The Inward Disciplines allow us to create the proper environment for our spirit to be led by God internally. The Outward Disciplines were about applying what God teaches us to do so we can be obedient in our relationships with others. Now we are on the Corporate Disciplines. What does a group of individuals who live the outward lifestyle formed out of these disciplines do together as a people? Do they remain separate from one another, or do they seek healthy and supporting relationships together? For the Judeo-Christian Worldview, the Corporate Disciplines are the behaviors between believers that support the life-style they share together, and reinforces them. These disciplines are what we do when we are together as a people and how we maintain an environment socially that promotes each individual’s growth toward spiritual maturity and right relationship with God.
The first of these Corporate Disciplines is the Discipline of Confession. This starts us out with a slap-in-the-face taste of reality about our system of beliefs. Confession is a corporate act that flies in the face of everything our modern society instills in us. It is about being open, honest, seeking correction, and striving to constrain one’s self to a set of moral values. It is an act that has been undermined even within the community of believers. Many believers understand the concept of personal, private confession to God directly. However, not all are willing to openly confess their sins to each other even though it is a responsibility we all have. Not just to be the confessor, but to also be the one who receives confession from others.
What is Confession as a Corporate Discipline?
Confession is the admission of guilt, not only the telling of sin. In order to confess, a person must accept that what they have done is wrong and understand why it is so. Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline (our guiding text in this series) cites Saint Alphonsus Liguri in his description of the three necessities for confession. These are:
- An examination of Conscience,
- Determination to avoid sin.
Confession is part-in-parcel to Repentance. In order to repent, we must know what is wrong, why it is wrong, and seek to turn away from it. Sin, being any act that turns us away from and can only be done against Him, has to be understood as that in the heart and mind of the believer before confession can have any significance. This is the necessity of “An examination of Conscience.” We are acknowledging that which does indeed need to be forgiven, and setting up our mind to grasp what it is to be forgiven so that we can be set right. We review our conscience, and ensure that it is set properly to the standards of God, in so doing we come to know what is wrong and have the proper mechanism in place to prevent us from doing it in the future. This comes through forgiveness of the past sin which then releases us to strive to sin no more. It is only right to be led by our conscience when it is not formed out of the culture that is made by the spirit of the age.
In giving our confession, we are admitting things that we have done wrong against God. Just as we seek forgiveness from others by admitting that we have wronged them and acknowledging the act as a wrong, so too do we do the same before God in confession. Just as we have experienced someone apologizing to us for a wrong, if we see that they are not truly sorry for what they have done, the apology seems dry and dishonest. This is why sorrow is the next necessity. We must understand that it is not simply an emotion. As with all emotions, they are responses to some particular stimuli. That stimuli within us in relation to confession is an actual regret that is felt, not spoken, but honestly felt in our hearts. A solid dislike for having done the wrong we have committed. When we think of the sin, it should stimulate that true and honest emotion of sorrow and sadness for having done such a terrible thing to another. How much more so when we have wronged God!
Both the examination and proper setting of our conscience and the true feeling of sorrow for our sin are then further affirmed by the conviction to do what is right. The final necessity of “determination to avoid sin,” is what is the natural result of a confession. When we make our confession, we are desiring from God the desire to avoid sin itself. It is the blessing from God we seek, as with the other disciplines, to work within us to make us desire not to sin. This is that change in the heart that makes for the transformation of life that we strive for in righting our relationship with the Almighty.
But why must this not only be done in private? Why must we also do this openly in personal confession to another believer? The act of confession does not make some change in God that results in Him choosing to forgive, He has always been set in that. It is an act that sets us up to actually seek His forgiveness. While confession may start with sorrow, it ends in joy. Meaning there must be a stopping point in the process of self-examination and confession, a point where it ends the sorrow and arouses joy to having been forgiven. Foster cites Bonhoeffer, “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; He experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.” When we confess to another believer, we are able to experience God through them. This allows us to feel the end of the self-examination through the embrace of our fellow believer. Through his or her representation of Christ as a believer, they affirm Christ’s action in response to the confession, “You are forgiven of this sin, and I am here to help guide you in your repentance.”
