As George Orwell thought about saying, “All breakthroughs are equally impressive (they are after all, breakthroughs), but some breakthroughs are more impressive than others.” I could not agree more. Consider these five great breakthroughs in history.

  • The Wheel. Where would we be without the wheel? Answer: Right where we are now!  Let’s face it, there is no way we would ever walk to get somewhere far away. But thanks to the invention of the wheel, we’ve been going places ever since.  
  • The Printing Press. Sure, without the printing press there would be no Renaissance, no Protestant Reformation, and no scientific revolution, but those are all small historical potatoes compared to the point: Would you want to live in a world where Calvin and Hobbes books were not readily available? Me neither.  
  • The Light Bulb. Many will argue that the light bulb was invented by one of the brightest inventors ever, but its true inventor was not Edison, but necessity (as in “necessity is the mother of invention.”) Think about it. Thanks to the printing press, we had all these books, but we had no way to read them at night! And we had all these wheels, but there was no way we could ride them at night! As a result, “Mother Necessity” stepped in and enlightened our nights, and the darkness has never been the same.  
  • The toilet. One website declared that the toilet has saved 1 billion lives since it was invented in 1875. That’s pretty impressive. I bet it is just flushed with pride.  
  • Anesthesia. Where would we be without anesthesia? Answer: Not on the operating table! And while surgeons experimented with all sorts of ways to dull the pain (“Here, bite this bullet”), it wasn’t until 1846, when William Morton discovered the use of ether that patients stopped screaming as soon as they entered their doctor’s office. Today, instead of screaming, patients are actually reading while they wait to see the doctor. Books, they make the world go around!

 We are looking at the last chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship. Bonhoeffer’s big idea in this chapter is that when we confess our sins to one another, we will experience numerous breakthroughs. For instance, when we confess our sin to a friend, we breakthrough into true community because, not only are we being honest with each other (which is at the cornerstone of all community), but we are also removing all pretense and pride; and pride is at the core of all sin. And when we confess our sin to another member of our church, we experience a breakthrough to the cross because our confession will become a public execution of our self-righteousness. Last, when we confess our guilt, we breakthrough into new life because our acknowledgment and ownership of our sin (its presence and power in us) breaks its dominion over us. Our confession sets us free.  

But there is one more breakthrough we have not discussed. When we confess our sin to each other, we experience a breakthrough in certainty. 

Bonhoeffer begins this conversation with a rather difficult question. He writes:

 Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sin to God than to a brother?
God is holy and sinless. He is a judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience.
But a brother is as sinful as we are.
He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin.
Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God?”

Now, I know the answer to this one. Confessing to another person is embarrassing. In fact, really embarrassing. Plus, God already knows all our dirt and, in spite of that, has promised to forgive us all of our dirt. Worse, confessing to a friend (or to a spiritual mentor) can torpedo the relationship, leave us open to gossip and put us in a place where our reputation can be ruined. In other words, the risk of confessing our sin to God is nil, but the risk of confessing to someone else is huge. So, given the choice, I would prefer to make my confession only to God. But there is a spiritual danger here that we often overlook. If we refuse to confess our sins to another person, we may only be playing at confession. Bonhoeffer asks these two unsettling questions:  

“Have we not been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God?
Have we not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves
and also granting ourselves absolution?”

And all God’s people said, “Yikes.” Bonhoeffer goes on, probing even deeper, with these two questions.

“Is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses
and the feebleness of our Christian obedience
to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness
and not a real forgiveness?”

“And who can give us the certainty that,
in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins,
we are not dealing with ourselves
but with the living God?”

Can I just say, I’m beginning to feel a little dislike for Bonhoeffer here because I really don’t like where he’s going because I really don’t want to go there. See, everything in me wants to deny that Bonhoeffer’s arguments hold water, but instead they seem to make perfectly good sense. For years, I have been saying, “Never underestimate the power of self-deception.” And yet, in this moment when I am accused of being self-deceived, I wanted to say Bonhoeffer is overreaching; that we could never be self-deceived about something so fundamental to our faith as the forgiveness of sins. But I had never considered that just like we can fall prey to “cheap grace,” so we can also fall prey to “cheap confession.” And just like the way out of “cheap grace” is to restore the cross to Christian discipleship, so here, the way out of “cheap confession” is to restore the cross to our confession by dying to self and sharing our sin and failures with a friend or mentor. Here is how we are to breakthrough to the certainty of our forgiveness. Bonhoeffer writes so that we can think through each of these statements:

“Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin;
this can only be accomplished by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.”

“God alone gives us this certainty
but he does so ordinarily through our brother.
Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception.
A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother
knows that he is no longer alone with himself;
he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”

“As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins
everything remains in the dark;
but in the presence of a brother,
the sin has to be brought into the light.”

“As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception,
so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me
only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God.”

And then, Bonhoeffer leaves us with this final admonition:

“Who can refuse, without suffering loss,
a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?”

Confessing to a friend offers us many potential spiritual breakthroughs, but most of all, it offers us an opportunity to make our faith real by doing something so outlandish that we would never do it, unless we truly believed that this was God’s will. Jesus says these words in Mark 8 (vs. 34): 

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.”

We can now say it like this: If we want to prove to ourselves that we believe in God’s grace and forgiveness, we will deny ourselves and our commitment to appear righteous, take up our cross and put to death our pride and reputation and self-deception and follow Jesus as obedient servants. If it helps, Bonhoeffer is not alone in this idea. Martin Luther also believed that confessing our sin to someone else was necessary and good. He wrote: 

“Therefore when I admonish you to confession,
I am admonishing you to be a Christian.”

There are just a few more pages in the book, and I expect we will finish in our next blog post. I am hoping that Bonhoeffer has given you many thoughtful insights and ideas that will enable you to experience many breakthroughs of your own. One thing is for certain. He has made us think.