This is the audio recording of the second reading of week seven of Start, entitled Confession and Forgiveness.
“Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness.”
In this week’s first reading, we said that it is through receiving forgiveness from God that we can best grow in our ability to forgive one another. Today we will look at two practices that are integral to forgiveness: confession and reconciliation.
What comes to mind when you think about confession? For some, it may evoke images of a small dark room where sins are confessed to a priest or religious leader. Perhaps you think of a criminal committing a crime or an environment where someone was coerced or intimidated into admitting wrongdoing. It’s fair to say the idea of confession has no shortage of negativity around it.
This negativity exists mainly because the idea of confession has been misunderstood and abused. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Confession, understood rightly, is a gift from God. In James 5:16, James, the brother of Jesus, tells us, “Confess your sins one to another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” He draws a direct link between confession and healing. Confession, therefore, doesn’t need to be something shrouded in shame and condemnation. Instead, it can be a vehicle God uses to bring about freedom and restoration.
The purpose of confession is not to dwell on our guilt. Our guilt and shame grow when we keep our sin in the dark. Through confession, we bring our sin into the light to experience grace, forgiveness, and healing. 1 John 1:9 teaches, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When we bring our sins to God, His response is forgiveness. Therefore, our sins and failures need not drive us from God. Instead, they can draw us to Him because He meets us in our sin with His grace.
Another benefit of confession is that it is a guardrail against pride or arrogance. It is easy to judge the sins of others when we are unreflective about our own. When we take time to acknowledge and confess our sin to God and others, it helps us respond to the sins of others with empathy and kindness. For these reasons and more, it is actually beneficial for us to consider our own sins.
Sin falls into two categories: sins of commission and sins of omission.
When we do something we ought not to do, that is a sin of commission. For example, if we lie to protect our reputation, that is a sin of commission. When we do not do something we ought to do, that is a sin of omission. For example, if lies tarnish a co-worker’s reputation and we choose to remain silent rather than come to their defense, that is a sin of omission.
As we process our sin, we must differentiate between three different emotions that can come to mind:
- Guilt includes feelings of regret, worry, or sadness. It is the awareness that we deserve some sort of blame or condemnation for our perceived offense.
- Shame takes guilt a step further. If guilt tells us, “I’ve done something bad,” shame tells us, “I am bad.” In other words, guilt is about what we have done; shame is about who we are.
- Conviction occurs when we are convinced that we have done something wrong or sinful. It includes feelings of sorrow for what we have done and a desire to make things right.
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul speaks to the conviction his readers felt when they read his letter. He uses the word “grief” to describe what we might call ‘guilt’ or ‘conviction.’ He writes, “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10, emphasis added)
Paul shows us the benefit of guilt and conviction: it leads us to repentance. It gets us to the place where we desire to repent. To repent means to change our minds. So godly grief brings us to a place of repentance. It is through that repentance that we find healing and freedom. Paul contrasts this with worldly grief, which causes us to feel bad without inspiring change. Godly grief can be the start of our journey of healing, whereas worldly grief keeps us stuck in self-loathing.
Worldly grief can also lead to shame, an incredibly toxic emotion. While God might use guilt to bring us to a place of repentance, shame is never from God. God loves us and sees what is good in us, so we can be confident that God never wants us to think that we are bad or unworthy of love.
One of the reasons confession is a gift is that it gives us something to do with our guilt. We do not need to be stuck in denial on the one hand or self-loathing on the other. When we experience guilt and conviction, we can bring that to God and experience forgiveness. And God, in His kindness, invites us to change, and He lovingly walks alongside us in the change process.
We need to look at one last element of confession. As noted above, James 5 tells us to confess our sins to each other. What is the purpose of that? Confession to others serves many purposes. First, if we have sinned against another person, confessing our sin to them will begin the healing process. Second, confessing our sin to another person provides increased accountability. Pastor Andy Stanley says, “Sins we confess only to God we tend to repeat.” For example, Stanley says, if two students cheat on their math test, which student is least likely to cheat again, the student who confesses only to God or the student who confesses to God and their teacher? We can say that it shouldn’t be that way — and perhaps that is true — but the fact is, for most of us, confessing to others provides a motivation for true repentance that confession only to God rarely does.
Confession can be awkward and difficult, but when we have the courage to trust God enough to confess to Him and others, we will find healing and freedom that cannot be ours if our sin stays in the dark. Confession, like almost anything else, becomes easier and natural with practice. The awkwardness fades, and in time we will find that when we are quick to confess, we will be doing our part to create a safe community that practices confession and forgiveness.
Once we have a solid foundation of our own forgiveness and we understand the value of confession, we are better equipped to have these concepts bear fruit in our relationships. We can practice forgiveness and reconciliation so that they become less scary and more normal.
