True confessions

The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works. — Saint Augustine

i_confessWalk into almost any Christian congregation in America and you’ll find kind, smiling people, well-dressed and freshly-scrubbed. You’ll discover families holding hands, beautiful babies cooing and gurgling, fluffy puppies frolicking in the aisles, giggling children and the bluebird of happiness blowing kisses of good cheer to all.

Ok, so I lied about the puppies; you get the picture.

Back home, the scene can be sadly different. Husbands and wives don’t speak to each other — or worse, only communicate in the cruelest of ways. Children rebel against parental authority and are sucked into all the risky adventures our drug- and sex-crazed world can dream up. We pretend everything is fine; inside we live in pain.

The cathedral of Jesus Christ is infested with termites. We are supposed to be a people set free from the chains of sin, but Christians, like everyone else, live in bondage.

For this reason, the church is often accused of hypocrisy; I think weakness — impotence — might be closer to the truth.

Is Christianity a farce, then? Emphatically no! But the muscular, “abundant life” Christianity of Jesus has certainly atrophied in the American church. The Christianity preached most Sundays is far too dull to cut the cords of the sin that has tied us down.

There are two reasons why Christianity fails to change our lives:

  1. We are not living the all-or-nothing faith that Jesus calls us to;
  2. We are not being honest with each other about our sins and temptations.

What do I mean by an “all-or-nothing faith”?

Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household! If you love your father or mother more than you love Me, you are not worthy of being Mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than Me, you are not worthy of being Mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow Me, you are not worthy of being Mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for Me, you will find it. — Matthew 10:34-39

This passage makes me cringe. Jesus is using hyperbole, of course, to make his point stick. But get past the hyperbole and the underlying message is “in everything, make me first. Put aside any ideas of a life of leisure and comfort. I am calling you to a life of sacrifice, a life full of challenges. Hard? Yes, but if you follow Me you will find the life you were made for.”

This is not the health and wealth Gospel. This is not a lovey-dovey Savior who just wants to give us all a group hug. Nor is this some sort of cafeteria Christianity: give me that fried chicken over there, forget the vegetables, and I’ll take a double-helping of cherry cheese cake.

The disciples left almost everything and followed Jesus. Peter was married, and we know that he continued to be a good husband and father. But he never really went back to his career as a fisherman. After Jesus died, Peter became a pastor, a leader of the fledgling group of faithful believers.

God is calling every one of us to a readiness to abandon everything evil, everything sinful, everything unhealthy, everything that takes our attention away from God and his program.

Take up your cross and follow. That’s radical, sold-out Christianity.

And what about confession? Isn’t that a Catholic thing?

If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. — Matthew 18:15, NLT

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. — James 5:16, NLT

These and other passages describe a church where trust, honesty and humility are the rule. Does that sound like your church?

If you gamble away your kids’ college fund in Vegas, is there anyone in church you could go to for help? If you can’t surf the web without taking a detour through the porn sites, do you know someone in church who will understand? If you’re unhappy at home and killing the pain with alcohol, is there anyone in church who has been there and can help you towards sobriety?

Somehow each of us has to get past the notion that we’re the worst screw-up in church. I imagine the collective sins of the church would turn us pale. We have to start being honest with each other.

What would happen if we took off our masks and talked about the things we’re ashamed of, the things that make us weep in the darkness, the things that have power over us? Not in front of the whole church, but in a private conversation with someone we can trust?

We pray to be healed from disease. We pray for protection when we travel. How often do we go to someone we’ve hurt, apologize and ask for forgiveness? How often do we admit that some compulsion, some addiction, some temptation has grabbed us and shaken us senseless? And if we did, would we be treated with compassion or condemnation?

James says that honest confession and prayer defuses sin. Can we learn to extend to each other the kind of liberal grace — and confidentiality — that Christ has given us?

On the surface, the American Christian church is like a Norman Rockwell portrait. But x-ray that painting and you’ll find another underneath, looking an awful like Munch’s The Scream. Something is wrong with this picture.