Where is Confession in the Bible?
When that receiver of another’s confession tells of God’s forgiveness of their sin, they are citing scripture as told in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (italics mine). The scripture tells us of God’s honest desire to forgive us of our sins, and demonstrates that desire through Christ, “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin.” (2 Cor. 5:21). In the act of confession, it is Christ alone who is the one who sets our forgiveness, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5). However, by confessing our sins to one another we are able to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12). This does not mean our works bring our forgiveness, but through action, affirming our faith, we are able to seek forgiveness through our peers in open confession. “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another…” (James 5:16), for how else can they know of those internal sins of the heart in order to pray for us if we do not confess them among brothers and sisters?
Jesus Himself blessed the apostles through the very same Holy Spirit that lives within every believer with the authority to forgive sins. After His resurrection, He appears to the apostles and tells them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23). This means that when we go to a fellow believer to confess our sins, we are going before God. We are a fellowship of sinners who have been forgiven, that is to say, we are saints. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood…” (1 Peter 2:9). We are to be there for our brothers and sisters to be the representative of Christ, and in this role, we have the ability to represent His forgiveness to make it real and felt in the believer. Through the act of confession we are able to be changed by God, doing what is our part in the equation to receive the forgiveness He freely offer through His grace. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
So How do I “do” the Discipline of Confession?
The Discipline of Confession is a two way street. We both confess and must be willing to receive confession. In giving confession, there is both a private form and a corporate form that makes it complete. In our regular and daily life, after times of open and corporate confession, those times of private confession come into play. An excellent example is provided in Foster’s work. Sitting down and evaluating one’s life through prayer is of great importance. A combination of meditation and prayer for guidance in reviewing distant and recent past sins and journaling them is a great first step. This can take a few days of focused effort, seeking to identify specific acts of sin against God from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. This is often called doing an “Inventory” of your past. Do not fear overlooking anything, and please do not think that you have to get every one of them. God knows the will of the heart and knows the past offenses. What is important is the desire to recognize all those sins that have impacted you enough to remember them. Once this is done, a careful and conscious series of prayers, going down the list one item at a time, is the first confession.
In further acts of private confession, the process then becomes much simpler. We all have times where we sit down and think through the events of the day. As we do, add to it the identifying of sinful acts. We are only human, and we make mistakes. Setting our prayer life to include this time of reflection and making of confession sets our hearts and minds right. This makes it a discipline. This is how we bring our conscience into obedience to God. As we go through this, we may chronicle these events for a time but only for the objective of taking them to corporate confession. It is important to note that while we perform these conscious actions of confession, we are striving to repent. We are seeking God’s help in preventing such behavior from happening again. This brings us back to there being that “closure” that needs to come into being and be felt.
Once we have gone down that original list in private prayer, it is wise to then take that list and set aside a specific time with a fellow believer to focus on making the confession of these sins openly with another. We sit down with the fellow believer in a private place, seeking to keep the discussion between ourselves and the fellow believer. The list helps us to stay focused, and we are able to go line by line. Never developing excuses, never allowing ourselves to rationalize it, never trying to say “this was bad judgement,” or “this was how I was raised.” Instead, simply confessing the act to be what it was, sin against God. Though it may be necessary for us to clarify and further define the act, it is never done to minimize the sin, but only to make it more clear to our fellow believer. Once all is said and done, ending with a time of compassionate prayer over these things is important. There is still one more thing to do. Once it is complete, tear up the paper that your sins are written on. Shred them apart and through them away. The forgiveness we receive cleanses us, removing the stain of sin on our hearts. This physical act of tearing up the papers that have our sins recorded on them is a mighty liberating thing.
Now we must turn to receiving another’s confession. This is a corporate discipline and as such is one we share responsibility for with another. This means that not only giving a confession is a part of the discipline, but also the receipt of confession from another.
