So, confession is like going to a doctor’s office…

Last night I had the privilege of teaching on the topic of the spiritual discipline of confession. I’m slowly making my transition from depending on a complete written out manuscript (such an academic thing to do) to speaking more freely. I’m currently somewhere in the middle of this process, so I have a kind of expanded outline that I didn’t read from, but which did help me stay on track, and gave me something to look at when my mind blanked a little bit. In case you’re interested in what I think about confession, here’s that expanded outline, with some parts filled out for this post.

Intro to Confession: The discipline we don’t want to brag about. We honor the people who are great at prayer, we respect those who fast, we want to be people who serve more, or study better. So many of the spiritual disciplines are habits we respect in others and might feel proud about as we do them. Not confession. Someone who confesses a lot sounds a bit suspect, right?

Growing up in the church, confession wasn’t really at all a part of my experiences. Almost just the opposite. People didn’t confess their sins, they hid them. They weren’t open about their weaknesses, they promoted their strengths. Everyone has walls up, staying hidden, showing only their best, most holy-like, self. Which creates, I think, a culture of competitiveness and secrecy, two immensely damaging traits for any community.

When I initially thought about the topic of confession a few images immediately sprang to mind.

Images of Confession:

A. Religious 1: Catholic, confessional and priest, solved by acts of penance
B. Religious 2: Martin Luther, couldn’t confess enough. Penance wasn’t enough. This sort of penance goes to a quality of religious guilt before God. We confess so that we let go of the burden.
C. Legal: Detective Show interrogation
Courtroom drama, Matlock or Perry Mason. Confess guilt to hope for mercy or lesser sentence.

Those didn’t feel all that scriptural, to be honest, so I thought it would be good to think about confession in Scripture. And King David immediately sprang to mind.

D. The confession of David: Psalm 51

David was a great sinner and David was a great confessor of his sins. It’s the second part that is a big part of why God continued to bless him and his family. Saul, after all, wasn’t nearly as big of a sinner, but he would refuse to confess. Remember 1 Samuel 15:17-26?

A bit on Sin and Holiness

When we talk about confession as a discipline, we are by nature talking about sin. What is sin? That’s a much bigger topic but basically it involves going against God’s call in our life. We tend to think of sin in terms of do’s and don’ts, in terms of rules, but sin is much more than that. Sin isn’t as much violating a rule as much as it is resisting God. We are going against who God calls us to be and oftentimes in doing that we are resisting his work or his goodness or trying to make our way in this world without him. The template for sin is that original sin in the Garden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat, they did so because they were tempted by the serpent to get wisdom without God, to get this freedom to live as they wanted to live without having to depend on God. But, there’s no life without God. God is the giver and sustainer of life, and so sin, in its essence is us fighting against life itself, causing chaos or frustration or disharmony. No wonder sin is tied to death.

What is holiness? Holiness is walking in a way that’s in tune with God, with his harmony and purposes. It’s not equivalent to following the rules, it is equivalent with us following God however and whenever he leads. That’s why rules are sometimes bad indicators, as they may or may not match up with what God is actually calling us to do. Think about the Pharisees, for instance, who had all sorts of rules and laws, but Jesus saw much of these as a hindrance to real holiness.

And so confession is this way of acknowledging how we’ve left God’s path, in big and small ways, not so that we can fix it ourselves or beat ourselves up over it, but mostly so that we acknowledge that we are indeed off the path, once more, and need God’s grace in helping us get back on it. It’s when we’re off God’s path and don’t know it, or don’t admit it that we get into trouble.

Which makes me think of the story of the pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Confession is a way of humility for us, leading us away from assuming our attempts at holiness are really sufficient.

Which makes a lot of sense before we know Christ, right? When we are lost in our sins, and need a clear savior, confessing our sins and believing in the salvation that only comes through faith in the Risen Lord is so apparent.

These fits those confessions I mentioned before, for the most part. Jesus paid the penance, something Luther learned so clearly.

Confessing our sins is the beginning of the Christian life. But what about as a continued discipline? If sins are forgiven by Christ, what is the role of continued confession?