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Comments

  1. I tried this once … I doubt I’ll ever go back to church as a result.

  2. I think we all know what Sonja is talking about, and what you’re talking about, too, Charlie.� We have reason to hold serious misgivings about most manifestations of the visible church today.� Where is the church, anyway?� The best answer I have found so far is that it is wherever someone can be found who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with his/her God (Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23).� Or maybe it’s anywhere or any time you can find people who love God with everything they have, and other people just as much as themselves, which is really just a restatement of the previous answer.� Where any other path is being followed, the most we can say is that there some people claim to be a church.� If we really understood what God is undertaking as he prepares for the advent of his eternal kingdom, we would better understand who we are and the nature of our salvation.� Then it would be obvious why faith in Jesus must be all or nothing and why, for the believer, there are no alternatives to mutual giving and receiving of care and support. And we would know what a church should look like.

  3. Three things –

    1)

    I loved “I Confess”. Montgomery Cliff was amazing.

    2)

    How do we know Peter remained a good family man? The last I saw him at home he was making his newly-healed mother-in-law do all the housework.

    3)

    I just had a woman confide in me after church that her daughter has an eating disorder and she feels terribly guilty as a mother. I hate to see them go through this, but it felt good that she came to me.

  4. The problem stems from a living relationship with the Savior being poured into the concrete mold of religious rituals.

    Abraham was a friend of God. David was a man after God’s own heart. They messed up, repented, and moved forward in God’s plans and purposes for their lives. Their lives were a continual expression of love and worship for God.

  5. Now Charlie, why did you have to go and spoil my day by getting me to read this post??

    It’s just too hard.

  6. Good stuff, Charlie. My church is full of poseurs, just like yours. In trying to be part of the solution, I’m starting a Celebrate Recovery ministry this year. Please pray for us – I think this is one ministry area the enemy would love to crush before it even starts.

  7. What about the families (and there are many) where the father served God, neglected his family and his 4 kids are now fervently anti-God, anti-church and screwed up? The guy surely consoled himself with Jesus’ words but surely he committed the common fallacy of obeying the letter and missing the spirit of Jesus’ teaching?

  8. Charlie,

    You’re right on track with your criticisms, concerns and observations. No doubt it’s way too easy to put on a fake smile, pretend nothing’s wrong, and never let God go beneath the surface. And yet…

    There is a difference between 1) pretending that nothing’s wrong and 2) rejoicing always in the Lord in spite of struggle and failure. Those may not look very different on the outside on Sunday morning, though.

    We share things in private that we’re not comfortable sharing in public. The lack of confession in a certain setting doesn’t imply the lack of confession in general.

    And having said that I still struggle to understand whether my reflections are based in pride, wisdom, maturty, fear, or what.

  9. Amen brother.

    People in our pews are a mess but are just now realizing that it’s okay to say so.

    I kind of like the new not-everything-is-so-perfect-with-me-and-that’s-why-I’m-here church.

  10. Bob Bridges says:

    “If you will here stop and ask yourselves why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” -from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, by William Law (1686-1761)

    That certainly applies to me. But why do you say Jesus was using hyperbole in Matthew 10:34-39? Which part, exactly, do you think is hyperbolic? I’ve always supposed He meant it.

  11. Wow — I love this piece. Your words have power, humor and a little hope!

    What would it look like to prepare the community of saints who sin both to give and receive authentic confession? Sonja’s experience (of course she speaks for many of us,) reflects the unfortunate situation where many people are unprepared to hear a confession in a life-giving way, and the one who risks openness is then judged because of the discomfort the “hearer” experienced with whatever sin is being openly discussed. I think when we have to learn to be a little more accepting of our own shadow/sin in order to be comfortable enough both in our own skin and in the grace of God to be grace-filled hearer’s of another’s confession.

    Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has a wonderful chapter on confession and also how to be able to receive another’s confession in a humble, loving, accountable way through the eyes of the cross.

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