Confession and forgiveness are good for the soul
Confession and forgiveness are good for the soul. In things big things and small, it’s powerful to confess and be forgiven. During a ranger-led hike in Maine’s Acadia National Park, for example, our guide talked about the things visitors steal every year from our national parks: protected fossils, Native American pottery and arrowheads, Civil War relics, plants and animals, ancient corn cobs swiped from Native American cliff dwellings, an estimated 12 tons of petrified wood stolen from Petrified Forest National Park every year by visitors taking “souvenirs” one piece at a time, a box of rocks brought home from Acadia’s shoreline.
But many times, the ranger noted, people feel guilty enough that they ship the stolen items back. They want the guilt lifted. I’ve come across many stories of people who, years or even decades later, returned a stolen library book, paid a parking fine, or paid back for something they stole long ago.
One was the book Manners Make a Difference, from the library of St. John Fisher Catholic High School. It came in the mail with a note reading, “Sorry, just 32 years overdue. Call it Catholic guilt.”
Confession and forgiveness really are good for the soul. I love when secular sources confirm what God’s Word teaches. An example is the recent study examining 13,000 secrets recorded across ten previous studies. Analyzing them all, they found that the average person is holding onto 13 secrets, five of which they’ve never told a living soul. And it’s not the secret itself that will haunt you—it’s all the mental energy you spend thinking about it.
They found that when you’re holding onto secrets, physical tests feel harder than they are: when participants were asked to gauge the slope of a hill or the length of a distance, those who were preoccupied with keeping secrets judged the hills as steeper and the distances longer than they really were. When asked to toss a beanbag at a target, the secret-keepers consistently over-threw their bags, suggesting that they felt it would be harder than it actually was. Researchers found that secret-keepers acted as if they were burdened by extra physical weight. Confession and forgiveness do a body good.
Source: Bec Crew, “Science Predicts You’re Hiding 13 Secrets – And Nearly Half of Those You’ve Never Told a Soul,” ScienceAlert.Com (5-29-17)
That’s a hard sell among evangelicals. We’re big on personal privacy with God. By contrast, I grew up Roman Catholic, where we regularly practiced confession of sin to a priest as part of asking forgiveness. As we continue our series on Living Out of God’s Love, I want to talk with you about confession and forgiveness—not the Roman Catholic take on it, but how confession and forgiveness naturally flow from living out of God’s love. If you have received God’s forgiveness available through faith in Jesus Christ, it is natural that you are becoming a person who confesses your own wrongs and forgives those who wrong you. It isn’t easy, but it’s a natural outflow of living from God’s love.
Hear what the apostle John says it in his first New Testament letter:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” – 1 John 1:8-10
We all benefit from confession & forgiveness
If we claim that we’re never in the wrong, we’re only fooling ourselves. Whereas if we confess our sins— come clean about them and call our sin what God calls them (sin)—God won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sin and purge us of guilt. If we move away from blaming others or pretending God doesn’t see, we discover that God is utterly reliable to forgive our sins. And what God does for us, he calls us to do for others.
Because any time people come together around a worthy goal—a better marriage, parenting on the same page, a work or school project, us relaunching in-person worship this September—it is inevitable that at some point offense will be taken. Someone is going to disappoint you—or you’ll disappoint them. Someone is going to make a sideways comment that wounds you—or you’re going to let a poorly judged statement fly. Somewhere there’s going to be a clash or a blowup, whether you are on the receiving or giving end of it. The question is, when the offense arises, what does it look like to live out of God’s love?
Some of you have experienced a marriage falling apart. Others grew up with parents who were neglectful or abusive or both. Some have been bullied. Others have experienced deep wounds from fellow Christians and felt blindsided, expecting better. For these and a hundred other offenses, we need to explore confession and forgiveness.
I’m drawing heavily this week from the Christian ethicist and theologian Lewis Smedes, best known for his work on the place of forgiveness in the life of the growing Christian. Because the normal way people respond to offense is to leave: leave the job, leave the church, leave the marriage. The problem is that if that becomes your pattern, you never learn better ways of handling conflict. You get stuck.
So let’s unpack a bit of the better way of confession and forgiveness.
What forgiveness is & is not
Let’s start with a question. What is it that you’re actually doing when you forgive someone? And what happens to you when someone you’ve hurt turns to you and says, “I forgive you?”
Michael Cristofer explores the challenge in a play he wrote based on the true account of a Nazi war criminal who served prison time for his offenses, then after release moved to a small French village to start afresh. The locals weren’t having it.
That true story moved Cristofer to write a play titled Engle, which in German translates Angel. In the play, that former German Nazi general builds a cabin in the mountains for himself and his wife, believing and hoping his past is forever behind him.
