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.
The above Scripture is a clear command to Christians to confess their sins to each other. Yet I don’t understand James 5:16 to apply merely to one-on-one relationships as many probably would; I believe God through the apostle is equally pushing believers into the public arena with this verse. And millennials, I think we can be leading the way in our churches.
With that in mind I ask, why do Christians avoid public confession of sin as if it was the most terrible experience imaginable? Why do Christians refuse to touch the concept with a 10-foot pole? Why do Christians treat the matter as riskier and more frightening than the stock market? I would dare say that most Christians are this way, and I think that’s very sad and unfortunate. I believe it’s also causing each and every one of those people in the body of Christ to miss out on countless spiritual blessings.
Think you already know what I’ll be arguing for here? Not so fast. I don’t think that believers should air all of their “dirty laundry” every time they fellowship. That isn’t the main purpose of God’s people coming together anyway, and surely not what God is after here either.
Where I want to shine the spotlight is on the reality that Christians who avoid public confession of sin are ultimately declaring, “I’m OK everyone. I got this. I don’t need help. I have nothing to learn. I don’t need prayer. I’m content to fight sin alone.”, yet no one actually hears those words. It’s convenient, and requires little to no effort. And beyond that, is it any wonder then that Christians lose so many moment-by-moment, daily spiritual battles that don’t have to be lost? Here’s another kicker: failing to obey James 5:16 actually impacts every single Christian you associate with. Yes, that sin, whatever it is you’re refusing to confess, or don’t believe is necessary to confess. Where do I pull that from? From all over the book of Ephesians (parts of Romans too), where Paul several times over describes God’s people as members of the body of Christ, members one to another. That means whatever you do, say, and think inevitably affects your brothers and sisters. It’s easier to convince ourselves of the opposite, but it’s true.
The gravity of that truth is overwhelming no doubt! But it’s a truth that should spur us on to much greater frequencies of public confession than what I think takes place. Allow me to offer a specific illustration from Scripture, and perhaps one you haven’t considered before. Let’s take a look at some verses in Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome.
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I consider the above to be one of the most inspiring examples of the Christian confessing his sin publicly in all of Scripture. Think about it. Does it really matter that Paul was never physically with the people of this church to open his mouth and declare those words? I don’t believe that’s a pre-requisite for public confession of sin, and neither should you. Of course it would have been wonderful if Paul could be there, but that’s missing the point. Even this blog piece is public communication, is it not? Yet I’m not verbalizing any of it to you. Let’s maintain focus on Paul’s example and what he’s altogether saying. Our apostle didn’t mince a single word emphasizing that he is a terrible, terrible sinner. You might point out that he doesn’t dive into specifics, and that’s true, but the sheer fact that he chose to acknowledge the truth of his intense battle with the sin nature to hundreds, possibly thousands of Christians and non-Christians should cause us to pause and ponder. It’s pretty bold to confess the ugliness of your heart especially to so many people you don’t even know! It’s not enough to agree with Paul and relate to Him though; this should move us toward sharing our sin burdens with our Christian brothers and sisters.
What about shame and embarrassment? After all, are those not what likely hold most Christians back from publicly confessing their sin? They convince us of the falsehood that it would be so awful for sinners just like us to learn that hey, “We sin too!”, and let alone in similar fashion! God’s reputation as the Giver of grace is surely protected in this way. Oh, and we can’t possibly confess that we’re struggling with sins like lust, because…you know, that would make us seem weird or unseemly! How about the classic, “It’s no one’s business.”? To all this I say, what a bunch of spiritual baloney.
Dare I point out even the entirety of narrative Scripture? Christians could spend hours studying and discussing the sins that people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Peter, and a multitude of others freely confessed for generations later to read about and learn from. Sure, some of them didn’t know we’d be reading about their sinful acts, but I digress. Let’s even zoom in on Peter. Oh, poor Peter, typically picked on for what seems to be a lot of silly sinfulness. He rebuked God Himself to His face for crying out loud! And in spite of all these permanently recorded situations given for our benefit, we as Christians still somehow find it so difficult to help others equally benefit by acknowledging something as simple as , “Hey, I got angry at someone on the road today, and cursed them in my mind. Please pray for me.” Or, “Everyone should know that my prayer life is terrible. Please pray for me.” Perhaps, “I just don’t value relationships with my brothers and sisters as much as I should. Please pray for me.” These sins, and many others, aren’t being confessed in our local fellowships. Whatever happened to the church being an environment where broken sinners wouldn’t pretend that life is peachy?
