It happens all the time. I’ll be talking with someone and, all of a sudden, I’m channeling Grandma Greenlee. I’ll say something like, “It’s six of one and a half dozen of the other.” “Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.” Or, it will be my Dad’s words: “The writing’s on the wall.” “The truth hurts.” “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” These might be phrases you use, too, and you probably have some that are unique to you, learned at the side of your parents or grandparents. Or, maybe you’re learning some new ones from your kids or grandkids.
A few years ago, I discovered that one of my “Grandma Greenlee phrases” came from the Bible. I started keeping a list of common expressions that are lifted directly from Scripture. There are lots of them, but there are also a lot that people think are Biblical but aren’t. In fact, some of those sayings express the exact opposite of Scripture. But most of them, even if they’re not direct quotes, do spring from a Biblical idea. One of them is the saying, “Confession is good for the soul.”
I was thinking about this as I started reflecting on our next set of steps from Alcoholics Anonymous as we continue to use these steps to recover and renew our faith during this season of Lent. We’re passing the half-way point today with steps 5, 6, and 7. Step 5 requires that we “admit to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Clearly, our AA friends believe that confession is good for the soul.
You won’t find this phrase in the Bible. It’s reported to be an old Scottish proverb, and you’re not likely to find it printed anywhere before it appeared in the April edition of “The National Review” in 1896. But it certainly reflects a Biblical truth. Confession of our sin is a necessary part of our faith.
AA’s Step 5 describes a three-part process of confession. First, we confess the exact nature of our wrongs—our sin—to ourselves. The soul-searching that we do, especially during Lent, brings us face to face with those sins.
But, even as we do that “fearless moral inventory” of Step 4, we may shy away from nailing down the exact nature of our sins. It’s easier to think about our sins in a more general way. Getting down to the nitty-gritty is a lot more uncomfortable. We may admit that we can be judgmental, but we stop short of naming the people we’ve judged or the ways in which we’ve judged them. We may admit to being inhospitable, but we balk at naming the people we have excluded, or would exclude, and the words and attitudes that communicate that we don’t want a relationship with them.
Scripture calls us to the specificity of Step 5. Leviticus and Numbers spell out the need for confession in the context of specific types of wrongs. In Acts, we read about events in Ephesus where, Luke tells us, “Many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices.” General confession won’t do. Admitting the exact nature of our sins, even to ourselves, is necessary. If we aren’t specific in naming our sin, we can’t be specific in our repentance. We can’t change “in general.” We change—we repent, we turn in a new direction—by changing specific actions and attitudes.
The second part of Step 5 is to confess the exact nature of our sin to God. We have an enormous capacity for talking to ourselves. Our conscience may prod us. A growing self-awareness may unsettle us. The Holy Spirit may move us. But our confession can still be more self-talk than talking with God. We need the example of the psalmists, like the one whose words we spoke in our Call to Worship: “‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity’; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’” We need to move from just thinking about our sins to specifically confessing them to God in prayer.
Finally, there’s the third part of Step 5, which is also the hardest part: admitting the exact nature of our wrongs to another human being. The original form of that saying about confession being good for our souls actually affirms this. The original version says, “Open confession is good for the soul.” Admitting our sin to ourselves and to God is hard enough, but telling someone else is even harder. That’s probably why the word “open” got dropped from that old quote. “Why do we need to spill our guts to someone else?” we wonder? Isn’t confessing to God enough?
God knows what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone. God understands what’s in our hearts. But, until we confess to another living, breathing human being, who can challenge us and hold us accountable, our confession is, in some ways, simply an idea. Admitting the exact nature of our sin to another person is incarnational. It takes what exists only in spirit and makes it real in the flesh.
Confession to another person also requires that we give up whatever masks we’ve been wearing to hide our sinful selves from the world. We all want to be viewed in certain ways by others. We want their respect, if not their love, and we suspect that we won’t get it if people know who we really are. So, we get good at hiding. We are good at pretending to be better than we are. This takes a enormous amount of emotional energy which we could be putting to better use. When we confess to another person, the mask comes off, and we show ourselves as the person we are—flawed, of course, but honest and freed from the burden of pretense.
We are recovering sinners and, like recovering alcoholics, we need other people to journey with us. I was talking with my brother Craig the other day. You may remember that he is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for more than ten years now, thanks in part to AA’s 12 Steps. He heard from a more recently sober friend who apparently was feeling the temptation to drink. In a text to his friend, Craig wrote that, while listening to a friend’s band play at a bar, “After more than ten years, a ‘hard’ lemonade was tempting!” I’m glad to report that Craig continued, “I strongly maintained, got a Coke, and had a blast.”
Craig’s interaction with his tempted friend not only benefitted him but was a help to his friend. There wasn’t a general admission of temptation but a specific admission of a specific temptation. Sharing specifically with another person helps us but may also help someone else who is struggling as we are. James tells us, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Naming our sins to another human being so that they may pray for us is a pathway we need to healing from our sin.
Notice that Step 5 does not require that we confess our sin to the person we have wronged. AA’s Big Book says that “we have no right to save our own skin at another person’s expense.” There are times when this kind confession and an apology may be called for. But unburdening ourselves to the person we have wronged can easily become a way of making ourselves feel better by moving our burden from our shoulders onto theirs. We feel better, but they may feel worse.
