By Jack Wilkie
Growth is vital to the life of a Christian. Any practicing Christian wants to grow, and we all know of the main ways in which growth happens – Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. A little further digging will bring up lesser-discussed but still important growth tools like fasting, solitude, and service. But the act I want to focus on here is one that you might not think of as a part of your spiritual growth.
Confession of sin is a powerful weapon in our battle for a deeper spiritual life.
I think we would all agree that confessing our sins is something that is commanded of Christians (James 5:16). However, the command to confess sins can often be relegated to two ways that – while not being wrong in themselves – don’t fully capture the idea of what it means to confess. Most confession is a generic acknowledgement – “I have sins” or “Pray for me, I’m having some struggles.” Or, when it’s a sin that was either public or something we consider “really big,” we’re encouraged to take it before the church at the invitation song – an act that is both impersonal and terribly intimidating.
Instead, it should be a regular reliance on each other for support and prayers. It should be a confession of specific things we face in our daily lives, like:
“I need prayers for my attitude toward someone.”
“I’ve been struggling with lust lately.”
“I haven’t treated my spouse like I should.”
“Anger is something I constantly have to try to work through.”
“My faith has been weak,” or “My relationship with God has really been put on the back burner lately.”
If confession is not a regular part of your life, then adding it might be the biggest step toward spiritual growth you can take today. When we commit to regularly opening ourselves up like this to Christians who are close to us, I believe we’ll see these three effects on our spiritual growth.
Confession glorifies God and makes us more dependent on Him.
Either we’re presenting ourselves to each other as well-put-together people who have it all figured out – glorifying ourselves – or we’re acknowledging our need for God’s grace every day, and putting all the credit for our growth and strength on Him. This attitude is what led Paul to say things like, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16). It’s the same attitude that led him to write Romans 7, where he bore his soul in saying that he was doing the very sins he hated.
It’s a scary thought to present ourselves to fellow Christians as a “wretched man” (Romans 7:24) instead of somebody who has it all figured out and under control. But it’s when we do that that we can give way to the kind of discussion Paul had in Romans 8, about how despite our shortcomings there is no condemnation for us in Christ. As Spurgeon said, “While others are congratulating themselves, I have to lie humbly at the foot of Christ’s cross & marvel that I am saved at all!” In life, we’re either trying to prove our own goodness, or relying on God’s goodness. Through confession, we regularly remind ourselves of God’s goodness to us. His love is so much more powerful when we understand that He’s still there for us when we fall.
Confession draws us nearer to each other.
One of the complaints often given about church life is that many feel that there is a lack of authenticity in many congregations, as many people wear metaphorical masks and relationships can be kept at a very surface level. Some feel that there is a pressure to present ourselves as perfect, which prevents that authenticity from ever taking place. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic book Life Together,
“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through 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.”
In other words, if we fellowship as a bunch of people who have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, morally speaking, then it creates a pride that keeps us from developing deep relationships.
When we confess to others, though, those walls come down. When others confess to us, it teaches us to show grace and to love people through their flaws and their ups and downs – just like how God loves us. It’s very difficult to stand over a person with pride when they pour their heart out to you and you do the same to them by sharing the ugly parts of our lives that we might prefer to keep hidden. In turn, that helps us feel greater grace and patience toward all of our fellow Christians, as acknowledging our weaknesses and total dependence on God keep us from looking down on anyone.
Confession makes us more evangelistic.
In his book No Silver Bullets, Daniel Im shared findings from a large-scale study conducted by Lifeway that found that confession of sins was instrumental in both personal spiritual growth and more frequent personal evangelism. It only makes sense that a person who is regularly acknowledging their dependence on God and has overcome the vulnerability of being open with people would want to share God’s love with others and be less hesitant to do so. If we want a church environment that is evangelistic, we should strive to create a church environment that fosters grace and love through confession.
So, what does this look like?
I’m not exactly advocating some kind of daily report system, because confession shouldn’t be just an item on a spiritual checklist. There’s no one perfect way of doing it. Maybe it’s the kind of thing where you get together with someone for coffee every week or two. Maybe it’s a regular Bible study with a few friends that leaves time for discussion and prayer together. Maybe it’s finding somebody you can talk to on the phone. Ultimately, it’s about having people in our lives on whom we can rely for spiritual strength, and being able to provide strength for them as well. That way, when life’s inevitable struggles do come up, we have somewhere we know we can turn.
The more Christians have a habit of confessing and listening to others’ confessions, the more we can grow. God uses people who admit their brokenness, who come before Him “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). And, God uses the unity of Christians to build each other up. It’s my hope that every Christian will work toward having the kind of relationships in their life where shared confession, prayer, and encouragement are a constant.