Now it’s my turn to pony up at least a couple examples of confessing my own sin. My points would be relatively moot otherwise. One that I confessed relatively recently to all in attendance during an evening service at my local church was my battle in being assured of salvation, or “unbelief”. It went something like, “For a while I’ve allowed the enemy across numerous occasions to cause me to doubt that I’m a child of God, that I’m truly bound for hell.” I was touched and encouraged by the sympathetic faces I saw in reaction to my transparency, and I know I’ve been in prayers along those lines. Those prayers work by the way (see James 5:16). Also, the first time I attended a Wednesday evening prayer service about 4.5 years ago, and in spite of not knowing a single believer in the room, I freely confessed that the Lord was giving me victory over a years-long struggle with immorality in which I fell much. I don’t really remember my words, but I asked for prayer that I would somehow learn to interact with Christian sisters in a biblical way, and be able to develop friendships with them. I’ll never forget the handshake I received from someone I now appreciate very much that night.
It discourages me to think that most Christians will never come close to opening their mouths in similar ways, to confessing their sin publicly. It discourages me because I know what they’re missing out on. They’re missing out on the very blessing of James 5:16, spiritual healing, through intercessory prayer…the most powerful tool we have to participate in others’ lives. They’re missing out on the blessing of having someone hurt because you’re hurting. They’re missing out on the blessing of relationships with those who can relate to you, or could be a spiritual help and encouragement to you. I could add to this list, but surely you get the idea by now?
Please don’t forget that I’m not demanding that Christians rise from their seats every time they gather to spell out every last sin act they committed since the last time of fellowship. What I am encouraging is that you consider whether or not you’re obeying James 5:16, and how you might be the blessing that someone else in your fellowship has been dying to hear from, but doesn’t know about because you’d rather try to hide your sinfulness. No one benefits when that’s the case, and God certainly isn’t glorified. Do you think God would rather you pretend you’re OK, believe that your sin doesn’t affect the body of Christ, or think that it’s nobler to be with your brothers and sisters week after week with them not having a clue about the sins and temptations that burden your life? I frankly want nothing to do with that misery.
I also understand however that not all church fellowships organize their services to allow for this on a regular basis. Therefore it’s up to you to decide when it is best and least disruptive. As far as how you can go about this, there isn’t much to it. If the larger Sunday crowd of your fellowship is really too scary, then choose a more discreet path. A Wednesday evening prayer service, a small Bible study, a breakfast, whatever helps you feel most comfortable starting out. And please don’t wait until your mind is free of apprehension. That likely will never be the case if this is new to you; it can and will come with practice! It would be better to start off small and grow in your boldness and transparency than to look at the ultimate scenario and give up before you do anything.
It warms my heart to say that I’ve personally known the blessings I described a few paragraphs ago. Am I perfect in my own need to confess sins publicly? Certainly not, but I’ve not regretted a single time I’ve responded to the Lord’s prompting me to do so. Thus, to obey Jesus Christ above anything else, and to experience the blessings He’s promised to provide when you do, what struggle might you be willing to tell your local church when next you meet?
If you are doing this, I praise the Lord for that and urge you to do so more and more…as Paul said to the Thessalonians. If you have, but were burned by the self-righteous in the end, please accept my sympathy. That should never happen, and I’m certain it hurts, but I yet implore you to give it another chance somehow. Vulnerability can’t be sacrificed in the name of self-preservation. If you’ve never done this, I encourage you to examine your heart for a reason, or the reasons, why.
You may recall I said at the beginning that we millennials can lead the way by example. How about we do that? What is the point of waiting for someone else to take charge and get the public confession ball rolling? Our churches have enough pretenders; don’t be one of them.