Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore
Christian friendship is arguably the most important kind of human-to-human relationship needed in the life of every Christian, yet seldom talked about—unlike marriage. After all, the Bible does not expect that all will be married, but it does expect people to be in community, so that they can grow in maturity, encourage one another, and experience the love of God (Eph 4:13, Heb 10:24-25).
How then should we cultivate healthy Christian friendships? A typical reply would be to pray more with friends or to read the Bible together. Yet, as I reflected on my 20-odd years growing up in church, I realized that an important aspect that isn’t talked about enough is the confession of sin to community.
Week after week, we would confess our sin privately during service and then recite a scripted communal confession. Please don’t get me wrong: The confession within church setting plays an important role in expressing our awareness of who we are before God and in ensuring that we are first made right by the blood of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:7). However, could we have neglected the importance of encouraging confession to smaller communities? I do not recall hearing many sermons on this topic although it is equally possible that I slept during those parts of the sermon.
Perhaps you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal about confessing our sins to smaller faith communities?” That was a question I had when I began reading up on this matter. And what I discovered was this: confessing to one another can take fellowship beyond levels you haven’t discovered.
As someone who felt distant from my church for the most part of my life and didn’t want others to find out about my personal life outside church, I can attest to this. The hiding of my sin from my faith community led me to put up a front at church. A front that misrepresented who I really was.
Well, at least I’m confessing my sins to God, you may argue. But German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges this thinking and makes an interesting observation:
“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 as 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 a 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 confessing 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?”
Isn’t that true? I can think of the many times where I muttered a haphazard confession to God before sleeping, as though His forgiveness was my right. If God is indeed holy, should it not be of a greater concern what God thinks of our sin than our Christian brothers and sisters? And yet, we often seem to be more fearful in confessing our sins to people than to God.
There may, of course, be legitimate reasons for why one would choose not to confess their sin to a particular brother, such as the fear of causing him or her to stumble in faith. But it might also be equally true that often times, we fear the judgement of people more than the judgement of God. And sometimes, the unfortunate reality is that people are far less forgiving than God.
The way forward, according to Bonhoeffer, would be to understand how God works through our confession of sin within community to enable believers to journey together. Unconfessed sin isolates the individual from community precisely because it remains hidden to community. The Christian who refuses to confess his sin to community may struggle to live a transparent life and accept help that comes from community. In our confession of sins to fellow Christians, all pride is removed and we are able to stand together, bearing one another’s burdens and praying for each other (James 5:16).
Potential dangers of Confessing within community
This is not to say that the confession of sin within community is without danger. In fact, there are at least two that I can think of. The first would be for those who are listening to confessions. The person to whom the sin is being confessed to must always remember that true forgiveness is founded in the cross of Christ and that alone. It is never his or her duty to bestow forgiveness.
The role of the listener is to point the confessor back to Scripture in order that he or she may find divine forgiveness. Therein lies the power of community. Not to act as though one is God, but rather to display the love of Christ (John 13:34-35) through assuring those who are repentant that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has died on the cross precisely for what has been confessed.
The second danger would be for those who are confessing. “For the well-being of their soul they must guard against ever making their confession into a work of piety,” says Bonhoeffer. Salvation is not based on our works of confession or the intensity of our faith, but on the grounds of the blood of Jesus. In other words, it is not confession that grants salvation, but rather Jesus who grants salvation which is grasped by faith. Through faith, confession follows. Both confession and repentance must then be understood as resulting from faith that is generated by the Spirit.
Where then can such confession of sin take place? Personally, I think the better place to start would be within small groups made up of close friends. Tan Soo Inn, founder of Graceworks, has written a couple of books on spiritual friendships. He advocates a 3-2-1 model which I think might be helpful and appropriate. The idea is for a group of three friends to meet for two hours once a month.
While I have never had the opportunity to use the 3-2-1 model, I do have a close friend whom I meet up regularly with and with whom I can share and confess to (I guess you could say I follow a 2-2-1 model). What makes our friendship so close, apart from sharing Christ with one another, is the fact that I can be transparent with him, sharing about my weaknesses and the times that I have fallen into sin.
Our mutual confessions remind us constantly of the need for God’s grace in our lives, and of how we are not alone in this process of sanctification.
For those who have never practised this discipline, trying it for the first time may be awkward, if not frightening. But if we are to accept that the Bible does call for this discipline (James 5:16), then we must consider the idea that the lack of confession in spiritual friendships hinders growth and maturity.
It is through this confession within friendship that I have come to view my fellow brothers and sisters as fellow sinners standing under the cross of Christ, living life together.