“What surprised me was that confession wasn’t humiliating—it was liberating.”
I sat across from a young woman who said this sentence so calmly, even casually. Yet these words hit me with full force. They dismantled one of the stealthiest lies in sanctification: that admission of wrongdoing is disaster.
It’s important to note what kind of confession she was not talking about, which is the naming of an act or thought to God in prayer as wrong. As she described her process of first trusting and following Jesus as a young adult, she had been quick to understand scripturally and logically that one should confess sins to God. After all, he knows everything anyway, and it seemed like a time-tested religious practice. She didn’t experience this act as humiliating, nor did she expect it to. But neither did she experience it as fully liberating.
Perhaps you’ve been there as well. You’ve believed (perhaps functionally if not theologically) that your piety is all about you and God, so naming your sins to him will check them off. After all, 1 John 1:8-9 is a promise! For certain missteps, confession before God alone moves you to a different place. But all of us have experienced periods of time where, no matter how often we may acknowledge something as sin in prayer, there seems precious little relief.
Richard Foster states it well in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, when he reminds us of our tendency to “doubt our forgiveness and despair at our confession [to God privately]. We fear that perhaps we have made confession only to ourselves, and not to God.” The lack of sensing liberation can lead us to doubt the efficacy of our prayer, or even God’s character.
This is precisely why we have been given to each other. Because of the Holy Spirit who lives inside each Christian, we have the power and authority to minister God’s forgiveness. We are God’s new priesthood and with the authority of God’s Word and the power of his presence, we can receive and provide the balm of peace.
Why do we not seek it out? Perhaps we believe that if we were truly known, we would be rejected. After all, not every Christian is mature enough yet to appropriately handle the tender things of another person’s heart. Or it could be that we believe the lie that we are the only ones who have failed this way, this many times, or for this disgusting reason. If I’m honest, at times I have somewhere in the corner of my heart believed that if I didn’t speak a thing out loud, that it would disappear along with its consequences. This is especially true if my sin involved (in my limited view) only myself.
These are each lies, powerful lies. But each, in the right circumstances, can feel true.
And yet there is something far more true, which is the power of God’s work through his promises. He never lies to us, he never misleads us. And in this case, he has promised that there is healing in confession to one another (James 5:16).
This is precisely what my friend experienced. The Spirit was urging her to confess her sin, and she sought out her pastor. She spoke to him, halting due to embarrassment, but she was able to get to the end. Bracing for what would come, she received warm words of thankfulness, forgiveness, and acceptance. This was when she made her discovery: the act hadn’t shamed her, it had freed her. The weight had been lifted.
I have experienced this in my own life as well. It is hard to explain the logic of how the forgiveness and embrace of a Christian can bring a flood of relief when, by Christ’s blood, we know that forgiveness is secure before that act of corporate confession. But ours is not always to understand the how—it is to claim the gift.
Is there a secret weighing down your heart today? Perhaps it is from last week, perhaps it is from fifteen years ago, but no matter the time it whispers in your ear. You may have built an elaborate fortress of justifications for why you’ve only brought it to the Lord, and not to his people. Certainly some of those reasons are respectable looking from the inside. Even so, you’re choosing a prison of your own making. Jesus has given you a three-toothed key: his words, his presence, and his people. Use it, and experience the freedom of a fresh wind of forgiveness.
But maybe you are reading this without a heart weighed down. Praise God for this! What would it mean to shepherd this blessing well? Confession involves at least three parties: God, the one who confesses, and the one who receives the confession. May the Lord strengthen us to execute both human roles well under his guidance, by his authority and grace.