Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time,
that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. (Psalm 32:4-6 NLT)
When we think of the word “confession,” many of us picture a little booth in the corner of a church where a priest waits to listen to people admit to their worst mistakes. And for many people, this is an everyday reality, a practical part of spiritual life.
But not all Christians practice confession in this way. While confession of sins to a priest is a commonly recognized activity for Roman Catholics, the Protestant Reformation saw many Christians take hold of a prominent theme in the Bible - confessing sins directly to God.
One of the most famous scriptures dealing with this theme is Psalm 51. It is one of the most powerful confessions in the Bible, and many Christians pray through this Psalm when they feel aware of their sins, and it is directly related to the terrible story of David & Bathsheba:
Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night. (Psalm 51:1-3 NLT)
It is possible to receive forgiveness from God when confessing your sins to him privately. Some scriptures seem to suggest that unconfessed sins in one’s own heart can become an obstacle to communication with God (Psalm 66:16-20), but these passages also reassure us that God listens to our confessions and readily offers forgiveness. Confession is about adopting the right attitude about yourself - recognizing that you’re not perfect, and being willing to let God lead you back to the right path.
But there are other versions of confession too. In the Hebrew Bible, there are many examples of corporate confession: when a nation collectively confesses their sins in general (Leviticus 26:39-41), or when an individual confesses the sins of their nation on behalf of everyone (Daniel 9:1-20). In the book of Acts, we see new converts to Christianity confessing their former involvement in cults and magic arts, publicly renouncing their old practices before beginning a new way of life. (Acts 19:17-19). We are told all throughout the Bible that if we wrong another person, we need to admit what we did to them and do whatever we can to make amends with them (Numbers 5:6-8, Matthew 5:23-26).
But beyond this, the Bible also advises us to confess our sins to other believers, even if they were not sins against them (James 5:15-16). We need to be real. Christians can be open with each other about their faults and shortcomings so that they can pray for each other and experience healing and forgiveness. Confessing in this way doesn’t make God forgive us, but rather reminds us of our need for grace, and God’s willingness to give it.
This last category can be uncomfortable if you are unsure that the people in your church community are trustworthy. Sadly, when Christians are not honest about their sinfulness, it makes it harder for everyone to acknowledge it. Christian fellowship is about finding and building relationships with trustworthy believers who you can share your struggles with, who will not judge you, and who will also be vulnerable with you. Together, fellowship and confession help us by letting us be broken, imperfect “works in progress” with other sinners.
The late priest Henri Nouwen said: “Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.” “I need my brothers or sisters to pray with me, to speak with me about the spiritual task at hand, and to challenge me to stay pure in mind, heart and body. But far more importantly, it is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.” (Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus, 2002)
And so, we see that confession and fellowship, when combined, are a uniquely powerful spiritual toolkit. While it is not necessary to confess to a priest to receive forgiveness for sins, there is a definite benefit to sharing your struggles with other trusted people who can hold you accountable and lovingly help you work through your flaws and shortcomings.
Unfortunately, not everyone has that kind of safe, affirming, trustworthy network. But it's a goal worth working towards - and one thing that will help Christians everywhere to feel safer sharing their struggles is for more of us to start being open about our own sinfulness. Not careless or inappropriate, but open-hearted and willing to admit when we aren't doing our best. If we all can see that we're in the same boat, more people will be willing to step into the light and let their burdens be lifted from their shoulders.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:8-2:2 NIV)
- Read 1 John 1:8-2:2. This passage seems to kind of hold a tension between two truths. How would you explain, in your own words, what John is trying to say here?
- Can you think of people in your own life who you would be comfortable sharing your personal struggles with? Who are some people who have given you advice and encouragement when you needed it?
- What does Psalm 32:4-6 say about the experience of guilt? What do you personally get from these verses?
- One concept that many Western Christians struggle to accept is the Biblical concept of corporate guilt. The ancient Afro-Asiatic cultural context of the Israelites involved a culture that placed a stronger emphasis on honor, shame, and collective/group responsibility than modern Western cultures tend to. With this in mind, read the following verses and answer the following questions:
- How many times does Daniel allude to the idea of collective guilt/responsibility in Daniel 9:1-20? Is Daniel only talking about his own personal sins?
- Read Leviticus 26:39-41. How do you feel about this moral principle? What does this warning in Leviticus mean for the people of Israel? Read verses 14-35 if you need more context.
- What do you think of the idea of people taking responsibility for the faults of their ancestors? Can you think of a way that this makes sense? Are there things about this that don't make sense to you? Compare the passages in Leviticus to Ezekiel 18. Do these passages seem to say something different? How does repentance factor into it? Does this make sense of why someone might repent of things that their ancestors committed? Why or why not?