E. One more image: Doctor: Medical confession. Tell me your symptoms.

We don’t think of confession as being something that happens when we go to the doctor, but that’s precisely what happens. We tell the doctor everything. We tell the doctor all our symptoms, all the ways our body isn’t quite working right. We’re probably never more open than when we’re in a doctor’s office. Why? So he can say that our symptoms don’t matter anymore, that we can feel good about ourselves because we told him our bodily failings? No, we confess all our symptoms because we want to be healed from them, and confessing everything is how the doctor knows what steps to take next. We confess because we want healing.

Confession of sin as a continued discipline isn’t equivalent to us confessing a crime and getting a reduced penalty, or penance, or getting our guilt taken away. We rightly continue to confess that by believing Jesus our sins are already forgiven.

Confession of sin as a continued discipline is much more like confessing symptoms to a doctor. Sitting in a doctor’s office is by its very nature humbling, not to mention all the poking and prodding and such that might take place.

And it’s certainly not about feeling guilty, even if sometimes we have contributed to particular health problems. We confess our symptoms to our doctors because we need help getting better, and only by confessing our symptoms does the doctor understand what might be wrong and what might be the cure.

Now, this isn’t to say that God waits for us to confess in order to find out we did something wrong. It’s like after Cain killed Abel, God asked Cain to confess, but knew exactly what Cain did. Confession is our way of being open about the symptoms God already knows about. And by being open to our symptoms we become open about addressing them.

And can I say this is one of the areas in which I’m so glad to be in a tradition that believes in, and indeed pursues, sanctification, a reality in which we know that God is calling us to be more, be holy, be more who we were created to be, and indeed empowers us to make steps towards this every day of our life.

And so confession is a discipline which is particularly suited for those of us in the holiness tradition. We confess our symptoms that are our sins, so that we become more aware of where we are still incomplete and in need of further growth.

James 5:16: “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.”

Note the wording at the end, it’s not about forgiveness like we are confessing a crime. It is about finding healing, because we are, at our core, sick and sins are our symptoms. So, there’s no place for posing or trying to put on a show of holiness and moral health, that delays the healing we truly need.

Like Jesus said to the blind man, “Do you want to be healed?”

You know this passage: John 5:1-6

1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

Do we want to be healed from our sins? Do we really? Or do we want to hold onto them, find our identity in them, letting them define us? Or do we actually want to get well?

If we want to be holy, truly holy, we confess our sins so that we may find healing. Do we want to get well? Getting well means being vulnerable about where and how we are broken.

This is why confession was at the core of Wesley’s own pattern for disciplines in the Methodist Bands. In 1738 or so, he wrote up some rules for the Methodist ‘bands’, something we now would call small groups. At the end he writes,

“Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.

1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.

2. What temptations have you met with.

3. How were you delivered.

4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.

He knew that confessing sins was a starting point to being open to others, understanding ourselves, and relating rightly to God.

Sin as symptoms: As we confess our sins, we don’t only look at the sins themselves. We are pushed by ourselves, by the Spirit, or by others to go deeper and see what our sins are illustrating in our own life. For instance, I realized that my own sins were so often tied to a loss of faith. Confronting my wrong attitudes or actions was something I need to do in my life, but along the way I confront the deeper issue of faith by growing in my participation with God in various ways. Confession becomes a tool for me to examine my present state so that I can see my tendencies and ways I try to maneuver away from God.

Confession is also something that confronts me as I interact with others. That’s what is so brilliant about the confession aspect in the Lord’s prayer. We all know it, right? Forgive my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me.
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

I confess to God my sins while at the same time opening myself up to those who confess to me, with me. How can I be stay closed off to them without incurring the wrath of God? I can’t.

So confession has these three aspects.
Confession Before God: humility, opening ourselves up to listening to the Spirit, to being restored by God.

Confession Before Ourselves: Admitting our weaknesses helps us have a right perspective about our place in this world, both our strengths and our weaknesses, we find healing when we acknowledge our sicknesses.

Confession Before Others: by confessing to others we open ourselves up to honest interaction in which there is no place for posing or intimidation. Holiness is not about looking like we are better than others, that’s the image of the Pharisee and the publican. Holiness is being wholly healed so that we are renewed in how we live our own lives and how we love others. We give them space to find healing for their faults and find a shared unity in seeking together healing from God that helps transforms us individuality and as a community.

I want to close with one final image. This one isn’t an analogy but something I experienced.
Confession Image: Wheaton Confession.

Confession is vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable discipline, but necessary.

Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

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