As we have been discovering, in the Bible confession is never offered as a substitute for repentance. It’s but a first step toward repentance and then restitution. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had this to say about the role of confession in the life of a believer:
“And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 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” (James 5:15-16).
James calls for confession to one another as part of our repentance and restoration. James seems to indicate here that illness is sometimes caused by hidden sin. Regardless of where you land on that one, don’t miss the implication in James’s words: Because hidden sin may be the cause of visible illness, the smartest thing you can do is confess. Not only to God, but to the people. In other words, bring out your secrets into the light.
According to this passage, confession precedes physical and spiritual restoration. Again, there’s nothing here about relieving your conscience or feeling better about yourself or wiping the slate clean with God. Confession is the first step towards change. And change is the goal of confession.
No doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when He shocked His listener with this bit of instruction:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
I can imagine someone in Jesus’ audience thinking, Now wait a minute. You’re telling me I’ve walked all the way to the temple, stood in line for half the day, and brought an acceptable sacrifice. And I’m supposed to up and leave? You want me to tie up my lamb or hand my pigeon off to someone else, just to make peace with someone who’s mad at me?
This was certainly a new wrinkle on the Law. Worse than new, it was terribly inconvenient. And besides, isn’t our relationship with God supposed to be our ultimate priority? Isn’t God more interested in our getting right with Him than is getting things right with our next-door neighbour? Aren’t we suppose to put God first? Certainly, we should be concerned about a strained relationship — but surely it could wait until after church!
But Jesus comes along in His characteristic fashion and reverses everything. In effect He says our relationship with God hinges on our relationship with other people — the two are inseparable. He seems to imply that our ability to worship God sincerely and fellowship with Him unashamedly is contingent upon the status of our relationship with others, including those we’ve offended in some way.
Part of walking with God is making that call you dread making; setting up that appointment you know will be incredibly awkward; writing that letter that you should have written long ago. It means humbling yourself, owning up to your part of the problem, and doing everything within your power to make those relationships right. And when you swallow your pride and take that extra step, something remarkable happens. Guilt loses it foothold in your heart, and the power of sin is broken in your life.
Open confession has the power to break the cycle of sin. Actually, that’s the purpose of confession. And like most medicinal remedies, it works when applied properly.
If you start confessing your sins to the people you’ve sinned against, odds are that you’re not going to go back and commit those same sins again. Maybe that’s the reason we would rather just confess our sins silently to God — it gives us an out. We can be repeat offenders without embarrassing ourselves. I say “maybe.” In fact, that’s exactly why we confess secretly: In many cases we know we’re going to repeat the offence.
But if you force yourself to confess to your sales manager that you inflated your numbers last quarter, assuming you keep your job, you probably aren’t going to inflate them again. Not if it means having to confess the same infraction a second time.
If you muster the courage to confess to a friend that you revealed to someone something she’d told you in confidence, chances are you’ll never do it again. Not if it means having to confess it again.
If you confess to a teacher that you cheated on an exam, that will probably be the last exam you ever cheat on.
Guilty people are usually repeat offenders. And as long as you’re carrying a secret, as long as you’re trying to ease your conscience by telling God how sorry you are, you’re setting yourself up to repeat the past (and keep on sinning). However, biblical confession — the way God designed confession to be applied — breaks the cycle of sin and guilt.
So the major carry away: Public confession has the power to purge our hearts of the guilt that keeps us from living out in the open with integrity; secret confession does not.