In 2006, two performing artists created an exhibit in a storefront in Manhattan that allowed passers by to confess. The two women dressed as nineteenth-century washerwomen and sat in the storefront. One underlined the words on the glass — “Air your dirty laundry. 100 percent confidential. Anonymous. Free.” Onlookers were encouraged to write their deepest secrets on pieces of paper. The washerwomen then collected the confessions and displayed them in the window for all to see.
People shared a range of sins and secrets:
• “The hermit crab was still alive when I threw it down the trash chute.”
• “I want to see SUVs explode. Those people are so selfish.”
• “My girlfriend and I both think Osama Bin Laden has a sweet-looking face.”
• “I make fun of this one friend behind her back all the time. She just enrages me! But I get freaked out when I think of what she might say about me. I worry this means we’re not really friends. Human relationships are infinitely confusing!”
• “I am dating a married man and getting financial compensation in exchange for the guilt. I’m twenty-five, and he’s a millionaire. It pays to be young.”
• “New York makes me feel lonely.”
The artists were often overwhelmed by the weight of others’ sins and secrets: “We go there, and the window is empty, and we’re wearing all white. At the end, the window is full. It’s exhausting. Some of those things are really, really sad. And afterwards I need to take a bath.”
(Taken from 1001 Illustrations That Connect)
This morning we’re thinking about the spiritual discipline of confession, something that can be deeply scary but also deeply freeing. We’re going to think about why confession is necessary, that is why we need to confess our sins. We’re going to think about why confession is effective – why it works in freeing us from the guilt and shame of our sins. We’re going to explore what is necessary in confession, and some practical pointers to going about it.
So, let’s start off with thinking about why confession is necessary. What did we hear read in John’s first letter? “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
It’s quite simple really, confession is necessary firstly because we are all sinners. We have all done things wrong. We have all lied, gossiped, lusted, cheated, been selfish, been unloving, taken people for granted, been jealous or envious. We are human beings, this is what we are like. We have all sinned. There are no exceptions – if we think otherwise then we are deceiving ourselves, we cannot see ourselves clearly. Not only is this the way we are, we cannot do anything about it ourselves. We cannot forgive ourselves, we are not able to wash away the muck – it’s like tar stuck to us – no amount of scrubbing will get it off.
It is only by looking at ourselves clearly, by acknowledging that we are in this state, by owning up, by saying, “yes, this is me, this is what I’ve done, I’m in a mess and I can’t sort it out myself” only be confessing that we can get it dealt with.
And this is one of the distinctive things about Christian confession – it has two parts. Firstly – I’m in a mess. Secondly – I can’t do anything about it. The story of the art installation in Manhattan describes the first step – I’m in a mess – and there is psychological merit in having opportunities to do that but it is only the first part of confession. The second part, which is necessary for the sin to be dealt with completely, is to confess that we are powerless to deal with it ourselves.
So, if we are powerless to deal with sin ourselves, how can we be forgiven? What can deal with these sins and dark secrets that come with guilt and shame? What makes confession effective?
What did the last verse we heard read from John’s letter say? “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
What makes our confession effective? It is Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. But what does that mean? I love the word “atonement”. It was most likely first used by Tyndale when he translated the Bible into English. We’ve lost it’s obvious meaning with our modern pronunciation. If we pronounce it a bit differently – it becomes clearer. “At – one -ment” Atonement is all about making things one, things that were separated. It is about reconciling relationships. It’s about restoring friendship.
Before we first become Christians, we are separated from God by our sin, by our insistence that we want to be Lord of our own lives, and our refusal to acknowledge God as God. Our sin separates as from God, from the source of our life. Those who never come to the point of turning to Jesus, when they die, experience not just the first physical death which everybody experiences, but a second, eternal death.
But the good news is that Jesus’ sacrifice – his giving of his own life on the cross, taking the deathly consequences of our sin on himself, deals with that separation – it enables us to be reconciled to God, it opens the door for us to be one with God. We walk through that door when we confess our sins for the first time – when we repent and acknowledge Jesus as our Lord. And so, although we will die the first death, we will not die the second death, but will live.
Once we are Christians, we are assured of God’s forgiveness, but we do keep sinning, and becoming more aware of our sin, so it is important that we continue to confess our sins, to renew our dependence on God’s forgiveness, and to be increasingly free.
