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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.”

PUBLIC APOLOGIES

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 says.

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 far?

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 Come Closer.

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.

POTENTIAL DRAWBACKS

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 me?

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 Allen.

“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 offended party.

• 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).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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