First and foremost, always set yourself to be available to your friends and fellow believers. Let them know that you are willing to hear their confessions should they so choose to use you. This is certainly another form of the discipline of service, and one of submitting yourself to the needs of a brother or sister in Christ. When that fellow believer is ready, be sure to have a place set that is private and comfortable. Welcoming someone into your home (where there can be no added stress of others overhearing what is said) is a kind gesture. Perhaps your local church is open and available during the off hours for you to use the facilities for this purpose. When you arrive, be sure to set the mood as welcoming, comforting, and non-judgmental. A true believer is someone who can receive another’s confession without cringing at what is heard. We acknowledge within ourselves the reality that we are a fellowship of sinners seeking grace. So when we hear the confession of another, we listen to what they confess, feeling that sorrow that they have, being empathetic, knowing that same shame and guilt for our own sins.
What is additionally important is confidentiality. You must set in yourself the desire to keep all confessions private, between you and the confessor only, never sharing the information with others. In a community of believers, this is something done without conscious thought. However, it is important to make it clear that the person can trust you because you are trustworthy. Foster brings this insight, “We want to learn how to live so that our very presence will speak of the love and forgiving grace of God.” (p. 155). Careful prayer prior to the meeting should be done to ask God to bear His light in your presence, so that when the confessor sees you, they see Him. This includes the discipline of silence in times like this. We are there to listen, not speak. There may be moments where encouragement is necessary, but only in as few words as necessary. Prepare yourself to provide a comforting embrace, to speak words of kind encouragement, and only seek to understand what they are saying.
During the process of the confession, there is something that you should be doing beyond just the listening. Internally, you should be praying as the confession is laid out. Not openly, as that is distracting, but instead, praying in your heart as you listen. Praying for the Lord’s blessing on the confessor, praying for the Lord to help you understand, praying for guidance in directing the path of the confession, prayer for healing. Pray that as the person speaks their confession, if there is any apparent avoidance of something deeper, the Lord will give you the right words to draw that deeper reality of sin out of them to bring it to light. The confession is a time of counseling, but above all else, it is a time of prayer. All is spoken through the light of the Cross, it is set between you and the confessor, and it is the filter through which the words are spoken.
In the completion of the confession, make sure it is a clear point of ending. Making it clear that this is the end of the shame, the end of the guilt, the end of the grief. Thank them for their consideration of you for their confession, let them know that it is God who is present with you both. Do not hesitate to lay your hand on their shoulder and say the words of God, “These things are forgiven. God has released you from this burden you have carried.” Don’t let the confession drag on into a period of reflection upon the sin or fall into a pity-party. Guide the person to a closure of the confession. The was closure on the cross with Christ’s death. This was the moment Man’s sins were forgiven. Just as there was closure there, so to must their be clear closure in confession.
The best way to do this is with a final closing prayer, laying your hand upon them and praising God for giving them the courage to step up and confess. A prayer of thanksgiving for the Lord’s forgiveness is in order, not a plea for it, as God is already willing to forgive, you do not need to plead to Him for it. Thank God for ending it there. Pray for continued guidance in the heart of the confessor to avoid sin and ask the Lord to help you help the confessor to stay true to God. Once this is done, go your separate ways. End it there! Don’t let anything continue from it. Let that be the end of it!
Through confession in both private and corporate practice we are able to free ourselves from guilt and find the Lord’s forgiveness. It starts with sorrow and the process can be painful. Bear your cross! Get through it and bring about the death of your old self as the Lord forgives and releases you from the power of that sin. The end of true confession is joy in your heart and a sense of weight being lifted from your shoulders. In receiving a confession, be compassionate, empathetic, and pray to God for you to be His representative. Pray that the light of the Cross will be present throughout. When all is done, that is the end of it. Now is the time of a life of repentance. Turning away from the old and living within the new life that is given you through justification by your faith. The Discipline of Confession is the conscious act of acknowledging sin for what it is, confessing your honest regret for having done it, and setting yourself to avoid it at all costs. Accept the Lord’s forgiveness, as He is always willing, if only you would seek it.