Confession of sin—specifically, one person confessing to another person may be one of the most misunderstood and yet one of the most helpful spiritual disciplines believers can use. The Bible rarely refers to this practice. James 5:16 “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed“ (NASB) seems to be a special case. Still, Christians throughout the centuries have used this practice to grow closer to the Lord and to overcome the power of sin in their lives.
This one-to-one confession is different from asking a person to forgive us for something we may have done to them. It’s different, also, from the Roman Catholic practice of confession to a priest. Moreover, it is different from Christian counseling. Sin can disrupt our lives in such a way that we would benefit from Christian counseling. This confession is different.
Person-to-person confession is a discipline of inviting another believer into our life, asking them to listen as we confess some sin and to respond as the Lord leads them. Most often that response will be to pray for you in that moment or to speak encouraging words or to remind you of God’s love and patience however the Spirit leads.
We know God forgives us as we confess sin. (Think of such verses as 1 John 1:9.) So why have another person help us? It’s because too often we pray “blanket prayers” (“forgive me of my sins”), without thinking deeply about those sins that haunt us day after day, year after year.
Most of us have sins that recur despite our best efforts. We try to change. We try harder. We pray for strength. We even ask people to pray for us (without getting too specific if the sin is too personal). But victory over those “strongholds” eludes us. So what is it that makes person-to-person confession of sin a discipline that gives us traction in moving toward victory?
When we confess our long-standing sins to another person at least two things occur. The first thing is that we get specific about the sin that has its hold on us. The other person isn’t a mind-reader. We have to identify the sin we’re struggling with; identify it by name, out loud (or in writing). We name those sinful thoughts and deeds and attitudes that haunt us and cause us to condemn ourselves silently. We name and describe if necessary the sins we are ashamed to admit. We admit the sin just won’t go away. After confessing the same sin to the same person repeatedly, the second thing occurs. We become embarrassed having to admit our sin repeatedly. The embarrassment will lead us either to give up this practice of confession or to face our sin specifically, consciously and intentionally, and let the Lord heal us.
This confession is not some kind of spiritual or psychological exhibitionism. Neither is it a one-on-one game of “you tell me your secrets and I will tell you mine.” It is the Lord using human interaction to do what we, by ourselves, cannot (or will not) do in the recesses of our mind and heart: identify, confess, accept His healing.
When the Lord leads us to this confessional practice, we need to note some guidelines.
- We ask the Lord to help us find that person who will listen to us, our “confessor.”
- Confession leads to a closeness that must not be misunderstood, so our listener needs to be of the same sex. Often the person will be older, but that is not necessary.
- Consider the maturity of the listener. The spiritual maturity of the listener may be even more important than our maturity. We are trusting that person to receive our words and to receive the Lord’s leading, not to impose her or his opinions or advice.
Think of a child confessing to a parent or a teacher something the child did wrong. The way the parent or teacher responds can create a healthy awareness of the wrong, help the confessing child understand what is so wrong with what he or she has done, and encourage proper behavior. Ignoring, excusing, or punishing in a way that “does not fit the crime” in a sense can be confusing to the child and block any future confessions. So, too, our listener can bless our life or sour us toward this opportunity to grow in the Lord.
Treating sin seriously is important for the people of God, especially sins that persist such as sins of attitude, disposition, omission, habit. God has given us ways to deal with these strongholds and confession to our brother or sister in Christ is one of them.