So, what does it mean to confess our sins. What do we actually have to do?
The story is told of a student, leaving for university whose mother made a canvas duffel bag for him. “Put your dirty clothes in this every night,” she said. “At the end of the week, wash them at the Laundrette.” Seven days later, he took his dirty clothes to the Laundrette. He threw the duffel bag in the washer, put in some laundry powder, inserted the proper change, and turned on the machine. Moments later, a loud thump, thump, thump, thump echoed through the Laundrette. A fellow student approached him with a grin. “I watched you load your washer. I think the clothes would get cleaner if you took them out of the bag.”
(Taken from 1001 Illustrations That Connect)
The first part of confession is for us to examine our consciences, to look at our lives, to ask the Holy Spirit to convict us of things we need to confess. Just lumping everything together under a general “please forgive me for everything I’ve done wrong” just isn’t very effective. It doesn’t allow us to take it seriously. Some folk find it helpful at points in the lives to write down things from their past that they need to confess. A note of caution here. We can take this too far the other way. Some folk get so caught up in trying to remember every little thing, and become afraid that if they miss something, they won’t be forgiven for it, and that haunts them. This isn’t about that. This is about being real about our sin, taking it seriously enough to look at it properly, and then about trusting God to deal with it.
When we do this, it is often accompanied by a godly sorrow. Not so much an emotional response, as a deep realisation of the hurt that we have caused others and God by our sinful actions, thoughts, and failures, and a real regret. This then, in turn leads to a desire to change. We cannot do this on our own, only by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, but confession without a will to change is not true repentance – it just leaves us wallowing in the mire.
So, we’ve explored why we need to confess, how it works, and what it involves, so how are we going to do it?
There are two widely used models – internal confession and external confession. We do the first most weeks here in church during our services – we might say the words of the prayer of confession together out loud, but we keep the details inside out heads and hearts – between us and God. The second is when we tell someone else, with some detail, what we are confessing. We do this less frequently, perhaps, but has an important place.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “There is one mediator between God and people, the man Jesus Christ”
In his letter, James writes, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another”
This is a classic case of both / and – neither practice need exclude the other. Sometimes confessing our sins in the privacy of our hearts is what is needed. Sometimes we need to confess to somebody else out loud. Both methods are more effective if we put in some preparation – perhaps on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning before coming to church you could develop the habit of reviewing the week and asking God to call to mind things that you will confess in the service. If you’re going to confess to someone else, thinking through before hand what you need to say will be helpful.
I sat down to write this on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon I was going to see my Spiritual Director. There had been something on my conscience for a while, and I was writing this I was challenged – was I willing to do what I was going to recommend to others? So, I pondered on it and thought I probably should. As we were talking I was reluctant to bring it up – it’s embarrassing to hear the words spoken, but I did. And when I did, my friend was there to reassure me – not to excuse me, but to help me look at what had been troubling me, hold it to the light, and encourage me as God continues to deal with it. It’s not totally sorted – but a step has been taken.
A few words about personal confession: Be wise in who you choose to confess to.
Three preachers were on a fishing trip, They weren’t catching many fish, so one preacher said he thought it would be nice if they confessed their biggest sins to each other and then prayed for each other. They all agreed.
The first preacher said that his biggest sin was that he liked to sit at the beach now and then and watch pretty women stroll by.
The second preacher confessed that his biggest sin was going to the racetrack every so often and putting a small bet on a horse.
Turning to the third preacher, they asked, “Brother, what is your biggest sin?”
With a grin, he said, “My biggest sin is gossiping.”
(Taken from 1001 Illustrations That Connect)
That leads us nicely into what we do if somebody asks to confess to us. If you know that you struggle with gossip, or there are other reasons why it would not be appropriate, then it is important to be able to say that, and suggest to them that they might go to someone else.
However, we need to take seriously that in some of Jesus’ last words to his followers, he gave us authority to forgive sins. It is part of my privilege, week by week, to declare forgiveness over us in our times of corporate confession. However, it is my understanding that in this declaration Jesus gave all Christian people this authority, so let’s use that authority to release each other from the chains that binding us. We have the perfect washing powder to really get each other’s dirty washing properly clean. Let’s use it.