Peacemakers, Lesson 6: Confession
For the last two weeks, I’ve been focusing on sins that contribute to conflict. Two weeks ago, I hammered a proud, critical spirit. Last week, we talked about how idolatry contributes to conflict. This week, I want to focus on confession–specifically, confession to other people. I think most of us understand what it means to confess our sins to God and why we need to do that. But we tend to be less clear on confession to other people. James 5:16 says, “Confess your trespasses to one another”; but what does that even mean, and how do we go about doing that? We’ll answer those questions later; but first, I want to share a story that illustrates the benefits of confession.
The author of the book I’ve been basing this series off of founded a ministry that helps individuals Christians and churches work through especially difficult conflicts. Here is a story from one of his experiences.
“At last he had his chance. Clutching his prepared statement in his hands, Mark sat down in the front pew, ready to get even with the elders. Six months ago they had refused to support his promotion to senior pastor. They had stood silently by when Mark was slandered in a congregational meeting. Worst of all, some of them had repeatedly talked about him behind his back, voicing their doubts about his ability to fill the shores of their retiring pastor.
After months of escalating tension, the elders finally called in a team of trained conciliators from Peacemaker Ministries. During two three-day visits, the conciliators taught peacemaking to the congregation, facilitated personal discussions, and encouraged Mark and the elders to set an example of the church by acknowledging their own contributions to the problem. But Mark could not let go of his perception that the elders’ repeated sins against him far outweighed his few mistakes.
Now, with the second set of weekend meetings drawing to a close, the elders were going to make a corporate confession of their wrongs to the congregation. Their prepared statement did not go as far as Mark and his wife thought it should, however, so he and Donna planned to publicly elaborate on the elders’ sins against them.
As the service began, one of the conciliators preached a brief message on reconciliation and then explained the goals and format of the meeting. He then gave the microphone to the head elder. Reading from a prepared statement, he acknowledged several ways that the elders had wronged Pastor Mark. Then he looked straight at Mark and Donna and said, “We have sinned against you both and caused you great pain. We are so very sorry.” It was evident from the tears in his eyes and the emotion in his voice that he was speaking from his heart.
Then another elder stepped up, confessed his own sins, and asked for forgiveness from the associate pastor and the congregation. A third elder did the same. The conciliators had expected only two or three of them to speak, but before long seven of the nine elders had come forward to add their personal confessions to the statement that had already been read.
Mark was battling with his thoughts. He was still angry and hurt, but the elders’ words had put a crack in the wall he had built around his heart. His wife sensed that he needed a few moments to collect his thoughts, so she stood up and stepped to the microphone.
Turning to the elders, Donna said, “I came here tonight planning to tell everyone how much you have hurt Mark and me. But in the last few minutes, God has shown me how wrong I have been. I finally understand what the Lord has been trying to tell me in 1 John 3:15. By holding on to my hatred, I have been murdering each of you in my heart for months. I am so much guiltier than you are. I do forgive you, and I ask you to forgive me.” As she walked back to her seat, Donna’s face showed the freedom she felt. Her bitterness had been washed away.
Mark’s feet felt like they were made of lead as he rose and walked toward the microphone. The war in his heart was building to a climax. He could hold on to his anger and try to get even with the elders for the pain they had caused him, or he could find freedom and peace by forgiving them and confessing his own wrongs. With growing emotion, he realized that he could not do both.
Help me God, he silently prayed as he reached the microphone. Suddenly his fingers opened and his notes fell to the floor. Turning to face the elders, he spoke words that he had never expected to say that night.
“Donna was wrong. I am actually the guiltiest person of all. As associate pastor I should have set an example of humility and submission. I should have trusted God to work through the elders and the congregation to select the next senior pastor of this church. Instead, I let my desire for this position control me, so I took matters into my own hands. I exalted myself and became defensive when people raised honest concerns about my abilities. I became angry that people were talking about me behind my back, but then I did exactly the same thing. Instead of going to talk with those who had spoken against me, I avoided them and wallowed in resentment. Even when some people asked for my forgiveness, I refused to give it. I have failed miserably as your pastor. And worst of all, I dragged Donna into my bitterness. I ask God for his forgiveness, and I hope that he will give you grace to forgive me too.
