Let me be clear. (I hope you read that in President Obama’s voice.) This blog is not encouraging gossip or self-pity. Christians are somewhat infamous for gossiping (cue the country songs). We’ve all made or at least heard those “pray for so-and-so because I saw her husband out with another woman” prayer requests. This blog is about corporate confession. But not about those shallow, gossipy confessions. This is a blog about those kind of confessions that result in life-changing healing.
I’ll be first to admit that the discipline of corporate confession can walk a fine line with gossip. People tend to hide their deepest, darkest sins and only verbally express the not-so-centered-on-my-sin things. They’ll (myself included) ask for prayer for that promotion or healing for my second cousin twice removed. Those are good things to pray for, don’t get me wrong. But how often do you hear someone verbalize their addiction to pornography or their desire for someone other than their husband or their deep-seated, Mean Girl hatred for that girl they barely know? We don’t talk about those sins. They make us look bad. We’re afraid they’ll get back to us as gossip a week from now. I’d rather stick with my, “I’m a pretty bad person because I don’t get up at 5 a.m. to read my Bible every day” confessions.
There’s an old cliché that goes, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Last week I spent a lot of time in the hospital. When Grandpa died, the nurses closed the doors to all the other patients’ rooms so no one would know except those who had to. The hospital walls were plastered with posters about the miracles and healing, but when Grandpa died, the Critical Care Unit turned into a bustle of nurses all rushing to hide the death and the pain that had crippled my family.
I now see how correct that “hospital for sinners” cliché is—but not in the way it is intended. I’ve found that, even if the church is a hospital, she likes to keep outsiders and her own members in the lobby. There’s nice artwork there. There’s a cafeteria and coffee, posters and plaques all talking about all the miracles. There are pictures of the members of the board, and there’s a well-written corporate mission statement. Yes, you’re in a hospital—or so you thought. But you don’t see the sick. You don’t see the dying. There are huge signs pointing you to the cashier’s office and the discharge counter. There are no signs pointing you to the morgue.
And yet, isn’t the hospital’s whole purpose to heal the sick and help the hurting? Isn’t the church’s whole purpose to heal the sick and help the hurting? How can we heal the sick if we’re putting this white-washed, sterilized front up not only to people outside but also to each other? How can we help the hurting if we’re hurrying to hide them?
Richard Foster writes, “The Discipline of confession brings an end to pretense. God is calling into being a Church that can openly confess its frail humanity and know the forgiving and empowering graces of Christ. Honesty leads to confession, and confession leads to change. May God give grace to the Church once again to recover the Discipline of confession.”
You see, confession is so much more than a who-can-one-up-my-sin (but not too grievously) chit-chat. The Imagine Dragons song says, “Don’t get too close; it’s dark inside. It’s where my demons hide; it’s where my demons hide.” Confession takes away the demons’ place to hide—the song would lose its effect if it said, “Come as close as you want and see where my demons frolic in the light.” I know that analogy is super cheesy, but you get my point. Even pop culture knows that demons have to hide. Even pop culture knows that when darkness meets light, it loses its power.
Let me be clear again. Vocalizing every sin to another human is not a requirement of salvation. Yes, Jesus calls us to repentance. But we don’t need a human mediator to confess to—Jesus came to be the mediator between God and man. Jesus stands in the gap. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (italics mine). Please don’t forget that these spiritual disciplines are not prerequisites for salvation. They are simply actions to deepen your relationship with Jesus.
Although not a requirement for salvation, outward confession is beneficial. James 5:16 says, “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.” Foster says, “It is through the voice of our brothers and sisters that the word of forgiveness is heard and takes root in our lives.” He quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying, “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. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.”
When you bring your sin to a brother or sister in Christ, Foster says, it leaves no room for excuses: “We must confess that we have sinned by our own fault, our own most grievous fault…This is a Reality Therapy of the best sort since we are so prone to blame our sins on everybody and everything instead of taking personal responsibility for them.”
Why do you think speaking sins out loud to someone else is so hard? It’s because we have to face their gravity. We have to face just how expensive our free gift of salvation really was for Jesus. We have to face some of the darkest parts of ourselves—we have to face our demons—and compare them to the perfection of Jesus. Confession brings our demons out of hiding. And Greek mythology will tell you, dragging monsters out of their caves isn’t always pretty.
At a retreat in college, they had us write down a past sin that we just couldn’t let go. I wrote something down that had plagued my heart. I had asked for forgiveness for it long ago, and I could be sure God had forgiven me because he says in his word that “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). I just hadn’t let it go. I hadn’t let God really heal me. Foster describes the feeling well: “We try to convince ourselves that God forgives only the sin; he does not heal the memory…Eventually we begin to believe either that forgiveness is only a ticket to heaven and not meant to affect our lives now, or that we are not worthy of the forgiving grace of God.” At the retreat, we took those pieces of paper to the front and laid them on the altar. Even though God had nailed that sin to the cross with Jesus long ago, somehow that physical act of laying down my sin, of seeking and accepting forgiveness (even though it wasn’t to an actual person), brought healing to my right-now life in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
I know this is heavy stuff. That’s because sin is heavy stuff. If we left it here, confessing that we are sinners but going no further, we’d find ourselves in the dark hopelessness that is much of our world today. Most people—Christian or not—will admit that humanity and our world is broken. But, many people don’t step outside of that hopelessness and see that there is good news. There is good news! “Confession begins in sorrow, but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life” (Foster). This is the purpose of the story of the lost sheep in Luke 15—the story of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to go find one who is lost. Jesus says in verse 7, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Jesus came to heal the sick. He came to bring salvation and hope to the broken.
The church is a hospital for sinners. Even after we have chosen to follow Jesus, we still stumble. We still get sick and need healing and forgiveness. So why are we sitting in the lobby, absentmindedly eating vending-machine snacks and pretending we’re all just visiting a museum?
Sisters, let’s take a step down that white-washed hallway. Let’s go to each other in our need. Let’s be the hospital for all who are hurting. Sisters, why can’t we just admit that we’re patients too and not just visitors judging from a distance? Because don’t you see, when we admit that we are patients too—that’s when we can accept the care of the Greatest of Physicians.