If there is anything I’ve learned over the last decade of life and ministry, it is that everyone is dealing with something big. Everyone has fallen in some way. Everyone is struggling with sin (or willingly giving into it). Everyone needs grace. And yet, it is striking that most of us seem to have such a hard time admitting these things personally, with any real detail. We tend to treat our personal struggle with sin as a thing to conceal, rather than as a thing to confess.
Several years ago, a good friend of mine counseled me with a penetrating tidbit of wisdom that I will not soon forget. “Sin thrives in the dark, Zach,” he said. For some time this brother had been observing me work overtime to keep secret the real nature and implications of a particular struggle of mine from those who were offering to help me through it. I had been trying so hard for so long to manage the perspectives of others, preserve my reputation, and make it seem like I had things all under control, only to see my struggle become more intense and to find myself further isolated from real help. I was concealing my sin and the consequences of it, and I needed instead to confess those things openly, to begin killing my sin at the root. As long as I kept my struggle hidden I would find no victory over it whatsoever, because as my friend said to that day, sin truly does thrive in the dark.
Do you want to know how to remain enslaved to a particular sin? Just keep hiding it. Tell no one about it. Only talk about your sin to the Lord. The next time you go out for coffee with your friend from church and they ask how they can pray for you, tell them about your cousin who’s marriage is failing, or about the struggles your kids are having, or about the sins of your spouse and your need to respond to those sins in a godly manner, but mention nothing of your personal struggle. You wouldn’t want them to think less of you, would you? They’d lose all respect for you. You got this. You can handle it yourself. You can manage this. You don’t need help. Right?
Whatever you do, if you want to continue struggling with a particular sin, say nothing of that sin to anyone.
If you want victory over sin, however, perhaps you would consider a few relevant biblical passages, such as the testimony of David:
Psalm 32:3-5 3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Selah, indeed. Concealing sin makes the bones of a man waste away. Confession brings forgiveness and restoration.
Or, there is the simple statement of the wise man:
Proverbs 28:13 13 Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
How straightforward is that?! You want mercy from the Lord to forgive your sin and give you strength to overcome it? Confess that sin openly and forsake it.
Or, consider this:
Luke 18:13 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Remember, as counter-intuitive as it may be, the man that uttered those words was the man who went down from the temple that day justified. Not the guy polishing his trophies before the Lord.
The Apostle John would encourage us in similar fashion. In fact, he does so in 1 John 1.
1 John 1:8-10 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
There John is describing in a surprising way the impact of the Gospel upon the way we deal with ongoing sin in our lives. He does that by contrasting the Gospel-way of dealing with sin, with religious, churchy, pseudo-spiritual ways of dealing with sin.
The Gospel-way of dealing with ongoing sin is the way of confession.
What is confession?
The word “confess” (Gk homologeo) essentially means to agree with God about your sin, including:
- The nature of your sin. That is, when you confess your sins, you call them what God calls them. They are not indiscretions. They are not addictions. They are not illnesses. They are not merely problems of our environment, nor of our past, nor of our upbringing, nor of outside influences. When you confess your sin, you are seeking to be honest about the root of the problem, and acknowledging that the root of the problem resides within you, not outside of you.
- The seriousness of your sin. That is, you acknowledge your sin as an offense against a holy God. An act, as R.C. Sproul used to say, an act of cosmic treason against your Creator.
- The specific details of your sin. Generic confession is an oxymoron. You’re not confessing it if you’re not being specific about it.
- Your inability to atone for your sin. That is, you acknowledge your complete inability to erase your injustice before the eyes of a holy God. You can’t fix this. God must fix this by his mercy.
And, this confession is public by definition. Confession is making a truth known publicly. In 1 John 1:8 and 10, John refers to people who are publicly claiming to be free from sin, so the confession he refers to in verse 9 should at least be understood as having a public element. This means that though we are to confess our sins to God, we should regularly do so in the presence of other Christians.
Why confess sin to others?
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer likens the confession of sin to another person to an old man dying a painful, shameful death in the eyes of his brother. From very personal experience I believe this comparison to be wholly adequate. So then, why would anyone ever want to confess entrust another human being with the specific knowledge of their sin?
It’s because of the painful nature of confession that Bonhoeffer says, “we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement.” He’s right. But, are there promises for us in the voluntary humiliation of confession? Is there any glory in it?
Certainly there is. The glory in confession is in the mercy that flows to the one voicing it. Whoever confesses and forsakes his transgressions will obtain mercy! If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. God eagerly forgives sin that is humbly confessed, and gives sin-conquering mercy to the sinner who is willing to be exposed before the eyes of God and of his brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you want mercy to forgive and help you overcome your sin; open, humble, mercy-seeking confession is the way to get it. There simply is no other way.
Now, perhaps this brief post will prove personally relevant to exactly no one who reads it today. But down the road, if you ever do find yourself entangled in a particular sin and you are wondering how you could ever find freedom from it, can I simply encourage you to remember this simple truth: Sin thrives in the dark. You will never find the mercy you need to overcome your sin if you keep that sin concealed. Confession of sin to the Lord, in the presence of his people, will lead you, over time at least, to forgiveness and freedom and the joy of a renewed obedience to the Lord.