About five years ago, I had finally found a new ladies’ Bible study group at our church that I could join, after not being part of a regular group for quite some time. During one of my earlier sessions with them, we had just finished a study and were about to share our prayer requests when one of them began by saying:
“If you could please pray for me, I feel like I’m addicted to shopping. Like maybe I’m spending a bit too much buying things that I don’t need.”
When I heard this, I felt crestfallen. Not because there was anything wrong with what she had shared, but because I suddenly felt like I could not be as honest with my own confession. How do you go from “Please pray for me because I enjoy shopping a little too much” to “Please pray for me because . . . I struggle with porn and masturbation”?
Respectable vs Not-So-Respectable Sins
There‘s a book called Respectable Sins by American author Jerry Bridges. I haven’t read it, but I always remember the title because it feels so apt for most of the sins that we’re able to confess—getting impatient, criticising others/gossiping, illegally downloading stuff, loving work too much—basically things that everyone’s prone to do.
Here’s the other thing about ‘respectable’ confession: When I contemplate confessing a sin to someone, I can’t help but think about how to phrase it without making myself look too bad. So instead of saying, “I yelled at my mother this morning”, I will say “I had a quarrel with my mom.” Instead of saying “Last night I was watching porn/reading a trashy romance novel”, I will say, “I’m struggling with impure thoughts.” If even that feels too hard, I might pick a ‘lighter’ sin to confess. Or, I’ll just not say anything altogether.
Sometimes, our reluctance to be honest in our confessions could be a symptom of one of the following:
- we are too proud to admit we are deeply flawed and need grace;
- we are more fearful of what others think than what God thinks; or,
- we haven’t really thought through our private confessions to God—that is, perhaps there’s no real fear or remorse in our utterance, which is why it seems easier to ‘tell God’ and think it’s enough.
All this is not to say that we should confess indiscriminately to anyone about anything; only that when we think about our sins and the need to confess, we have to go back to what the Bible says and examine our hearts. Are we trying to rationalise our sin and still make ourselves look decent in the process, or can we humble ourselves enough to see our absolute need for God?
The Benefits of Confession
As believers, we know that we’re called to live as “children of light” to have “nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:8-13), so that we’ll remain in the light.
But for those of us who struggle with secret and shameful sins, we know how hard it is to muster the courage of confess—even as we acknowledge the hold sin can have on us when they remain hidden:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer. (Psalm 32:3-4)
When I was struggling through my addiction to porn, it literally sapped my energy and made me disinclined to do anything else, especially the things that would prick my conscience (reading the Bible, listening to sermon, praying).
Those days, I would do the bare minimum—work, feed myself, and shower—before going straight to bed with my laptop so I could start ‘unwinding’. But no matter how much ‘unwinding’ I did, I was always tired. The longer this habit stayed, the harder it became to ‘shake off’. The longer I kept it a secret, the more power it gained over me.
Scripture shows us that in true confession, we are acknowledging the gravity of sinning against God and the consequence of hidden sins on our body and spirit, and so we don’t take it lightly. We come to terms with the ugliness in us, and we give up any attempt at posturing or making ourselves look better than we really do, because we know God sees and knows everything. Furthermore, we trust that only He can draw us out of the pit.
But as much as we need to confess to God, Scripture also shows us the need to confess to one another. As members of one body, this demonstrates our interdependence. When one part of the body is not well, it affects the body as a whole (1 Corinthians 12:26). And so, as James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 and Galatians 6:1 remind us that confessing our sins to one another helps us build up the church, that we may encourage one another to remain accountable and “restore [those who are caught in sin] gently” (Galatians 6:1).
How to Confess Your Sins
How then can we form a habit of healthy biblical confession within our communities?
Firstly, we need to find believers who are mature in the faith and in their understanding of God’s Word, who can speak the truth in love and hold us accountable.
Secondly, we also need to work towards becoming these mature believers ourselves, to help create safe spaces in our churches for confession to take place. Sometimes, that means being the first brave soul in the group to become vulnerable. Other times, it means being careful with the things we say or the judgments we make on others. And always, it means being humble and grateful, remembering that we have been forgiven much.
And finally, biblical confession doesn’t just end with admitting our faults, but moving us towards repentance. One danger of not understanding biblical confession is we could wind up falling into an unhealthy rhythm of wallowing, sympathising, and empathising, without actually working towards forgiveness, healing, and restoration.
This means that when we confess, we have to ready ourselves to be rebuked. We have to fight the instinct to defend or rationalise our sins. In the process, we also invite the other person to confront us in a Spirit-led way—to ask us hard questions, to pray with us and speak God’s Word to us, to check in on us as much as needed.
Opening Up to Confession
Going back to the story I shared at the start, I decided that since I had just joined the group, it may not be appropriate for me to share my struggle with them. Nevertheless, the Spirit continued to prompt me to confess to someone, making me see that it was impossible to fight off this sin on my own, in secret.
So, I did two things:
One, I confessed to my best friend who was also a long-time believer and understood my struggle. I asked if she could help keep me accountable and she agreed. This meant almost daily check-ins with each other, where either she would ask how I’m doing on this issue, or I would tell her whenever I felt tempted, and she would pray for me on the spot.
Two, I had been attending a class at our church about healing prayer, and after several sessions, I came to realise that my struggle was a longstanding issue that needed a special prayer for healing. Every week, the leaders of the prayer ministry would invite people to make appointments if they needed prayers, and so I decided to do that. What helped was that the leaders/facilitators were trained to do it, and they had put up measures that helped create a safe space for such confession and prayers, and so the session became a really helpful and healing experience for me.
Confessing my sin to fellow believers helped me see that the fight against sin isn’t a solitary, or futile, one. Even though there were still days when I gave in to temptation and tried to hide what I did, these periods of secrecy became shorter over time because I knew I could not hide for long, and that the sooner I confessed, the sooner I can be prayed for and be pulled back again into the light.
Not every confession story and practice may turn out the same way, but the need for biblical confession stands. So as a church, let’s pray for courage and humility that we would be willing to confess our sins. Let’s also seek wisdom and discernment, that we would be surrounded by, and become mature believers who can receive confession and help restore each other in the faith.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a two-part series on the importance of accountability. Read Part 2 here!