But a French journalist named Morioux whose family had been murdered by Engle’s troops plots revenge. The day before the villagers intend to murder Engle, Morioux pays Engel a visit. He interrogates the war criminal, who is shocked to discover that his identity has been found out. For hours, Morioux probes Engel’s story. But then to his complete surprise, Morioux’s soul begins to shift. He begins to see Engel as a man, and one who has confessed his grievous sins. 3
Revenge begins to lose its appeal, and finally Morioux reveals the truth to Engel: “They’re going to come to you tonight, and they’re surely going to kill you. Come with me. I will save your life. I can get you out of here alive.”
The former Nazi general waited for a long minute before he answered, “I will go with you on one condition.”
“What’s the condition?”
“That you forgive me.”
Morioux would not, coming back with, “No, no. Save you I will. Forgive you I cannot. Never.”
And that night the villagers came as a mob with the courage that comes with anonymity, and burned the cottage down with Engle and his wife inside.
That horrific play leaves us gasping to understand the place of justice, and forgiveness. Engel had admitted his sin. He had completed his sentence. Yet what that he wanted more badly than life itself was to be forgiven. The most intense twist in that play is that Morioux ultimately had the power of life or death in his hands, but chose not to forgive, thus dooming Engle and his wife to the villagers’ vengeance.
Listen again to the promise from God’s Word. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” God can be counted on to forgive. God in his kindness will and does do what Morioux would not.
And God’s forgiving is also a model of our own forgiving. Don’t miss that: the way God forgives is meant to reshape how you and I forgive those who sin against us. What happens between God in his perfection and us sinners can also happen between two people when we become alienated from one another. God shows us the way forward, the better way than leaving.
To truly understand this promise about God, we have to explore what is confession, and what is forgiveness?
Let’s start with what confession is not.
Confessing is not merely talking about our sin.
If confessing sin merely meant talking about it, our generation would be the world history champions in confession. There’s a whole industry of exposing other people’s sins, bragging about one’s own sins, and covering up one’s sins with misdirection like “mistakes were made.”
There are lewd talk shows and radio programs where people sit on stage or call in exposing their private sins to a million others listening in. They seek validation rather than confession aimed at forgiveness.
On that afternoon in his mountaintop retreat, General Engle confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness. That’s what he wanted and needed more than his long prison sentence, and ultimately he felt he needed forgiveness more than life itself. If he couldn’t know forgiveness, he would rather die.
Closer to home for you and me, confession and forgiveness are two of the secrets to long-lasting friendships. David Whyte writes:
Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes. (It) can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses, as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities. … Real friendship is a blessing because it is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.
Confession and forgiveness are good for the soul, and good for genuine friendship. So: if confession isn’t merely talking about our sin, what is it? Smedes points out that confession involves three essentials.
Confession is admitting my responsibility.
To confess is to acknowledge my responsibility without mentioning the other person’s part in the problem. If they choose to own up to their part, all the better. But you can’t hold confession hostage to anyone else’s choice.
Confession is sharing in the offended person’s pain.
When I truly confess to you that I have hurt you, I am acknowledging that the hurt I caused you hurts me, too. I actively try to feel the pain that I inflicted upon you. I wounded you, and now I’m willing to feel the cuts that I sliced into you. Confession can only begin when pain is shared, when the offender tries their best to enter into the other person’s pain.
Confession is a gamble on grace.
Every confession is acknowledgement of your responsibility, feeling the other person’s pain, and it’s a gamble on the other person extending grace. When these elements are in place, the miracle of reconciliation can begin.
And I’ll be honest: the other person offering forgiveness is never a guarantee, as shown in the play Engel. Gambling on grace doesn’t always work; it’s still always the right gamble.
Leilani Schweitzer can speak to this more than most of us. A long time ago, her 20-month-old toddler Gabriel died in Stanford Hospital due to a nurse’s error and the lack of a failsafe in the equipment used.
I want you to hear what Leilani Schweitzer says about that hospital’s honest confession over what led to her son’s death. In a TED Talk she gave, she says:
“It would have been easy for the university hospital administrators to blame the nurse, fire her and assume the problem had been solved because the bad apple was gone. It would have been typical deny-and-defend behavior for them to ignore my questions, to go silent and hope I couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to file a lawsuit. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they investigated. They explained, took responsibility, and apologized. It made all of the difference.”
Today, Leilani Schweitzer works for that same hospital. She’s the one in charge of communication and resolution at Stanford Hospital in California. She’s the one tasked with coming clean and making amends when someone makes a mistake that negatively impacts a patient’s outcome. She of all people knows how hard it is to admit to having seriously injured or killed someone. There’s shame, guilt, and fear. 5
Most hospitals don’t apologize. They let the legal department handle the issue. Now in her position in the same hospital where her son died, she explains:
“I’ve been in many meetings where we explain to patients and families what has happened. And those are difficult things to be part of. I’ve seen an explanation move the guilt off of a mother’s face. I mean, that is the power. I have seen parents walk into a meeting with a physician where no one can lift their heads to look at each other. And by the end of that meeting, they are embracing. And it is remarkable what understanding can do for people.”