The elders rose as one to embrace Mark. Reaching out, they drew Donna into the circle. After a few moments, another voice was heard behind them. Two additional microphones had been placed before the congregation. An elderly man stood before one of them, wanting to take his share of the blame. Before he was done speaking, a woman had moved to the other microphone, compelled by the same Spirit to find peace through confession. Then another and another confessed sin, slander, divisiveness, and hardness of heart. Everyone pointed to himself or herself. Each person became his own accuser.
After forty-five minutes of confession, quietness fell over the congregation. One of the conciliators closed the meeting in prayer. When he finished, he sensed that God was not done working. So he suggested that people turn around and greet one another with the exhilarating truth, “The Lord has forgiven all your sins!” The people shared this good news with each other and hugged and talked for so long that the conciliators finally made a quiet exit. They knew that these people were in good hands–God’s hands.
Sande goes on to say that this story illustrates what he calls “The Golden Result,” which is that people usually respond in kind. If you criticize a person, he will likely become defensive and launch a counter-attack. But if you begin with confession, you will often find that the other person is quick to say, “I was wrong too.” Of course, we don’t need Ken Sande to tell us this. Proverbs 15:21 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” Perhaps even more to the point is 1 John 1:7. “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Walking in the light, which involves confessing our sins to God and to each other, results in sweet fellowship. In our story, the fellowship between Mark and Donna and the elders and the congregation had been broken. But confession restored that fellowship. If we want to enjoy fellowship with one another, we must ask for forgiveness when we know we’ve sinned.
TRANSITION: I’d like to spend the rest of our time this morning discussing some practical guidelines regarding how to confess sins to other people.
II. How to Confess Sin
Examine Yourself. The first step to confession is taking the time to prayerfully consider how you might have sinned. Walk through the situation in your mind and ask God to point out sin. Make sure that you hold yourself accountable to God’s Word, and do not make excuses. Remember, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” which means that you are going to have a strong tendency to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, overlook, or self-justify.
One way to get around this tendency is to ask an honest Christian friend to evaluate your role in the conflict and then to listen carefully. Ken Sande says that the older he gets, the less he trusts himself to be objective when he is involved in conflict. So give a godly friend permission to challenge you. If that friend is comfortable enough be frank, he could be a tremendous help!
By the way, all of us ought to be nurturing these kinds of relationships, whether we are actively involved in a conflict or not. You should want friends who will speak truth to you in love!
Initiate the Conversation. One of the most common mistakes when it comes to conflict is waiting for the other person to initiate the conversation. We may think, “His sin was worse than my response, so he should be the one to initiate.” Or on the flip side, we might say, “I don’t have a problem with what I said or did. If he took offense, it’s his job to tell me about it!” When you are in conflict, whose job is it to initiate the conversation? (Yours!)
Matthew 18:15 says, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” If you are convinced that someone has sinned against you, it’s your job to go talk to him about it. But it’s also your job to initiate the conversation if you think you might have sinned against him! Matthew 5:23-24 says, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “If you remember that you sinned against your brother”; He says, “If you remember that your brother has something against you”–in other words, he thinks you sinned against him, whether you actually did so or not! If that’s the case, you go initiate the conversation.
Many, many conflicts have been needlessly aggravated because neither party was humble enough to obey Christ in this. They were both stubbornly waiting for the other person to come to them first.
Confess Before Confronting. Once you’ve examined yourself and initiated the conversation, then you can really let the other guy have it, right? And then once he has apologized, then you can confess your own sins. Is that the way it works? (No!) Once again, Jesus said, “Get the log out of your own eye first!” That means that you ought to take responsibility for your own sins before bringing up the other person’s sins.
What will probably happen if you try to deal with the other person’s sins before confessing your own? (He will get angry and defensive.) What will likely happen if you confess your own sins first? (You won’t ever have to mention the other person’s sins because he will bring them up himself and ask forgiveness.)
