The power of confession
When saying I’m sorry is a good idea
By John W. Kennedy
We live in a conflicted time when it comes to admitting we’ve
messed up. On the one hand, confession among churchgoers is no longer in vogue.
In an increasingly narcissistic and relativistic society, individual Christians
frequently have trouble divulging the truth. On the other hand, ambiguous
halfhearted apologies by public figures have never been more prevalent.
True confession is indeed both biblical and healing.
Speaking an admission of guilt to another individual can be more effective than
telling God alone. Keeping silent can extend guilt and shame for a lifetime.
Gary R. Allen, national director of Ministerial Enrichment
for the Assemblies of God, contends that confession is misunderstood and
misapplied in many Christian settings.
“Confession is only a small part of a process that includes
repentance, restitution and forgiveness,” Allen says. “Confession without
repentance is hollow.”
Too often, Allen says, confession in a church context
happens only after an individual is captured in a sin. In many cases, people
making a terse verbal admission of guilt believe it satisfies those wronged.
“Healing doesn’t come until someone willfully repents,
changes their behavior, offers restitution and then asks for forgiveness,”
Allen says. “Confession and forgiveness are a process, not an event.”
“Healing cannot be completed until confession is made,” says
Gary R. Bruegman, a counselor in Springfield, Mo. “And there’s a major
difference between the person who is caught and the desperate person who no
longer can live with himself.”
“An apology can recognize that we have been harmed, helping
us to understand what happened and why,” writes Nick Smith in his new book, I
Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. “The person apologizing accepts blame for
injury and she explains why her actions were wrong.”
Apologies abundant in American culture today hardly reflect
a biblical pattern. Politicians, actors, athletes and even religious leaders
who have committed a moral lapse are expected to grovel at a press conference
if they want to save their careers or mitigate litigation. Rather than the
scriptural private expression of regret to God and to the person offended,
public apologies today are often overbroad and self-serving.
A sports celebrity, married for 24 years and the father of
four sons, issued an unclear apology this year after a newspaper reported he
had carried on a decade-long relationship with a country star, beginning when
she was 15. He said, “I have made mistakes in my personal life for which I am
sorry. … I have sometimes made choices which have not been right.”
A collective expression of regret may cause confusion and
irritation. The Church of England in September apologized to On the Origin of
the Species author Charles Darwin — who has been dead for 126 years.
Malcolm Brown, director of the Church of England’s missions and public affairs,
issued a cyberspace apology to the man who devised the theory of evolution,
writing that the church “owes you an apology for misunderstanding you, by
getting our first reaction wrong.”
Smith, who is a University of New Hampshire assistant
philosophy professor, says the steady stream of communal apologies largely is
the result of the presence of the Internet.
“Gestures of contrition are more likely to be captured in
the public record,” Smith told TPE, “providing armchair moralists with more
opportunities to scrutinize what they perceive as faulty apologies.”
The plethora of public apologies has lowered the bar for
shame, Allen believes. Hearers tend to both admire an apologizer’s humanity as
well as justify their own sinful behavior, Allen contends.
Politicians have become experts at offering the If anyone
was hurt then I apologize defense. Smith says such conditional apologies can
compound the problem because the offender refuses to recognize both the
misconduct and the pain it has caused.
The mea culpa today usually focuses on alleviating both
responsibility and consequences for anyone involved in wrongdoing, according to
Allen. People don’t relish taking personal responsibility, so it’s popular to
compare sins to a neighbor, friend or relative who has done something perceived
to be worse, he says.
“Saying, ‘I’m sorry if I offended anyone by my behavior,’
lets a person off the hook,” Allen says.
“In some cases, offenders awkwardly direct their statements
to a general audience without acknowledging the victims specifically,” Smith
A recent development is to confess wrongs online through
church-based Web sites such as mysecret.tv or ivescrewedup.com. People leave
anonymous cyberspace messages such as “I lied” or “I have stolen money from
family and several employers.”
If contrition is expressed just in a chat room, the victim
may never know it, Smith cautions.
“Apologizing begrudgingly, equivocally or evasively can
embrace or compound the initial wrongdoing rather than repudiate and correct
it,” Smith writes in I Was Wrong.