Source: Leilani Schweitzer, “How Can Hospitals Be More Transparent About Medical Errors?” NPR Ted Talks (12-1-17)
Confession always includes admitting my responsibility, sharing in the other person’s pain, and gambling on grace. It’s risky. But we’ve got to do it, because this is how God deals with us. What we receive from Him, we extend to others. This is real-deal, rubber-meets-the-road Christianity; this is faith in action.
Let’s keep going. We’ve touched on what confession is not and what it is. Let’s talk about forgiveness— what it is and is not.
What is Forgiveness?
What’s the miracle that happens when you confess and the other person forgives? Let’s clear away a misconception about forgiveness. Forgiving is not forgetting or excusing.
Forgiveness is hard; forgetting is easy. Trauma and fear can block harsh memories. Other times we’re tempted to sweep deep pain under the rug and pretend what the other person did doesn’t matter or isn’t a big deal, make excuses for the other person or make excuses about your own sin. It’s far better to remember so that you can begin moving toward forgiveness. If God could have simply forgotten the sins of the world, Jesus wouldn’t have had to go to the cross. Forgiving is not forgetting, and it’s not making excuses.
Forgiveness is pretty darn close to a miracle. It’s a new beginning; a chance to start again from where you are, not from where you wish things were. It takes courage and humility to confess and ask forgiveness. It takes compassion and courage to forgive offenders.
When you truly forgive someone, you hold out your hands palms up, no weapons, saying, “I can’t and won’t excuse what you’ve done. I don’t understand what you’ve done. I won’t forget what you’ve done. But I want to be your friend again. I want to be your husband again. I want to be your father again. Let’s start again.”
When you’re ready to confess and ask forgiveness, and when someone comes asking forgiveness, you don’t have to tackle everything. Questions about justice and the future and all the reasons why they did or said what they did don’t have to be addressed in that moment. It doesn’t mean perfect trust will follow: trust has to be built, and after offense it has to be rebuilt.
But when it’s time to confess and ask forgiveness, or it’s time to extend forgiveness, all you need to do is to begin where you are in your pain or shame, and do the right thing. Their response is their responsibility. Your responsibility is to gamble on grace.
What will the future be like? Who knows? The future may involve more offense and more confessing, and more forgiveness and more new starts. I don’t know any healthy marriage that doesn’t involve confession and forgiveness. I don’t know any healthy church that doesn’t gamble on grace by confessing and asking forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t guarantee a painless future. Forgiveness doesn’t turn back the clock. A divorced spouse may need to forgive their ex, and move on to a new life with a new marital status. A child— perhaps very much an adult child—who is angry with a parent may need to forgive a parent who they have nothing to do with or who is long dead. In those cases, forgiveness is a new beginning that frees you from unsolvable anger.
“Forgiveness doesn’t guarantee a painless future…”
As long as we are relating as one loved mess to another loved mess, confession is a risk. The other person may not have the grace to forgive you; you have to take that risk, because it’s how God deals with us. Grace doesn’t always work. It’s still always the right path to take.
The Good News is that when it comes to confessing and asking forgiveness from God, all risk is removed. If we confess, he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins. We can depend upon Him. Every time. There’s no gamble. What makes the difference with Him?
The difference is seen in a cross, set on a hill outside Jerusalem, where Jesus shared in the pain of the sins of the world. On the cross, all the sins of all the people of all the world, through all of history—all who believe—was counted to Jesus. God’s justice against our sin was the cup Jesus drank to the dregs that day.
In the sharing of sin’s pain on the cross, Jesus made a perfect confession of sin for us. The cross is the promise of a new beginning for us.
Smedes point out that our confessions are never perfect. They’re often halfhearted, half-intelligent, or even half sincere. Yet God’s forgiveness still comes through, because of that cross of shared pain. This is why God can be trusted never to slam the door in your face, God can be trusted to never to turn his back on you. He can be trusted not to excuse your sin, not to forget your sin, but rather to know and remember full well, and still say, “Take my hand. I want to be your Lord, your Leader, again. I want to be your Father again. I want to be your friend again. Starting right now, let’s begin again.”
Confession and forgiveness really are good for the soul, friends. I hope you’ll join me in gambling on grace. Let’s pray.
Our Father in heaven, how can we thank you enough for the promise of your forgiveness? We confess that we sin. As the Book of Common Prayer says, we err and stray from your ways like lost sheep. We follow too much the shifting winds of our own hearts. We offend against your holy laws, and we offend one another. If not for your mercy, where would we be?
But we have hope because of this: If we confess our sins, you are faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. As you do for us, we pray, make us toward one another, beginning in the church and in our families. Cause the love of God to compel us to confess and ask forgiveness when we offend, and to extend forgiveness when we are offended. Strengthen our families and friendships, we ask, for your glory and our good. We ask all this in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!