Address Everyone Involved. Typically, we say that you ought to confess your sins to everyone who has been affected by them. If you got angry and blew up in public, you should do your best to apologize to that same group of people. If you lied about someone to five of your friends, you ought to call each of those friends and apologize.
The flip side of this principle is that if a person was not affected by your actions, you do not owe him an apology, and you will usually do more harm than good if you try to give him one! For instance, let’s say that person 1 has been struggling with thinking mean thoughts about person 2. However, all the while, he has been friendly on the outside. But then God convicts person 1 about his thought life. So he goes to person 2 and says, “So and so, will you forgive me? I’ve been thinking mean thoughts about you. I was thinking that you were ugly, and that you were stupid, and that your kids were annoying–I just wished that I didn’t have to see you anymore! But that was wrong; will you forgive me?” Now, what’s person 2 going to say? Probably, he’ll say, “Yes, I forgive you.” And maybe person 1 may feel better about himself, now that he’s gotten that off his chest. But how is person 2 going to feel? He’s going to feel awful! He’s going to go home that Sunday with a dark cloud over his head!
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Was anything about that conversation edifying? (No) Did person 1 impart grace to person 2? (No) So how would Paul describe that conversation? It was “corrupt communication.”
Avoid Words Like “If” and “But.” Ken Sande says, “The best way to ruin a confession is to use words that shift the blame to others or that appear to minimize or excuse your guilt.” You’ve heard this, right? “I’m sorry that I said what I did, but... I never would have gotten angry in the first place if you hadn’t pushed my buttons!” When it comes to confession, just take the word “but,” and delete it from your vocabulary! The word, “if” is equally bad. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” What are you supposed to do with a confession like that? Sande says that a person who confesses like that might as well just say, “I don’t think I’m wrong, but you’re obviously upset, so here’s a token apology to get you off my back. (By the way, since I don’t think I’m wrong, I’ll probably do it again.)” If that is how you really feel about it, don’t insult the person’s intelligence by pretending to apologize!
Be Specific. A specific confession is more likely to convince the other person that you’re genuinely repentant, which is more likely to lead to real forgiveness and restoration. Along the same lines, it’s also helpful to acknowledge to the other person that in addition to sinning against them, you also sinned against God. The prodigal son did this when he said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” You might even want to identify the biblical principle you violated! All of this is to help both you and the other person see that your failure was sin and not just a minor mistake. It also assures the other person that you understand exactly where you went wrong so that you can work on that area and avoid repeating the same offense in the future.
For instance, you could say, “I’m sorry I’m such a bad parent and that I’m so difficult sometimes.” Or, you could say, “I was wrong to idolize your presence with us for Christmas this year. Specifically, I should not have made that unkind remark over text message. I know that you’ve got lots of considerations to balance, and that the Bible tells you to “leave and cleave,” so I should have accepted your decision. I’ve asked God to forgive me. Will you forgive me, too?”
If you’re the person whose been sinned against, would you rather hear confession 1 or confession 2? Confession 2 makes it so much easier to grant forgiveness! “I’m sorry I’m so difficult sometimes”? What are you supposed to do with that?
Acknowledge the Hurt. If you’ve caused a great deal of pain and suffering or even inconvenienced another person significantly, you ought to acknowledge those things when you apologize! For one thing, this shows the other individual that whereas you had been unloving, you are now showing love by empathizing with his pain. The Bible says to weep with those who weep. It also shows the other individual that you understand, or at least, that you’re trying to understand the significance of your sin by acknowledging its consequences.
One biblical example of this that stands out to me is when David is fleeing from Saul and he seeks help Ahimelech the priest, but he lies in order to do so. David also overlooks the fact that a loyal servant of Saul named Doeg the Edomite observes the whole episode. David is in such a hurry that he doesn’t bother with Doeg. But that proves to be a deadly decision, because Doeg tells Saul about what happened, and then carries out Saul’s order to kill all eighty-five priests living at Nob, along with their entire families! Only one person survives: Abiathar, one of Ahimelech’s sons. You would think that Abiathar would be angry with David, and maybe he was, but he still goes straight to him and tells him what happened. Do you remember how David responds? 1 Samuel 22:22 says, “So David said to Abiathar, “I knew that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have caused the death of all the persons of your father’s house.” In the Hebrew, the I is emphatic. “Doeg may have killed your family, but I am the one who occasioned the slaughter.” For all of his many faults, David sure was good at confession, wasn’t he! One commentator says that David is admitting to “homicidal negligence.” But the point isn’t really that David was good at confession, is it? It’s that David was good at repentance. Amazingly, Abiathar apparently forgives David, at least externally, because he remains with him and serves him for many years, although he later rebels with Absolom, but that is another story.
