There is an old story of a businessman who wanted to eliminate his competition in a certain town. How was he able to achieve this goal? He merely sent an anonymous email to each one of them, and in a matter of days, they had all fled the city. The email was simple, just two short sentences. It read, “All is discovered. Flee immediately.”
The story is fictional, and yet its value lies in the truth it tells. All of us are harboring mistakes, secrets, guilt, and regrets- things that the Christian tradition terms as sin. And all of us- particularly in this age of cancel culture- are terrified of being found out. Thus, too many of us live of our lives with large parts of ourselves hidden, with the burden of shame, and with limitations based on our past mistakes that we are never able to move past. It is frightening- and terribly isolating. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing of this reality says:
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone…everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from
the fellowship. We dare not be sinners… So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and
hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners.
At the level of our lived experience, most of us understand the truth of both the fictional story above and what Bonhoeffer has to say. What is harder is to find those that have the lived experience of moving beyond it. That’s because moving beyond it requires the courage to say “I did that,” and to seek words of pardon. For Christians, this is found primarily in the overlooked practice of confession.
For many, the very idea of confession is horrific. There is that fear of being found out and ultimately rejected. Beyond that, it may conjure up images of spiritual manipulation at the hands of controlling authority figures, or of harsh punishments. Theologically, there may be the conviction that “I only need to confess to God,” which- however true it may be- can leave us without the word and touch and love of another human being who can assure us that we are ok now.
Biblically, confession finds clear authorization in the Epistle of James. He writes, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” Notice two things: first, the language is directive. We are urged to confess. Secondly, it is linked- via prayer- to healing. The suggestion here is that when we have the courage to say “I did that” under the right circumstances, healing will occur. We can be free from the cycle of hiding, guilt, shame, and isolation. Bonhoeffer will expand on this reality, writing:
The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he
finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.
The expressed, acknowledged sins lost all their power…He is no longer alone with his
evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been
taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the
grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Confession can be seen, then, to have powerful spiritual and psychological benefits. Indeed, it is so powerful, that even Alcoholics Anonymous- the non-sectarian recovery program- has included confession as an essential step on the road to freedom from addiction. In their text, they suggest that the alcoholic “[admit]…to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” The experience of AA has shown its members the power of the practice. This is in accord with Jesus’ teaching that “…the truth will set you free…everyone who commits sin is a slave…If then the Son sets you free, you will indeed be free.”
Moving Toward Freedom: Suggestions for Confession as a Spiritual Practice
1. Make a list of those sins that are weighing you down. Be thorough and honest- don’t “pull punches.” This is a good way to begin the process of “admitting to yourself the exact nature of your wrong.”
2. As it is true that Christ alone forgives our sins, you may want to try and share them directly with him as a first step. Read your list aloud. Ask for forgiveness. For some, this step, practiced regularly is enough to remove the related guilt and shame. No one must make confession to another human being. Rather, it is only an option for those who can’t seem to let go of the prison they have made for themselves.
3. If the sense of burden remains, you may want to follow the advice of St. James, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Anyone you chose can hear your confession and remind you of God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. However, there are a few useful guidelines that the Christian community has come up with that may help. First, it is not wise to use a family member, employer, or someone who does not understand the nature of confession and forgiveness. Secondly, this is not the process of reconciliation with someone we have wronged- that is related but a different matter. Therefore, it is wise to not use them. They can better hear you after you are free from guilt, fear and any need for self-justification. Lastly, confidentiality is key- whoever you chose must understand this. Many people chose clergy or mental health professionals precisely because of their commitment to confidentiality.
4. Repentance is a necessary precondition. Are you sick and tired of being sick, and tired? Do you intend to try as much as you are able to not continue in the way that has caused you this sense of pain and isolation? No one is perfect, but a clear determination to “turn around,” and move away- especially from habitual sins- is necessary for the freedom and release to be complete and long-lasting.
5. Some people benefit from confessing regularly. In addition to any general confession in the weekly gathering of the church, it has been traditional for those who find the practice useful to arrange private confessions prior to Christmas and to Easter.
6. Doubt will be your enemy moving forward. Trust in the promises of Jesus and James. Trust in the process. When guilt tries to reassert itself and push you back into hiding, say to yourself: “That is finished. It has been confessed and I am forgiven and healed.” Let the memory of what you have done- and what Christ has done for you- be a reminder should you be tempted to slink back into isolation.
7. Did you make a list? Burn it. Both as a symbol of your freedom and for privacy’s sake. What you wrote was too precious and important to fall into the wrong hands.
What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession. We are delivered out of
darkness into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. That is joyful news. Confession is the renewal of the joy
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. New York, NY: Harper Collins. p.131.  Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jas 5:16). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.  Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. New York, NY: Harper Collins. pp. 134-5.  Step 5 of the Twelve Steps. https://aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bigbook_chapt5.pdf. Accessed 1/29/2021.  The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Jn 8:32,34,36). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press.  Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. New York, NY: Harper Collins. p.138.