True confessions. Five of them. And I don’t like to admit any of them. One, when it comes to buying books, I have little impulse control (in fact, Jo says I have no impulse control). Two, I own my own slot machine. (How many pastors can say that?). Three, I have close to 100 rocks in my study. Most of these rocks I picked up along various trails/beaches or were given to me, but some I stole. That’s right, I am a rock thief. Four, I once lied to a doctor saying that I was too sick to hold a thermometer in my mouth. I was young and had no idea there was an alternative. I bet I was the butt of the hospital.  Five, before I retire, I promised myself I would learn how to make great pizza. I even bought a wood-fired pizza oven. My pizza went up in flames like the Hindenburg. It was a complete disaster.  Retirement stinks, and retirement without good pizza stinks worse of all.  

They say confession is good for the soul. Maybe, but all I know is that it is also uncomfortable. And while confession of personal things (like books and rocks and thermometers) is awkward, confession of sin is embarrassing and deeply so. But the New Testament calls us to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16). But after having confessed five foibles, confessing my sin just sounds like a bad idea.

The topic of Bonhoeffer’s last chapter of his book, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, centers on the confession of sin. Two posts ago, we explained how our failure to hide our sins from each other torpedoes our attempts at community. But when we confess our sin, first to God and then to each other, we feel the depth of God’s grace and our forgiveness. Our confession makes our forgiveness tangible. The secret to community is to humble ourselves and confess our sins to one another so that we can experience God’s love and grace through another person.

But confessing our sins to each other still sounds embarrassing. But that is not the greatest risk here.  The greatest risk is if we refuse to tell anyone about our sins and temptations; and instead, we stuff them away and keep them private. Bonhoeffer writes: 

“In confession the break-through to community takes place.
Sin demands to have a man by himself.
It withdraws him from the community.
The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him,
and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.
Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.
In the darkness of the unexpressed, it poisons the whole being of a person.
This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.
In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart.
The sin must be brought into the light.
The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged.
All that is secret and hidden is made manifest.
It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.
But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107: 16).”

According to Bonhoeffer, unconfessed sin drives us from our community, but it doesn’t drive us away from the people. Instead, our community is poisoned because of our hypocrisy, because we prefer to pretend we are spiritual, instead of confronting our sin, because when we refuse to acknowledge our sin, we harden our hearts and last, because of our secret sin, we dare not let anyone get too close to our heart lest they discover our secret. Unconfessed sin destroys our community. But confessing our sin is the breakthrough to community.  

What happens when we confess our sin? We lay hold of the truth that our sin is our fault. We no longer try to justify ourselves, but accept full responsibility for our sin.  We surrender ourselves to God and forsake our sin. We feel God’s forgiveness for our sin in the words of a brother or sister. As a result, our sin loses it power. We are no longer alone, for someone else has stepped into our lives to carry our burden with us. God has taken away our sin and declared us clean. And grace has swept down over us. Bonhoeffer writes:

“Now, we stand in the fellowship of sinners
who live by the grace of God in the cross of Christ.
Now, we can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God.
We can confess our sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time.
The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship,
made all his apparent fellowship a sham;
the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship
with the brethren in Jesus Christ.”

But when we confess our sin to a brother or sister (unless the sin is public and has damaged the whole church, there is no need to confess your sin to the whole church), we not only experience a breakthrough to community, but we also break through to the cross.  

“The root of all sin is pride. I want to be my own law.
I have a right to myself, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death.
The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride;
for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God.
Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation.
It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride.
To stand there before a brother as a sinner is an ignominy that is almost unbearable.
In the confession of concrete sins,
the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother.
Because this humiliation is so hard,
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.”

Jesus died a public, humiliating death. In so doing, he took on our shame and guilt and died for us, leaving a path for us to follow, that we would humble ourselves and put to death our pride and self-righteousness by confessing our sin. Bonhoeffer explains:

“The cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride.
We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we shrink back
from going to the place where it is to be found,
namely, the public death of a sinner.”

In doing this we feel the weight of the cross of Jesus, but only for a moment, for as soon as we let go of our sin and pride, we feel the power of the resurrection come sweeping over us and we know the love of God.

Confessing our sins seems dangerous. It seems embarrassing, and it seems awkward, but it enables us to follow Jesus in the way of the cross and it opens the door to true community. There is no doubt of that; but to me, it still seems dangerous. So, what should we do? I offer three options for you.

First, if there is a friend you trust, make a pact that for three months you will confess your sins to each other and pray for each other. And promise each other that what is said will always remain private, just between the two of you. Try it for these three months, and then decide if you want to continue.  As the old commercial put it: “Try it; you’ll like it.”  

Second, if confessing your sin seems a step too far at this stage, I would suggest that you write out your confession just as if you were confessing it to a friend. Confess your sin in depth and take ownership for it. And after you have finished writing down your sins, put the letter in an envelope.  Then take the letter to someone you trust and let them speak words of absolution and forgiveness into your life. And then, in front of you, let them rip up the letter into shreds (they can also burn the envelope—that’s always special).

Third, if you still don’t feel comfortable confessing your sin to someone (I get it), then go for a walk and confess your sins in prayer out loud as you go. Let God speak to you as you stroll about; and when you reach the halfway point of your trek, make a conscious effort to leave your sin there and make your way home rejoicing.  

And remember what James says (5:16): “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.”