Airing Your Dirty Laundry
I’ve made some seriously stupid mistakes, and I know I’m not alone.
Remember that stupid thing you did that time? I’m not talking about your most embarrassing moment that makes for a cute story at a dinner party. I’m talking about that big kahuna mistake, the one that could take you down if you ever ran for public office.
Just imagine it: all your co-workers are gathered in a conference room, watching your awful secret(s) played out on a big TV screen. The next thing you know, you run out into traffic and jump in front of a fast-approaching Good Times van.
Then there are other things that might not inspire you to jump in front of a van, but they certainly don’t show your best side. The joke you privately made about your friend’s baby’s ugly cone head; the forty-five minutes you lazily spent playing Brick Breaker while at work the other day. Yeah, that stuff too.
If you’re like me, maybe you’ve got a nice, juicy handful of stupid things like that in your past (maybe even your past week). Believe it or not, despite our inclinations to the contrary, I think that the people who know us best ought to be well-aware of all of those things in our lives.
However, due to the fact that we all spend a great deal of our time trying to convince everyone we’ve got it all together, sharing this kind of sinful baggage with others doesn’t come naturally for most of us. But whether it comes naturally or not, if you’re on board with the Christian message of confession, God requires us to verbally unload our sins in a two-step process: first with Him and then with others.
No fun, I know.
Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just kind of mumble an embarrassed prayer to God every time we screwed up? Wouldn’t it be even better if we could just pretend we never did that completely stupid thing that night, way back when?
We are, indeed, told to confess our sins to God, who is “faithful and just to forgive us of all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. But then we are also told, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16.
Assuming we all agree that we need to confess our sins to God (even the sins from that night way back when), this then raises two, big questions about the need to confess our sins to one another. First, how do we know which sins to confess? The second question is why it’s even necessary to air our dirty laundry to others.
For me, the first question of which sins to confess is fairly easy: Personally, I confess sins to my close, Christian confidants – even minor sins – when there’s something wrong I’ve thought or done, and I know I probably ought to confess it, but I resist doing so out of shame or embarrassment. This helps me to identify the sins in my life that I want to protect, that I want to keep from being examined. It helps me to see where I’m putting up a front and trying to get others to believe I’m someone I’m actually not.
But regarding the second question as to the necessity of confessing to each other, why can’t we just confess our sins to God and be done with it? Why does God want us to drag other believers into it?
I think it’s because God understands how easy it is for us to cough out a confession to Him while we stare at the ceiling or to cry our eyes out until we feel like we’ve proven how bad we feel about being such losers. We sort of move on, but we never really know the pain of looking someone in the face and telling the truth about ourselves, nor do we experience the joy of receiving forgiveness in-person.
We would much rather just share our shortcomings with God in an impersonal or even highly emotional prayer than look into the eyes of one of our brothers or sisters, admitting that we have a really bad habit of gossiping about others. We might even be willing to vaguely tell others we’ve been “struggling,” but there’s no way we would clarify that we’ve actually been fantasizing about hopping in the sack with that nice, way-too-friendly person at work.
But when we do transparently share these painful aspects of our lives with a confidant who believes in the same, forgiving God as we do, two beautiful things happen: First, that look of concern on the face of our confidant and the hard questions that hopefully follow remind us that our sin actually is a big deal, that it really does impact others, and it can get out of control. And second, we are deeply reassured by that gentle prayer that hopefully follows, by the look in their face that says, “Of course, you’re forgiven.” We are reminded that we can, indeed, reboot our lives, that we don’t have to hide or let these sins fester into something more.
My friend Bryan once quoted a Christian man in Argentina as saying, “If I confess my sin to you and you think less of me, then I guess you thought too much of me in the first place.” Humble pie, anyone?
God knows who we are. We’re not fooling Him, and we’d do well to stop trying to fool others.