Monday, May 25, 2009

Confession, part 2 [disciplines of the inner life]

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. {James 5:16, MSG}
So I will call you Peter, which means "a rock." On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth. But he will not allow anything that you don't allow. {Matthew 16:18, 19, CEV}
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. {John 20:23}
We believe it. Or we don't.

We, as a people of Jesus, have a role to play in hearing and giving confession and in asking for and giving forgiveness. It's pretty mind-boggling. I mean it's already stretches me to understand the access Jesus gives us to the throne of the Creator. But to know that he has given us his authority to serve each other as priests is almost too much.

From my meditation and study on this subject, I have three quotes, two stories and one cautionary tale to share.

Three Quotations on Confession in Community

1. Confession is a discipline that functions within fellowship. In it we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in God's provision for our needs through his people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our brothers and sisters. Thus we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy. We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul. -- The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (read all of his section on Confession, pp. 187 - 189)

2. We are grateful for the biblical teaching, underscored in the Reformation, that "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). We are also grateful for the biblical teaching, newly appreciated in our day, to "confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another..." (James 5:16). Both are found in Scripture and neither need exclude the other....if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners, we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God's love and to confess our needs openly before our brothers and sisters. We know we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride that cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. We are sinners together. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied, but transformed....The followers of Jesus Christ have been given the authority to receive the confession of sin and to forgive it in his name...What a wonderful privilege! Why do we shy away from such a life-giving ministry? If we, not out of merit but sheer grace, have been given the authority to set others free, how dare we withhold this great gift! -- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (read his whole chapter on the corporate discipline of confession, pp. 143 - 157)

3. In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is 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? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confession our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And 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? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself. 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? God gives us this certainty 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. -- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see entire chapter "Confession and Communion", pp. 110 - 122)

Two Stories about Confession in Community

First a story from the New Testament. For several years I have participated and led in a small group at Union Center that focuses on healing for the relationally and sexually broken. When the curriculum was first introduced from the pulpit on a Sunday morning our pastor cautioned us to not assume each of us was not part of this large spectrum of the relationally and sexually broken; that the category covered about 99.8% of us. The founder of the Desert Stream ministries uses the story of Lazarus in John 11 to give us a picture of confession in community.

On the one hand, Jesus has raised us up from the dead, just as He raised up Lazarus. On the other hand, we come out of the tomb still wearing the old and familiar "grave clothes" that we wore when we were on our own. -- Cross Current study guide by Andrew Comiskey, chapter "Getting Clean: The Cross and Confession"
In essence, when we meet Jesus at the cross he calls us to life from our deadened, sinful state. He calls out our true self -- the image He originally intended when he created us. But we still have old, stinky grave clothes unravelling from our old, dead self that we need Jesus' help to identify and remove. Another word for grave clothes would be sin. And just as Jesus had to tell Lazarus' friends take off his grave clothes and let him go, we need the help of other Christians to identify and unravel the deadening effects of sin on our lives.

Next, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my first experience of intentional confession to a group of women after learning this value of confession. I was attending a pilot series of the Cross Current small group at Union Center. Because it was a pilot it was only offered to elders and pastoral staff and their spouses. It was like the first month Brian even worked at the church so we were new to this group anyway. And we were quite a bit, ummm -- younger -- than most in the group. I was put into a small group with elders' wives. I was, ummmm -- intimidated -- to be included with what I would naturally presume to be spiritual giants among women.

What's worse was that I had just come out of a season of committing one of the most painful sins against my God and my husband that I had never imagined I would have committed. I was still feeling the sting of how easily I had been led away from what I knew to be true and right. I had not been able to share the experience with anyone other than Brian and a spiritual counsellor and I was carrying the weight like it was a stony-eyed gargoyle crouched on my shoulder.

Each week I arrived to the large group worship time with hope and anticipation of what I would be able to learn and experience. And each week, about 2.5 minutes into the time I would become so angry I literally had to hold onto the seat of my chair to not get up, storm out of the room and drive away for the night. This was so unlike my normal self I was able to realize (through the fog of my general pissed-offedness) that there was some other sort of evil at work. That thought alone kept me in my seat through the large group worship and teaching time until I could get into the small group time. But it didn't get me to speak up to the group until about four weeks into the group.

Pretty quickly it had become clear to me what I needed to speak out loud, to confess, to bring into the light of truth in order to receive forgiveness and healing. But I could not speak it out because I was pretty sure this group of spiritually mature women would not want to hear what I had to say. Would not understand it. Would not accept it in it's raw and embarrassing form -- which was mostly a vague sense of wrong without a concrete confidence of what to label it. As I tried to picture what to say and how they would respond, I pictured them smiling courteously and then saying, Tamara, you need to be more sure of this before we can pray for you. But the longer I kept quiet the more miserable I became so I went for it. I took the risk of opening my mouth. I could not have been more shocked -- or more quickly healed -- when the first woman spoke up and said, Let's pray about this, Tami. Let's ask God for wisdom together. What have you got to lose?

In other words, I stood in front of them holding up several layers of smelly, rotten grave clothes and instead of them turning their heads away in disgust they gathered around me, picked up a corner of the cloth and helped me unravel and destroy it. Some of it they just took right out of my own trembling hands because I wasn't able to even look at it or touch it without them.

I'd known the verse in Romans that tells us it's God's kindness that leads us to repentance, but I'd never even imagined His kindness would be wrapped up in the eyes and prayers and hugs of a group of elders' wives. I made confession and was forgiven, cleansed and healed by the kindness of God alive in those women.

A Cautionary Tale about confession in community

I can't write the whole book of my learnings in this context, but I don't want to write only the beauty of the kind of vulnerability confession in community takes. It's the single-greatest risk I've taken in community. In the story above (and many others I don't have space to share) it has paid off with eternal reward. But I have other stories I could tell of confession in community that has killed relationships and felt like it would almost kill me. It wasn't until I had done this mediation and study of confession in my year of looking at the inner disciplines that I was able to give some context to that pain. To wrap up the painful learnings with words that will guide me in the future.

Even though I'm not at liberty to share the specifics of my own story yet, I gladly share these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer with you:

There are two dangers that a Christian community which practices confession must guard against. The first concerns the one who hears confessions. It is not a good thing fro one person to be the confessor for all the others. All too easily this one person will be overburdened; thus confession will become for him an empty routine, and this will give rise to the disastrous misuse of the confessional for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls. In order that he may not succumb to this sinister danger of the confessional every person should refrain from listening to confession who does not himself practice it. Only the person who has so humbled himself can hear a brother's confession without harm.
The second danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God's offer of grace, help, and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession. We can confess solely for the sake of the promise of absolution. Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life. The forgiveness of sins is the sole ground and goal of confession. -- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 120
Perhaps when I am an older elders' wife myself I'll have the courage to share more specifically how perfectly on-target Bonhoeffer's words describe the painful, killing experiences I've had -- with confessor and as a confessant.

On the healing power of confession in community,though, I do have one other story I'd love to share....

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