Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Point of Confessing Sins - That You May Be Healed

I don't mean to imply by any previous posts that confessing sin in a loving community is easy. A loving Christian community must carefully strive for a delicate balance: making their fellowship a safe and supportive place to admit to sins and weaknesses, but also a fellowship that is committed to overcoming those weaknesses instead of just patting people on the back and saying: "It's okay." Bonhoeffer gave a tremendously encouraging picture of a supportive, loving community in his book Life Together. But Bonhoeffer was also quite clear: we don’t simply get sin out in the open so we can shed our guilt and say: “Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest.” Confessing the sin and bringing it into the light is meant to remove the guilt, but it removes it by embracing the connection to God that we have through the Gospel – the glorious truth that Jesus bore our sins and already took the punishment, purchasing forgiveness and acceptance for us instead.

This connection, however, requires that we not only confess sin but repent of it. We can't settle for the same old habits. The freedom of forgiveness necessarily involves agreeing with the one we have wronged that what we did was wrong, and we don't want to do the same thing again. We want to be restored into a trusting relationship with whomever we had to seek forgiveness from, and not jeopardize that intimacy and trust again with another offense. This is just as true about our relationship to God as it is of our human relationships. Bonhoeffer's explanation of the loving Christian community's role in confronting sin is all about being restored to right relationship together, living in harmony and openness with no insincerity or deceit.

The great joy that we are promised upon confessing our sins is that we will be healed. Not just unburdened, but fixed. Mended. Restored. "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). Sin brings sorrow. Being aware of sin and unable to confess it brings shame and grief. Confessing sin liberates the soul; but unless the patterns of thought and desire and habit that led to the sin are corrected and changed, more sorrow and shame are on the way. A loving community will do its best to help everyone escape that cycle of shame.

The searching of our own hearts for the crooked ideas, selfish thoughts, pride, and old habits that lead us into sin is often called "heart work" because what needs fixing is not our behavior, but our hearts. As Jesus said, out of the heart come all the evil desires and immoral things of mankind. (Mark 7:17-23). Examining our weaknesses is a very uncomfortable activity. Charles Spurgeon describes our reluctance very well:

Humankind will attend to the most multiplied and minute ceremonial regulations – for such things are pleasing to the flesh - but true religion is too humbling, too heart-searching, too thorough for the tastes of carnal men; they prefer something more ostentatious, flimsy, and worldly. Outward observances are temporarily comfortable; the eye and ear are pleased; self-conceit is fed, and self-righteousness is puffed up; but they are ultimately delusive, for in the article of death, and at the day of judgment, the soul needs something more substantial than ceremonies and rituals to lean upon. Apart from vital godliness all religion is utterly vain; offered without a sincere heart, every form of worship is a solemn sham and an impudent mockery of the majesty of heaven.  Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, p. 706 (Dec. 18).
The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. - Bonhoeffer
Heart work is hard. The important thing is that it is worth it. More than that, it is necessary. What makes a thing desirable is not that it is easy or painless, but that it is worth the sacrifice. But it is nearly impossible without community, without the support of Christian fellowship and encouragement. When the Christian community embraces each other in gentleness and forgiveness, we are free to relate to each other sincerely and genuinely. Our ability to be in close friendship with each other and to feel the joy of worshiping God together is restored. This is a truly beautiful picture:

Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer along with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ. - Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 112-13 (HarperOne edition, 1954). 

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