When my daughter went away to college, someone gave me a book—a survival guide for parents of a child leaving home for the first time. It described what happens when the child calls and spills out all their woes to their parents: no one likes them, they’re going to fail all they’re classes, the roommate is a psychopath, and the cafeteria food is disgusting. The parent hangs up the phone, feeling terrible. What the child never mentions is that, right after that call, they were invited to go out for pizza, their grades were posted and they were at the top of the class, and the roommate shared a plate of fresh-baked cookies with them. The book likened this to a small child throwing up all over you. Most of us have been there, right? The child immediately feels better, but the parent still has a mess to clean up. We can’t admit our wrongs in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves but leaves the people we’ve wronged with a mess to clean up.
So, we make our admission to another human being, but not necessarily to the person we’ve wronged. It must be someone we can trust with what shames us and pains us. That may be a friend or relative, but it might be a doctor, a pastor, or a counselor. Whomever we choose, we tell another human being so that our admission becomes real in the world. We tell another person so that we can be held accountable for our past sin and for our commitment to a new direction. When we confess to another human being, what we admit to ourselves and to God becomes incarnate—affirmed in the flesh. As we do, the barriers of unadmitted sin can begin to fall away—the barriers between us and God, between us and others, and between us and the people we were meant to be.
Confession alone won’t make those barriers fall, any more than just looking at a fence and saying, “Yep, that’s a fence” will make it to topple over. We need Steps 6 and 7: to be “entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character” and “to humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.” We need to be entirely ready to pray the prayer of Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” We need to be entirely ready to sing “Change my heart, O God,” and mean it. “Are ye able” asks the Master, “to be crucified with me?” “Lord, we are able, our spirits are Thine. Remold them, make us like Thee, divine.”
Confession forces us to acknowledge our sins, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re eager for change. I hear this all the time, and I’ll bet you do, too. “I have such a hot temper,” someone confesses, “but I’ve always been that way.” “Yes, I’m prejudiced against people who are…(fill in the blank). That’s just the way I was brought up.” “Yes, I push people around to get my own way, but how else will things get done right?” We can be perfectly willing to confess our shortcomings but not so willing to change—or be changed.
Some years ago, when I was dealing with a difficult situation, I realized something about the way I was praying—not the words I was praying so much but my posture while I was praying. My hands were folded tightly, head bowed, body curled in on itself. Now, that may seem entirely normal. After all, we teach our children to fold their hands and bow their heads when they pray.
But, I realized that this is also the posture of someone who’s holding on to something they don’t want to give up. Hands holding on for dear life. Head down and body curled around this thing to keep it close. With my words, I was praying for God to take away the anger and resentment I was feeling, but my body signaled that I really wasn’t ready to give those feelings up. God was going to have to reach in and yank them from my death-like grip. You can guess how well that was working for me.
So, I decided to try something different. I began praying with my palms up, my head lifted, my body open. I changed the words of my prayer, too. Instead of asking God to take away my sin, I offered my sin to God, as I would offer someone a gift. With my words and my body, I signaled to God that I was ready to be changed. I can’t say that I was entirely ready in that moment, but a funny thing happened. As I prayed in that position of readiness, I became more and more ready for God to work in me.
Jesus tells us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. That’s a tall order, and one I’m confident that Jesus doesn’t expect us to live up to in our earthly lives. That’s why we as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition speak of perfection as a process, where we grow more Christlike each day.
We also believe that we have a part to play in this process of being sanctified. Steps 6 and 7 seem to place all the responsibility in God’s hands, and let us off the hook. But we hear Paul speaking to us from his letter to the Philippians: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Only Jesus, by the grace of God, can save us. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, we both want and are able to do what is pleasing to God. “Faith apart from works is dead,” James says, meaning simply that our faith in the God who makes us new will be visible in the way we live our lives.
None of this is easy. But, the good news is that we don’t undertake these steps alone. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In the late 1800s, a Scottish minister known by the pen name of Ian Maclaren once wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Each of us struggles with something. Each if us struggles with sin. That’s simply our human condition of brokenness. Jesus knows that. When Jesus spoke his words, he was speaking to the crowds—ordinary people like us who were each fighting a hard battle against something. We might be fighting spiritual battles. We may be struggling against artificial religious demands—not necessarily from the faith community but from the religions we’ve chosen to follow, like material success, status, popularity, physical appearance, or power. We may be up against material need, or family problems, or health issues, or all of the above. When we come to Jesus, confessing our need, trusting in his desire and ability to help us, and willing to ask him for that help, he gives us what we need.
Yokes offer animals discipline and direction. When we take on Jesus’ yoke, he instructs us and teaches us the way we should go. Yokes spread the weight of a burden, so that it is shared by those who are yoked together. When we take on Jesus’ yoke, he shares our burden with us. He doesn’t promise that everything will suddenly become a piece of cake, but he offers us rest—the opportunity to be refreshed and to recover from the hard work of growth and change. He gives us rest—a time of calm and patient expectation that he can and will act with us to help us grow and change. And he offers us the rest that is salvation for all eternity—the peace that passes all understanding. He invites us into his gentleness and humility—the very qualities we need as we admit our sins and humbly ask for his help in overcoming them.
Confession is good for the soul. So is being entirely ready for God to work in us and having the humility to ask God to change us. But what is best for our souls is the good news that we have a loving Savior who walks with us. As we humbly confess our sin and ask for help, Jesus is willing to be yoked with us as we work to become more faithful disciples. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young