Conversely, can apologizing for the sins of others go too
Is it feasible for modern Germany to categorically apologize
for the Holocaust, the United States for slavery or the Catholic Church for
pogroms and other crimes during the Crusades?
“Collective apologies for harms in the distant past present
all sorts of confusions,” Smith says. “How meaningful can an apology be if it
never reaches its victim?”
RUDIMENTS OF MAKING AMENDS
Confession to God is a necessary step in righting wrongs,
and that frequently happens in an altar call. First John 1:9 states, “If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and
purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV).
“We can feel it in our heart that something is wrong, but
there is power in confessing words by mouth,” Bruegman says. “It’s an important
and necessary step in the process of healing, but one of the most difficult.”
“Intellectually we know that God hears us, but there is no
one to hold us immediately accountable,” Allen says.
The level of confession must be on par with the severity of
the fault, Allen says.
“The greater the offense, the greater the intensity of the
confession,” Allen says. “Sin is sin, but some are more horrific than others.
Gossip isn’t on the same scale as murder. Yet if you talk disparagingly about
someone in church, you must confess and repent to all you lied to directly.”
BENEFITS OF COMING CLEAN
There is value in confessing sin to another individual for
physical and emotional well-being. James 5:16 declares, “Therefore confess your
sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
“How many of our diseases would go away if we lived a
confessed life?” asks author and speaker Jane Rubietta, whose latest book is
Rubietta says a voice-to-voice expression of regret is best
because it gives the other person the opportunity to respond. An e-mail or
letter denies allowing the other party the freedom of offering forgiveness.
Acknowledging guilt unburdens sin that ruptures
relationships, according to Rubietta.
“As Christians, we spend a lot of time trying to look good,
moral and joyful,” Rubietta says. “The humbling that comes from confessing your
sin to someone else is powerful.”
Allen says confessing can have cathartic and therapeutic
benefits if there is an authentic change in heart and mind.
“There’s something incredibly freeing to an individual when
a confession is made,” Bruegman says.
Nevertheless, there is risk in baring one’s soul. Admitting
wrong can be painful. People may be judged upon revealing something that has
been concealed for a long time.
“Especially in infidelity, a lot of questions — like
Why did you do this? — may not be able to be answered,” Bruegman says.
“That may leave the offended person wondering, What else are you hiding from
But if sin goes unconfessed, it can perpetuate a pattern of
deception in other areas of life, Allen says. Fear and insecurity can lead an
individual to develop a character flaw that suppresses the truth, according to
“Guilt and shame can accelerate the sin because it remains
unresolved,” says Bruegman, who spent 19 years as dean of students at Central
Bible College. “Or it may be manifest in other behaviors.”
Bruegman says humans have a tendency to avoid a full
confessional as well as to assign blame to others. For instance, someone who is
a drug addict may claim he can’t help it because of his upbringing or he became
hooked in an emotionally trying time. Such remarks are an effort to minimize
the sin and its impact on others, Bruegman says.
“It always makes it worse when we try to justify the extent
to which we’ve been involved,” Bruegman says.
“Once trust has been broken, even in church, it’s difficult
to re-establish trust,” Allen says. “People can’t act as if nothing happened.”
While confessing may clear a guilty party’s conscience, it
may not lead to restoration. God can truly forget sin, but some people refuse
to do so. There may be a backlash among Christians who look differently at a
person when a dark secret is revealed.
HALLMARKS OF CONFESSION
Experts believe various guidelines should be followed for an
apology to be effective. The confession should:
• Be heartfelt. It should show emotion that conveys true
sorrow over the behavior or words that caused the problem.
• Be genuine. A half-hearted utterance designed merely to
quickly end the matter won’t do.
• Be made in person. If at all possible, the apologizer
should be able to look into the eyes of the offended party, rather than making
a phone call, sending a letter or typing an e-mail. While face-to-face
apologies are best, a written admission of guilt is constructive if it’s
precise, carefully worded and provides a physical record.
• Be specific. Vague contrition provides no satisfaction for
the wronged person. The confession should address the details known to the
• Be complete. A confessor shouldn’t blame other people,
heredity or life’s circumstances for the improper conduct.
• Be responsive. A hurt shouldn’t linger for days — or
years — before being acknowledged.
• Be repentant. Vow to never repeat the mistake and mean it.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).
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