Back to the original point, when you confess, you ought to acknowledge the pain you have caused to others. Many times, you will have been sinned against in a similar way in the past, and you can reference that. “A close friend and business partner broke a promise to me one time. It cost me a lot financially, but the shattered relationship hurt even more. Now I’ve done a similar thing to you. Will you please forgive me?”
Accept the Consequences. In Psalm 51, David said, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight—That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.” David was ready to accept the consequences for his actions. The same was true of the prodigal son, who asked for nothing more than to be hired servant. If you have sinned against your boss, you may need to say, “You have every right to fire me, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing so.” If you have stolen something or caused the loss of property, you shouldn’t expect the other person just to let that go. You should plan to repay it, like Zacchaeus did.
Ask for Forgiveness. When you finish your apology, you should ask the other person to forgive you. This is the signal that you have done everything in your power to restore the relationship and that the ball is now in the other person’s court. It’s also further acknowledgement of the fact that you have sinned. When you say, “I’m sorry,” what is the expected reply? (“It’s okay.”) But it’s not okay! When you say, “Please forgive me,” what is the expected response? (“I forgive you.”) “I’m sorry” tends to mean, “I regret that the situation occurred.” “Please forgive me” means, “I acknowledge that I am at least partially to blame for what happened,” and that’s what you want to convey.
Two Cautions Regarding the Use of These Guidelines
Do not turn them into a formula. Have you read the books or seen the movie, Anne of Green Gables? Do you remember Anne’s confession to Mrs. Lynde? That’s what you’ll sound like if you turn these steps into a formula without really meaning it from the heart. In situations of less significance, you don’t need to say much. For instance, you may not need to acknowledge the hurt, etc. “I can’t imagine the anguish I must have caused you when you threw out an idea and I said, ‘That’s dumb’”–you probably don’t need to say that! You can just say, “You know that wasn’t very thoughtful. Do you forgive me?” and leave it at that. The point of these guidelines is not to give you a magic formula; it’s to help you judge whether or not you’re truly repentant. For instance, if you aren’t willing to accept the consequences of your actions, the problem is not that you said the wrong thing; it’s that you’re not truly repentant! I can’t give you chapter and verse that says, “You must ask for forgiveness rather than just saying, ‘I’m sorry.’” But doing so will help to ensure that you are truly repentant and that you have clearly communicated that to the other person.
Do not use them to pressure the other person into granting forgiveness prematurely. If all you did was say, “That’s dumb,” when someone else gave an idea, hopefully, the other person will be able to forgive you on the spot. But if you’ve had an affair, if you’ve indulged in pornography, if you’ve been embezzling money (these are all just examples), then the other person may need time to think it over! The fact that they don’t forgive right away does not necessarily mean they are holding a grudge against you! They may just need time to process! If your confession has just shaken their world, it’s not fair to expect them to respond right away. They probably need time to collect their thoughts even to know what questions to ask, and there may need to be some more dialogue that takes place before forgiveness is granted. In addition, some people just need more time to work through their feelings before granting forgiveness. Now, I want to be clear, bitterness is never on option, no matter how badly you’ve been sinned against! So if you say, “Look! Pastor Kris says I can just sit on this for weeks [or even months] and make the other person pay a little bit before I forgive him,” that is not at all what I’m saying! What I am saying is that you must not use your confession as a tool to manipulate a particular response out of the person you sinned against, because that is not genuine repentance.
In conclusion, if you want the kind of closeness with others that 1 John 1 and our opening story illustrate, you must learn to confess your sin to others.