get us! “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins,” (James 5:19-20). We are not islands – we exist as a body together, and have a mutual responsibility to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-2). There have been a number of times in my life where my closest friends have sat me down and lovingly smacked me upside the head with God’s truth, and there have been plenty of times where I have lovingly smacked their heads with the truth. We need one another, we need true community, we need others to know our struggles and our weakness.
- We experience healing. James tells us that we should confess our sins so that we may be healed. Harboring sins in your heart will make your soul sick. You want to feel miserable? Sin, and tell no one about it. Wrestle with an addiction, and keep it to yourself. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, and kept it hidden for over a year, he eventually confesses and records how he felt, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer,” (Ps. 32:3-4). John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9). Hidden sin leads to depression, weariness, frustration, shame, and self-absorption. Confession leads to cleansing and healing. Remember, we do not confess sin to become or remain a Christian – we confess sin because we want to receive the healing and cleansing of our God. The punishment for our sin has already been paid for; we confess sin to drain it of its power. Confession of sin is the lancing of the infected, swollen sores of our sin, draining it of the shame and guilt, so the fresh cleansing water of the grace of Jesus can wash our wounds clean. Sin is always at its most powerful when it is in the dark. Paul explains, “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light,” (Eph. 5:13-14). We confess sin so the Lord may transform our darkness into light, and we be healed.
The Power to Confess
How do we get the power to do something like that? Perhaps as I am talking, you are becoming aware that you have something that you know you are struggling with, you know you can’t handle it on your own, but you just can’t bring yourself to find the courage to grab a friend or a small group leader and tell them. It is so scary to think about because it ties in with our same fear of being embarrassed. We are afraid of people finding out something about us, and then rejecting us. “If they knew that you struggled with this…If they found out you did this…” That’s a scary thought.
But friends, you will never experience true community, true relationship, true healing and cleansing from sin until you are willing to make yourself vulnerable to somebody else. You will be perpetually trapped in the fake world of make-believe, and you’ll never be able to believe that someone could actually love you.
But before you can be vulnerable with someone else, you have to know that you are loved. You will never open up to someone who you think is indifferent towards you, right? But here is the awful dilemma: at times we can be terrified of being totally transparent with someone we know loves us, because we are afraid that if they know the real us, they won’t love us anymore. Maybe they just love the fake version you have been working so hard to fabricate? If you get to this point, you’ll be stuck. You’ll maybe confess some respectable sounding sins, but still keeping secrets. How do you get the power to break through?
In the movie Armageddon, there is a giant asteroid that is on a collision course with earth, so a team from NASA is sent up to go destroy it before it destroys us. But, the asteroid is moving so fast that the rockets on the ship simply can’t catch up to it. So, the team uses the gravitational pull of another planet to slingshot them up to speed to reach the asteroid. They use the gravity of a massive reality to propel them forward. That is what we need. For you and I to be honest people, living in community with one another, experiencing the healing practice of confession, we need the gravity of something huge to sling shot us forward. And that is the love of God, displayed in the gospel. In the gospel, we see that God knows every single one of our sins – even better than we do! – every thought, every desire, every website visited, every dollar spent, everything we’ve done when we thought no one was watching, everything we have ever done is laid bare before God. We are known and we are vulnerable, whether we like it or not. And that is an absolutely terrifying thought, because deep down we feel like if someone could ever possibly know us that intimately, they would be repulsed by us and reject us.
But that isn’t what God does. God, fully well knowing what screw-ups we are, still sent His Son to die in our place so we could be eternally His. Only in the gospel is the sinner’s dilemma resolved. We are known to the bottom, and loved to the skies.
Do you see how powerful this is, friends? Let the gravity and magnitude of the gospel slingshot you forward to a radically weird, joyfully honest, life. Here’s what I mean by that, look at Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul, this incredible titan of the faith, who has thousands of people looking up to him as a role model and leader, is able to say, “I’m the worst of the worst!” How is Paul that free to be so transparent? Well, the answer is simple: he knows he is a sinner, but he knows that Jesus came to save sinners, so he is loved. Now, Paul is free to be honest and transparent with others – he isn’t a slave to what others think of him. I’ve always cherished the place in the gospels that record Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt. 26:69-75). Peter denies Christ three times, calling down curses upon himself to prove to others that he does not know Jesus – right after swearing to Jesus that even if everyone else abandoned him, he would not (Matt. 26:33). I love this story, because the only way that the authors of the gospels could have known about this event is if Peter told them. What remarkable certainty of God’s love would Peter have to experience to feel free to share something so shameful and embarrassing? The love of Christ, given to wretched sinners, like Peter, and like me. The weight of the gospel has propelled him forward to live a life of joyful honesty. It worked for Paul, it worked for Peter, and it will work for you.
What does that look like?
Here are some practical tips for cultivating a habit of confession.
- Confess to one or two people.
- Find someone of the same gender. This could be a friend, a mentor, your small group leader.
- If you feel like you don’t have a friend that you are close enough with to confess your sins, than work on being that friend for your friends. Serve them be leading in honesty.
- Confess regularly.
- Meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
- Text each other throughout the week when temptation or struggles arise.
- Confess sin within 24 hours. Don’t give yourself an opportunity to convince yourself you don’t need to confess it.
- Confess honestly.
- Don’t use pretty or vague language to describe ugly things. Don’t be unnecessarily descriptive, but don’t be deceptive.
- “I’m struggling” is not an honest confession.
- Don’t try and tell half-truths, or paint yourself out to be always be a victim.
- Prepare for it to feel embarrassing. I always feel like I sound so silly and petty and chump-ish when I confess the same sin, over and over again to my accountability partners. But that’s okay, Jesus is my righteousness, so I am free to confess.
- Don’t overdramatize your confession to try and impress.
- Don’t use pretty or vague language to describe ugly things. Don’t be unnecessarily descriptive, but don’t be deceptive.
- Remind each other of the gospel.
- We are known and we are loved by God.
- Respond with love, encouragement, prayer, wisdom, and humility.