The greatest temptation in Christian communities is to avoid confession altogether, to maintain the facade, the uneasy stasis of staying right near the surface and never getting too deep, too real, too honest with each other. But on the other side, another temptation, perhaps not as great but just as real, is what often happens in place of real confession. We might call it “confession as performance.” Here’s an insightful piece from Bonhoeffer’s invaluable Life Together:

[A] danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God’s offer of grace, help, and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession.

Again, let us not steer clear of real gospel confession with our brothers and sisters. The Bible commends it too much for us to safely avoid it. But Bonhoeffer has touched on something important here, something I’ve witnessed in a few small group settings. The safe space for confession can be taken advantage of, in a way. Here are some ways we might exploit and pervert the confessional act:

1. We treat the confession itself not as an act of repentance but mainly of catharsis. This is the employment of cheap grace. Basically, we’re not looking so much for the grace that frees and empowers us but the opportunity to “get something off our chests.” At least, until the next opportunity.

2. The confession becomes a self-indulgent “pity party” session. It is not about receiving the word of forgiveness in the gospel from our brethren and walking in that freedom but about occupying their ears to satisfy our need for attention and soaking up their consolation. It’s not the gospel’s embrace we really want, in other words, but some pats on the back.

3. We turn our confession into self-justification. We end up spending most of the time blaming our wrongs on all the people whose fault it really is. We use the time to confess others’ sins, not our own.

4. We treat confession secretly as sport. Mainly, we confess certain things to see what might scandalize our community or offend their sensibilities. We enjoy cultivating a prurient interest or creating a shock factor. This is relatively rare but still real.

5. We confess sins to look like good confessors. This is what Bonhoeffer is mainly addressing in the excerpt above.

Note: Some of these sins can only be self-diagnosed. Let us be more on guard of our own hearts’ tendencies toward these perversions of confession than on the watch for others’ tendencies toward them.

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17 thoughts on “Confession as Idle, Lustful Babbling: 5 Errors”

  1. Brian says:

    This article has not only convicted me but shown me once more the deceitfulness and darkness of my heart. One of the points “The confession becomes a self-indulgent “pity party” is what I have done. I have fallen into much self-pity to my own detriment. I have confessed my sins to certain brothers for the sake of consolation, a pat on the back if you will, and for the need of gaining attention instead of walking in the forgiveness that God has granted. I feel like dirt for having a motive such as this and at the same time holding myself back due to my own selfishness. I’ve been so wrapped in self-pity it’s like it has become one with me and it has literally defined my life right now. I don’t want to confess my sin just for the sake of getting attention and consolation but to move in the freedom that could be mine. And though I feel bad (and I should!) I should not feel condemned, but in a way I do feel condemned. But I know that I shouldn’t.

  2. anonymous says:

    though wondering – can here be too much confessing in this day when there seems so much pride against seeing things as the Lord does. Re your point about sincerity though, maybe the most frequent confession to each other ought be – my (remaining old heart) is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? Jer 17:9

    and yet, how great that we can draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Heb 10:22

    Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge. Create in me a clean heart, O God,and renew a steadfast spirit within me, sustain me with a willing spirit. Ps 51:1-4,10,12b

    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer. I know the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man; therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work, calling on the Lord from a pure heart. Ps 19:14;Matt15:18, Ps 19:14 ;Matt15:18:21-22

    Praise be to God for His kindness leading to repentance and all very cathartic (elimination by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression) – therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:16

  3. Lou G. says:

    I think a follow-up post could be for the one hearing a confession and how they might respond if they hear a person’s confession and it seems to be leading the person into one of the categories above. Ultimately, confession to another isn’t all that effective if at the end of the day they’re not taking that confession to the Lord and laying the sin at the foot of the cross, receiving the forgiveness of the blood of Christ.

  4. Linda D says:

    As I read this, I became convicted on several points. I am known in my church and other Christian friends as being very transparent; in other words, I’m honest and forthcoming with both the good and bad about myself. However, I have to admit that a lot of my “confession” has been blaming others for the way I am. I also find that my confessions tend to be more of a pity party than admitting how I’ve fallen short. A lot of times my sharing is a ploy to get other people’s approval, agreement, or understanding, leaving God totally out of the loop. Thank you for a thought-provoking article to start my day!

  5. anonymous says:

    and yet too Lou, ever asking the Lord for more and more understanding to grasp the significance of the unity of His people of which He speaks,His jealously for the Spirit He has made to dwell in us all James 4:5b; that what we do to/with each other, is as to Him. Not an insubstantial thing nor only a concept.

    In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity; that love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. John 14:21a;22;23a,26a

    1. Lou G. says:

      Huh??

  6. David Atkins says:

    Richard Owen Roberts’ book, “Revival!”, has some very helpful additional instructions on this and similar topics. It is unfortunately out of print, but still available in used condition on Amazon and other sites.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0842355758

  7. Jim Swindle says:

    A friend did me a great service when he rebuked me for confessing unnecessary lurid details about my past. Being truly forgiven means we don’t have to keep dragging up our past. We don’t need to pretend that we weren’t sinners, but we also don’t need to try to get reassurance by re-confessing what’s past.

    1. Nick says:

      That’s a good point, Jim, and one which I have struggled with myself. Scrupulosity is one of my particular battles in my Christian walk, where every minor detail of my sin, and the potential side-effects thereof, is magnified and analyzed beyond measure. But such a mindset is actually pride masquerading as humility, and I often need to be reminded of that, and to dwell not on my sin but on my Savior (Philippians 3:13-14).

  8. KC McGinnis says:

    When I was a student, our campus ministry had large-group men’s confession time during its fall getaway. For the first few years the experience was powerful, but we ran into lots of examples of all five of these pitfalls. Guys weren’t really confessing but were mostly just looking for consolation, and some guys even prepared speeches in advance. Later on, the leaders started laying down ground rules, the first of which was to make sure the guys were actually confessing sins they had committed, not just talking about hard experiences. The second was not to re-confess something that had already been confessed in a small group or to another believer, so as not to be self-indulgent. Since then, the confession times have been really developmental in a lot of guys’ lives, for the better.

    1. Lou G. says:

      Excellent examples, KC. I was wondering what some ‘ground rules’ might look like, so as to avoid the pitfalls of confession. Certainly, it has been encouraging that folks in our small group are actually sharing these prayers/confessions, but after reading the pitfalls, I just wanted to have some ideas of how we might respond if or when we see them… Good comment, thanks!

  9. Daniel Broaddus says:

    Great opportunity here to look into some models of confession (specifically one that resembles what Bonhoeffer himself would have used):

    “ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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