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How to Respond When a Friend Confesses Their Sin

It was 1:05 a.m. A friend had just sent me a long message, asking for prayer because she was struggling with physical attraction towards her colleague even though she was already in a committed relationship.

A couple of weeks ago, another friend shared tearfully about the guilt she felt towards God after crossing physical boundaries with her boyfriend. Sometime before that, yet another friend shared about his lack of discipline and desire to attend church and Bible class.

Maybe you’ve been the recipient of such messages or have sent such messages yourself. We all struggle with temptation and sin every day (Rom 3:23), and know the right thing to do—confess our sins (1 John 1:9), put our sins to death (Col 3:5), and turn back to God (James 4:8). But it’s a lot easier said than done. Often, we wrestle with our sin for a long time, and sometimes even minimise or excuse it altogether. Talking to others about it may be the last thing on our minds.

So, when we do hear about a friend’s sin, we could be at a loss as to how to respond. Perhaps we don’t feel qualified to help our friends, especially if we’re struggling with the same sin ourselves (Matt 7:3-5). Or maybe, we’re tempted to turn a blind eye because we don’t want to come across as self-righteous, presumptuous or get too involved in the messiness of others’ lives.

Hebrews 3:12-13 clearly says that we have a responsibility as a community to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Meanwhile, James 5:19-20 encourages all of us to play an active role to “bring that person back” because “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

How, then, should we live out the instructions in these verses, knowing we are fellow sinners ourselves?

 

1. Don’t be self-righteous and judgemental

Perhaps one of the most natural ways we respond when we hear someone fall into sin—especially when it comes to sins like adultery or murder or embezzlement—is to recoil and judge them internally. Instead of grieving over the sin and reaching out to that person, we pull away and huddle in small groups with our friends, expressing incredulity that someone who looked so “normal” on the outside could have done something so wrong.

I know I have been guilty of that on more than one occasion.

One good way to tell if we’re being judgemental and self-righteous is to look at our first reaction whenever we hear that someone has fallen into sin. Do we immediately feel disdainful towards the person, and even text our friends to share the ‘concern’? Or do we turn to God and pray for His mercy and grace—not just for the person but for all of mankind, including ourselves?

Before we throw the first stone, let’s remember that all of us have sinned (John 8:7), and seek the well-being of others instead of judging and condemning them (Luke 6:37-38).

A good way to start could be to ask our friends questions that will help us better understand and also help them process why they did what they did. These could include: “How are you feeling about it?”, “Have you been struggling for a while?”, “Was there something that led you to do that?”

 

2. Be angry and sad about sin

Another tendency I have is to sympathise with friends when they share about their struggle with sin—especially if it’s something I’m struggling with myself (like pride and covetousness). In those moments, I might even downplay the severity of the sin by thinking or even articulating, “Well, at least everyone struggles with it, and it’s not as bad as [some other sin]”.

When that happens, I’m unwittingly judging sin based on my own faulty standards of right and wrong instead of seeing sin from God’s lens.

But sin is sin—there are no ‘levels’ to it—and it angers God. If we ever find ourselves tempted to brush aside or downplay any sin, let’s pray for the Spirit to convict our hearts by remembering the cost Jesus paid on the cross for our sins (Isaiah 53:5-6). Let us go back to the Scriptures and read what it says about the grotesque nature of sin (Romans 6:23; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Cor 6:9-10).

It is only when we recognise sin for what it is: disobedience to God (Romans 5:19), that we’d be able to properly grieve over it, and counsel our friends rightly so that they might not become hardened or desensitised to it.

 

3. Encourage one another to repent

When I was younger, I had imagined God as a strict, totalitarian leader who was out to catch me whenever I tripped up. That led me to confess my sins every night before I went to bed (in case I pass away in my sleep and have some unconfessed sin that would keep me from entering heaven). Thankfully, this warped and legalistic theology got sorted over time as I dived deeper into the Word and understood better the sufficiency of Christ’s death and the love of God.

Looking back, I also realise that my “prayers of confession” back then lacked a real resolve to turn away from my sins. While confessing our sins, i.e., admitting what we did was wrong, is encouraged throughout the Bible (1 John 1:9, James 5:19), we’re also called to repent, which will result in a change of heart and action (Acts 26:20).

Psalm 32:1-2 speaks of how the one whose sins are forgiven and covered is “blessed”. British pastor and writer Tim Chester observes that this “blessed” person is the one who has repented, not the one who is free from sin, since such a person doesn’t exist. And this is important because, as he writes in his book Enjoying God, it means that “you don’t have to wait until you achieve some higher level of godliness before you can enjoy God’s blessing”.

Let’s encourage one another to not just confess our sins but also to turn away from them, for that is the gateway to the pleasures of God. As American professor of Christian theology Stephen Wellum summarised beautifully in an article, “When we sin, we lose our consciousness of forgiveness and our sense of peace with God. So when we confess our sins, by the work of the Spirit, we are reawakened to what Christ has done for us, and God revives our security in him and assurance of our salvation.”

 

4. Pray for and with our friends

The Bible urges us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We often think of this verse in the context of physical healing, but it actually also addresses our need for spiritual healing (from sin).

When our friend shares his or her temptation to sin (or his or her act of sinning), we need to pray just as Jesus did for His disciples—that God would protect us from the evil one (John 17:15). And we should do this both in their presence and during our own quiet time. We could even craft a prayer we have for them over text and send it to them. I remember how uplifted and encouraged I felt when I knew that family and friends were praying for me over the times I had fallen into the very sin I had resolved to stop committing.

The battle against sin is a spiritual one, so let’s regularly turn to the Lord to commit the struggle we face and ask Him for strength to fight off temptation and sin.

 

5. Point each other to Christ

Perhaps the most important thing to do whenever we sin is to bring ourselves back to the heart of Jesus. American pastor and author Dane Ortlund reminds us in his book Gentle and Lowly that Jesus is a friend of sinners. What that means is that “in Jesus Christ, we are given a friend who will always enjoy rather than refuse our presence.”

For those of us who (like my younger self) tend to view God as a strict, totalitarian leader who is always either angry or disappointed with us, our greatest comfort rests on the truth that no matter how many times we’ve sinned and failed, Jesus is always ready to receive and restore us if we are ready to turn back to Him.

 

As long as we’re living on this earth, we’ll wrestle with sin and temptation every day. Let’s never assume or think that we have overcome sin for good. Instead, let’s keep praying for one another, and be accountable to each other, making it a point to repent of the sins in our lives as we remember the heart of Jesus for us.

 

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a two-part series on the importance of confession and accountability. Check out part 1 here.

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