There are two key skills we must develop if we are going to practice healthy forgiveness and reconciliation. First, we need to know ourselves enough to be able to identify and understand our own emotions. Second, we need to know the difference and similarities between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Real forgiveness is not sweeping things under the rug. It’s not a denial of our emotions or a minimizing of our pain. In fact, if we do those things, we actually limit our ability to give and receive forgiveness. If we are not honest about reality, we can’t practice real forgiveness.
How do you know when you’re angry or hurt? Think about that for a moment. Maybe you feel warm, or you can sense your heart rate increase. Perhaps you catch yourself clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth. You may even feel shaky or dizzy. Emotionally, you might become irritable, anxious, or depressed. Anger causes some people to pace, raise their voice, or become overly sarcastic or biting in their communication.
Whatever anger, hurt, or offense look like for you, it is difficult to address those emotions if we cannot identify them. And just because we don’t identify them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In fact, when they are present but unidentified, they are able to do the most damage. You’ve likely had experiences with people who have become passive-aggressive, irritable, or generally difficult, all the while refusing to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Unnamed anger and hurt are saboteurs of relational health.
When you find yourself becoming angry, it’s important that you treat yourself with gentleness and compassion. Many of us have an almost instinctive tendency to judge our emotions, especially our negative ones. This judgment blocks healthy processing. What’s worse, when our ability to process our emotions is blocked, those emotions tend to increase in intensity. Paul instructs us in Ephesians 4 to be angry but not sin, and that becomes a much more difficult command to observe when we let our anger build.
Rather than deny or ignore our hurt or anger, a healthier approach is to try to understand them. We can ask ourselves the question, why do I feel this way? Whatever your answer is, you may find it helpful to ask yourself the seemingly redundant follow-up question, “but why?” Sometimes we must ask ourselves that question a few times before we can get to the root of our hurt.
Because life with other people is messy, it provides ample opportunity for hurt feelings. These feelings are real. One of the most common causes of hurt feelings is real or perceived rejection. Neuroimaging studies have shown that rejection activates the same part of our brain as physical pain. Our hurt can also come from unmet expectations, criticism, a lack of appreciation, or the perception of any of the above. This is why naming our emotions — and sitting with the “but why?” question — is so important. Real forgiveness and reconciliation begin with an honest naming of what took place and how it made us feel.
Take a moment to study this chart from Harvard Business Review. It can be a helpful guide to aid you in identifying the specific emotions you are feeling when you are hurt.
Forgiveness can be a solo endeavor, but reconciliation requires two parties. Forgiveness is releasing the offender from payment or debt. It also frees the offender from any sort of vengeful response. Reconciliation is regained trust and restored relationship. Reconciliation doesn’t mean that a prior offense is forgotten — on the contrary, the memory of situations that required forgiveness can be a great teacher for all parties involved. It does mean, however, that trust has returned, and all parties have agreed to move forward together.
In past generations, reconciliation was much more necessary than it is now. In an era before social media, unprecedented mobility, population growth, and near limitless access to new people, people had to reconcile. The limits of technology and mobility required communities of people to remain in close contact with each other. To be clear, this brought many challenges, but one of the benefits was that relationships were not disposable. There was no such thing as changing churches, ghosting, social media blocking, or any of the other modern ‘conveniences’ we employ when we wish to discard relationships when they get difficult.
In the 21st century, reconciliation is tragically optional. If someone offends us, we can simply end the relationship and move on. In doing that, we deprive ourselves of the relational richness of sticking with friendships over the long haul. Through Christ, we can live a better way. We can practice forgiveness and reconciliation because we have been forgiven and reconciled to God. We can value relationships enough to pursue these things because we know every person was made in the image of God, and God went to great lengths to pursue reconciliation with us. In practicing forgiveness and reconciliation, we set ourselves up to enjoy the richness of deep community and we model for a watching world the forgiveness and reconciliation that is offered to all of us through Christ.
- How aware are you of your own sin? Do you tend to err on the side of too much or not enough emphasis on your own shortcomings?
- How comfortable are you observing and reflecting upon your own feelings? Take a look at the feelings chart and note the words you most regularly use when you’re in distress. What does that tell you?
- As you look at your own life, what has made forgiveness and reconciliation difficult? How have you seen its benefits?
- Take a moment and ask God to search your heart. Think back over the last 24 hours. Think about moments of joy and gratitude, but also think of any sins of commission or omission that come to mind. Consider writing out a list and then confessing those sins specifically and receiving God’s forgiveness. Shred, burn, crumple up the list once you are done as a physical reminder that God wipes away your sin.
If you have been in environments where confession was abused, or if you have traumatic experiences with this topic, that is something to take seriously. You may want to consider meeting with a counselor to further discuss your experience and pursue healing.