There are careers I just would not want. I would not want to be a mortician. In my opinion, it’s a dead-end job. I would not like to assist a doctor giving colonoscopies. Now, maybe it is better than being a professional colonoscopy patient, but I am not so sure I want to probe the differences. I would not want to be a corrections officer. Imagine doing that for 10 to life? Nor would I want any part of these real-life jobs: a roadkill collector, a crime-scene cleaner, a manure inspector, a zoo cleaner or a priest. That’s right, a priest. I definitely would not want to be a priest. Why? Simple, I don’t want to hear your confessions. Perhaps, I could listen to confessions from people I didn’t know, but hearing them from people I know and love, no thank you.  

We are looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, and we have come to the last chapter, “Confession and Communion.” Here’s the question he is addressing in this chapter: Why are we still lonely? After all, God has given his church so many amazing gifts and, yet, they don’t heal the loneliness we all feel. God has given us corporate worship but that doesn’t do it. God has given us the privilege of praying for others and being prayed for by others, but that still doesn’t solve the issue either. God has given us the blessing of serving one another, of listening to each other, of carrying one another’s burdens and of speaking God’s Word into each other’s lives.  And yet, in spite of all of this, we still feel like we are on the outside looking in. What are we missing?  For Bonhoeffer, the answer is clear. We refuse to be open and honest with each other about our brokenness and sin. Here is his thesis statement:

“He who is alone with his sin, is utterly alone.”

He explains:

“The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur, because,
though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people,
they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.
So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.
We dare not be sinners.
Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner
is suddenly discovered among the righteous.
So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”

Here is the undermining of the church. We accept people who are morally good and upright (people like us), but we don’t want anything to do with sinners. And because we don’t want people to see us in that second category, we live in lies and hypocrisy, afraid that we will be exposed, embarrassed, humiliated or, worse, ostracized. Now, it could be worse than that. It is possible that we will also be shot. It is hard to forget that old quote from Freddie Gage that says, 

“The Christian army is the only army that shoots and buries its wounded.”

So, we are in a bit of a quandary here. If exposure of our sin to others brings a quick end to fellowship, the best thing for us to do is to hide our sin to stay in the church. You have a problem with pornography? Keep it to yourself. You have a problem with anger? Justify it and blame others. You have a problem with pride? Pray more, especially out loud and in church. Feed your sin while looking holy. You have a problem with hatred. Relax. If you hate the people your church already hates, no one will ever notice. But there is a problem here. Doing this (what Bonhoeffer calls living in lies and hypocrisy) will also bring a quick end to fellowship (what Bonhoeffer calls being “utterly alone with our sin”). And yet, let’s be honest, this is the preferred choice of most church goers.

But there is another option. We can decide that our sin is more important to us and voluntarily leave the fellowship before others catch on that we are not who we profess to be. Here, we voluntarily cut all ties with Christ’s church and try to find some sort of friendship with the world. In the long run, we know this won’t work; but for many of us, living in self-deception while enjoying our sin is a pretty good fantasy. I don’t need to say it, but I will: this option also kills all hopes of finding fellowship.

There is also a middle ground. We remove ourselves emotionally from “being in the church,” while we give ourselves to our sin. And if we do this right and keep our two worlds separated, our two worlds will never find out about each other. The hope here is that our sin is never exposed, and life can go on undisturbed. There is no fellowship, but we’ve already deadened the pain of that divorce.

Bonhoeffer offers us another way, the way of the early church. James writes (Jms. 5:16): 

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other
so that you may be healed.”

Granted, confessing our sin to one another doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. It sounds humiliating, embarrassing, and terribly dangerous (What are they going to do with this information? What if it leaks out? We could be devastated!). But there is a loophole here. Sometimes, we can find people who (we think) struggle with the same sins we do or, even better, who struggle with an even greater sin than ours. That means that when we confess to them, their response is guaranteed to be tolerance, understanding, and reassurance. And over time, our confession begins to look more and more like boasting. But while it does create a bond between us, that bond only mocks true fellowship.

So, what do we do?  We begin by confessing our sin to God. Bonhoeffer writes:

“The fact is we are sinners!
But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand,
that confronts us with the truth and says,
‘You are a sinner, a great desperate sinner’;
now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you.
He wants you as you are. He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work:
He wants you alone. ‘My son, give me your heart’ (Prov. 23:26).
God has come to save the sinner, Be glad!
This message is liberation through truth.
You can hide nothing from God.
The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him.
He wants to see you as you are. He wants to be gracious to you.
You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin;
you can dare to be a sinner!”

Underline those words, “This message is liberation through truth.”  The path to freedom is through truth and acknowledging our sin and our sinfulness. And we find that when we do this to God, all the shame and fear of our sin being exposed disappears. Instead, we feel free. So, free in fact that we can dare to be a sinner.

But there is a second step. This sounds dangerous, too, maybe even ridiculous, but it also is the path to freedom and to fellowship. We need to confess our sins to each other. Again, let’s turn to Bonhoeffer:

“In Christ the love of God came to the sinner.
Through him men could be sinners and only then could they be helped.
All shame was ended in the presence of Christ.
The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God—
this was the truth of the Gospel in Jesus Christ.
It was in this truth that his church was to live.
Therefore, he gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin
and to forgive sin in his name.
When he did that, Christ made the church, and in it our brother, a blessing to us.
Now our brother stands in Christ’s stead.
Before him, I need no longer dissemble.
Before him alone in the whole world I dare to be the sinner I am.
Here the truth of Jesus Christ and his mercy rules.
Christ became our brother to help us.
Through him our brother has become Christ for us
in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him.
He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead,
and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name.
He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it.
When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.”

Here is the secret to community: We must humble ourselves and confess our sinfulness, our sin, our weakness and our temptations to each other, not so that we would be forgiven (Jesus’ cross work and resurrection for us alone can forgive our sins), but so that we would both feel God’s grace anew and so that we would be reminded of our need for cleansing grace. For in confessing our sins out loud to someone, we remember that the church is not comprised of those who are perfect, but is a place where sinners gather and find forgiveness. In confessing our sins to one another, we are reminded that we need to cry out continually to God for grace; and in confessing our sins to one another, we feel God respond to our need in the face of a friend.

Now, let’s admit it: This sounds great, and it makes all sorts of sense. One question, though, still remains unanswered: In light of the risks and potential embarrassment, would we ever be willing to confess our sins to someone in our church?