This is Step Five of the Twelve Steps for those unfamiliar with the world and language of recovery. The first three steps are about coming to terms with the world as it really is (I am out of control, I cannot help myself, I ask God to help). The fourth step on the road to recovery is to sit down and come up with a “personal inventory”- that is, we sit down and painstakingly figure out what is good about us, bad about us and indifferent. In short, step 4 helps us get to know ourselves. (For an excellent resource on the steps and the gospel, check out Tal Prince’s sermons)
Outside of a few problems, the first four steps may involve some level or degree of difficulty but they are more or less straight-forward. If we have any life experience, each and every one of us will agree that we cannot help ourselves. In the church, we also have no problem assenting to the fact that, so long as God is sought, he will help us. As distressing as the exact nature of our wrongs may be, making a decent list of our lies, arrogance and harsh words (not to mention classic “acting-out” activities) are never too far from our minds.
Really the first two parts of Step Five presents the same easy appearance that the first four seem to possess (notice the words “present,” “appearance” and “seem”). Ok, I can admit that I am a mess in front of God, he knows all that I confess before I confess it. Admitting to myself that I am a wreck in very specific terms may be painful but we have known in the back of our minds the general state of our hearts for a bit of time already.
The real kicker of Step Five is the whole business of telling somebody else exactly where we have got it wrong.
We cringe when we consider the possible scenario of confessing our sin, as the brother of Jesus said, one to another. We shrink back in fear of what our friends would say if they knew about our secrets. And so we settle for lives of isolation -hiding in broad daylight- because we are too afraid to tell our fellow man about our particular brand of temptation and sin. Sin, as our old friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, wants to remain unknown. This is where the power of sin is, in our proud self-shouldering of our heavy burden.
Our refusal to confess our sins to each other thrusts us into a state of unmanageability. Our proud silence destroys us from within, piece by piece.
If you think this does not happen, please explain to me why so many strong leaders in the church have been publicly exposed for the double-lives they have been leading. Please explain the reason the divorce rate inside the church is right around the same as outside, if we have no problem humbly confessing our sin one to another.
It is certainly a terrifying thing to imagine telling another person about our sin, our addiction, our temptation and our struggle. We have seen others who have been either, as my friend Traylor likes to say, “lovingly exposed” as real, great and desperate sinners. We have seen others (and, more often that not had a hand in) calling out such men and women. Once called out, depending on our current mood, we will either sweep the truth under a rug or we will expend every bit of our energy crying down their wicked disobedience.
We are afraid to confess our sins to others for the simple fact that we know somewhere in our hearts that they will cast us out. We have convinced ourselves that we are beyond the grace of another. Our hearts have convinced us of the fact.
But what does God himself say of our hearts? Say, Jeremiah, are they not desperately wicked? Have our heats not been responsible for placing us in our crummy position to start with?
You see, there seems to be a thousand reasons not to tell another person about our wicked hearts but they are all self-justifying. They aim at justifying the sin in us rather than the sinner in us. In the end, we do this because we are afraid of others.
We are afraid others will judge us. We are afraid others will dismiss us. We are afraid others will work to abuse us in the face of our rigorous honesty. We are afraid others will hop on their high-horse of moral superiority.
This is why it takes boldness to confess. I may be convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that people will freak out when I tell them I have been looking at porn, using drugs, over-eating, judging others, gossiping, playing on a ouija board, experimenting with the same sex or cheating on my wife but I must be more convinced that God has a plan that is good for me. I must be convinced in my heart that when he inspired James to write confess your sins, one to another, he meant that for my good.
This is the type of bold freedom that we will never know as long as we are content to stay debilitated in fear of others. We are doomed to stay in an endless cycle of failure and shame if we cannot take God at his word here.
If none of this makes sense, maybe Dietrich can help.
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned…Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God…Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God.
Oh, there is freedom that we have never known in the gospel of Jesus.