What Not to Say When Someone Confesses Their Sin
So rather than sharing my top ten books of the year with you, I’m going to share the most pastorally helpful thing I’ve read in any of the 29 I did get through (yep, unless I start reading Mr Men books, I don’t think I’m even going to match my reading list from last year!).
It’s from Catherine Parks’ Real, and it deals with the topic of sin.
First, to catch you up, Parks’ book is about learning to be genuine and open with one another. As I summarised it in my review earlier this year, for Parks, this means:
Being truthful, being honest about our sin and vulnerable about our struggles. Only then can we show our friends and family the real us as we are right now.
What is holding us back from being real with one another, Parks argues, is not that we’re not yet perfect, but that we’re not yet assured of our forgiveness.
If we truly grasped the depths of our sin, and if we took that sin to God and repented of it, and if we believed and accepted his forgiveness, the freedom we would experience would be so great that we would no longer have to hide behind our façade of perfection.
She suggests that as well as confessing our sin to God, there are times when it’s appropriate to confess to trusted others, too. This may be in accountability partnerships where we have asked someone to help us walk away from sinful habits or behaviours, or it could just be in the day to day context of loving, real relationships.
Two common errors
Parks warns us, though, against two very common, but very unhelpful, responses to someone’s confession of sin – you may even have had one or both reading my confession above.
The first is downplaying the sin. If you came to me and said, “Catherine, I yelled at my husband today,” … my instinct would be to say, “Oh, I’m right there with you, but give yourself grace – your husband isn’t exactly perfect.”
Now the empathy is good. But ultimately, when I give those answers, I’m thinking about your opinion of me. I don’t want you to feel guilty, and I don’t want you to think I’m being hard on you. I want you to like me and to think I’m a good friend.
To this I would also add that when I have this kind of response, it’s because I don’t really think the sin is a big deal. Perhaps because I have done similar things, or because I’m failing to see beyond the ‘presenting issue’ to what the real sin is. We all snap at people on off days, why beat yourself up about it? Or to use my time-wasting example, “Your job is reading; it’s OK to relax in a different way.” (And, “Don’t compare yourself to freaks!”)(Sorry, Andrew.)
The second unhelpful response is attempting to control the sin. Our instinct is to give advice: “Well, when I’m struggling with wanting to yell at my husband, I just count to five and think about my wedding vows.” Or, “When my boss gets under my skin, I just try to think about something good about her. That really helps.”
These are not necessarily bad ideas, but they don’t get to the root of the problem. Instead, they make our problems with sin seem manageable: If you just do this, you won’t sin. But…the sin is not just the yelling or the bad attitude [or the lack of time spent reading] – it’s the beliefs and desires taking root under the surface that are the real issue.
The reason I sit in bed at night with a good book (OK, a pile of good books) beside me, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, is not that I’ve been reading too much in the day. I’m searching for connection, entertainment, stimulation, conversation and variety. I don’t want to put in the deep work of reading one thing for a sustained period – even though I love that, and know how satisfying it is. I could manage the symptoms, by leaving my phone downstairs at night, but would that really address the heart attitude?
If we minimize sin or give each other “tips” to control it, we think we’re giving each other grace, when in fact we’re not. We’re actually denying one another the grace we need by saying we don’t need it. We should not deprive one another of sadness over our sin. When we deny the heavy reality of sin, and the “godly sorrow” that comes before repentance (2 Corinthians 7 v 10), we will also keep our friends from experiencing the joy that comes after repentance. The way we truly give grace to each other for our sin is by owning it, diagnosing it, and taking it to the cross. If there is true, overflowing joy to be found at the foot of the cross, then why would we stop our fellow believers on their way and tell them they don’t need to go there after all? (Emphasis added.)
David Bennett makes a similar point in A War of Loves (which may well become the next Righteous Mind for this blog, if Andrew W and Matt love it as much as Andrew Bunt and I do!). He points out that
Historically, the church [has] more often than not dealt with moral issues like homosexuality by focusing on sin management rather than emphasising Christ’s transforming grace through the Holy Spirit. This only confirmed what the LGBTQI community believed: that God wanted to enslave them in an oppressive obedience of hopelessness.
But that is not the offer of the gospel. The Good News is not that if we work hard and do all the right things we’ll make it in the end; that’s the American Dream, not the New Covenant. The solution is not clean hands, but a pure heart. If we don’t understand the true problem and its only possible solution, we doom ourselves to forever fiddling around on the fringes of faith, hearing the command to ‘be holy’, but never progressing a step towards it.
Probably the greatest roadblock to my sanctification thus far in life is that I haven’t taken my sin seriously enough. I know logically that there are no gradations of sin, that a tiny spot is as bad as a huge great stain, but my heart hasn’t felt it. I am thankful that Jesus died for me, and I know his salvation is my only hope, but I have found it hard to take my sin as seriously as he does. I accept full responsibility for that, but I can’t remember many times when I have been personally challenged in the way Catherine goes on to describe:
So don’t make excuses and don’t give easy fixes. Instead, dig deeper together, because often we’re blind to our desires. And sometimes we need to process things out loud with others to help ourselves see what’s really going on.
So if a friend says, “Catherine, I yelled at my husband today,” my answer needs to point to truth and grace. I can say something like, “I know how that feels. The impulse to sinful anger is so strong, and I’ve done the same many times. But God is in the business of forgiveness and restoration. Have you repented to God and your husband? Remember, God’s grace is sufficient. Can I pray with you for that relationship?”
That whole chapter (Chapter 6), contains more incredibly helpful pointers on how to restore those who have fallen into sin (“Gently”), how to be a Nathan not a priest, and how to get started with having these more honest conversations in the first place. But of all the books, blogs, tweets and Facebook updates I’ve read this year, I think this insight has the greatest potential to bring new life to those in my sphere of influence – and hopefully to me, too.