I like beer. I always have. Ever since my high school buddy and I drank ourselves sick with a case of quarts, I have liked beer. I like the way it washes down a piece of pizza and mutes the spice of enchiladas. It goes great with peanuts at the baseball game and seems an appropriate way to crown eighteen holes of golf. Out of the keg, tap, bottle, or frosty mug—it doesn't matter to me. I like it.
Too much. Alcoholism haunts my family ancestry. I have early memories of following my father through the halls of a rehab center to see his sister. Similar scenes repeated themselves with other relatives for decades. Beer doesn't mix well with my family DNA. So at the age of 21, I swore off it.
I never made a big deal out of my abstinence. Nor someone else's indulgence. I differentiate between drinking and drunkenness and decided, in my case, the former would lead to the latter, so I quit. Besides, I was a seminary student (for the next two years). Then a minister (three years). Next a missionary (five years). Then a minister again (twenty-two years and counting). I wrote Christian books and spoke at Christian conferences. A man of the cloth shouldn't chum with Heineken products, right? So I didn't.
Then a few years back something resurrected my cravings. Too many commercials? Too many baseball games? Too many Episcopalian friends? (Just kidding). I don't know. Quite likely it was just thirst. The south Texas heat can rage like a range fire. At some point I reached for a can of brew instead of a can of soda, and as quick as you can pop the top, I was a beer fan again. A once-in-a-while … then once-a-week … then once-a-day beer fan.
I kept my preference to myself. No beer at home, lest my daughters think less of me. No beer in public. Who knows who might see me? None at home, none in public, which left only one option: convenience-store parking lots. For about a week I was that guy in the car, drinking out of the brown paper bag.
No, I don't know what resurrected my cravings, but I remember what stunted them. En route to speak at a men's retreat, I stopped for my daily purchase. I walked out of the convenience store with a beer pressed against my side, scurried to my car for fear of being seen, opened the door, climbed in, and opened the can.
Then it dawned on me. I had become the very thing I hate: a hypocrite. A pretender. Two-faced. Acting one way. Living another. I had written sermons about people like me—Christians who care more about appearance than integrity. It wasn't the beer but the cover-up that nauseated me.
I knew what I needed to do. I'd written sermons about that too. "If we say we have no sin, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he will forgive our sins, because we can trust God to do what is right. He will cleanse us from all the wrongs we have done" (1 John 1:8-9, NCV).
A Good Confession
Confession. The word conjures up many images, not all of which are positive. Backroom interrogations. Chinese water torture. Admitting dalliances to a priest who sits on the other side of a black curtain. Walking down the church aisle and filling out a card. Is this what John had in mind?
Confession is not telling God what he doesn't know. That's impossible.
Confession is not complaining. If I merely recite my problems and rehash my woes, I'm whining.
Confession is not blaming. Pointing fingers at others without pointing any at me feels good, but it doesn't promote healing.
Confession is so much more. Confession is a radical reliance on grace. A proclamation of our trust in God's goodness. "What I did was bad," we acknowledge, "but your grace is greater than my sin, so I confess it." If our understanding of grace is small, our confession will be small: reluctant, hesitant, hedged with excuses and qualifications, full of fear of punishment. But great grace creates an honest confession.
Perhaps the best-known prayer of confession came from King David, even though he took an interminably long time to offer it. This Old Testament hero dedicated a season of his life to making stupid, idiotic, godless decisions.
Stupid decision #1: David didn't go to war with his soldiers. He stayed home with too much time on his hands and, apparently, romance on his mind. While walking on his balcony, he spotted Bathsheba bathing.
Stupid decision #2: David sent servants to chauffeur Bathsheba to his palace and escort her into his bedroom, where rose petals carpeted the floor and champagne chilled in the corner. A few weeks later she told him that she was expecting his child. David, still living in the fog of bad choices, continued his streak.
Stupid decisions #3, 4, and 5: David deceived Bathsheba's husband, murdered him, and behaved as if he had done nothing wrong. The baby was born, and David was still unrepentant.
Yes, David. The man after God's own heart allowed his own to calcify. He suppressed his wrongdoing and paid a steep price for doing so. He later described it this way: "When I refused to confess my sin, I was weak and miserable, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat" (Ps. 32:3-4, NLT).
He knew his secret sin was no secret at all. Finally he prayed, "O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. For your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down upon me … there is no health in my body; my bones have no soundness because of my sin … My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly … My back is filled with searing pain" (Ps. 38:1-3, 5, 7).
Bury misbehavior and expect pain, period. Unconfessed sin is a knife blade lodged in the soul. You cannot escape the misery it creates.
Ask Li Fuyan. This Chinese man had tried every treatment imaginable to ease his throbbing headaches. Nothing helped. An X-ray finally revealed the culprit. A rusty four-inch knife blade had been lodged in his skull for four years. In an attack by a robber, Fuyan had suffered lacerations on the right side of his jaw. He didn't know the blade had broken off inside his head. No wonder he suffered from such stabbing pain. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
We can't live with foreign objects buried in our bodies. Or our souls.
What would an X-ray of your interior reveal? Regrets over a teenage relationship? Remorse over a poor choice? Shame about the marriage that isn't working, the habit you couldn't quit, the temptation you didn't resist, or the courage you couldn't find? Guilt lies hidden beneath the surface, festering, irritating. Sometimes so deeply embedded you don't know the cause.
You become moody, cranky. You're prone to overreact. You're angry, irritable. You can be touchy, you know, even if no one else sees it, as you are a spiritual leader. Understandable, since you have a shank of shame lodged in your soul.
Interested in an extraction? Confess. Yes, pastors need confession as much as kings. Request a spiritual MRI. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23-24). As God brings misbehavior to mind, agree with him and apologize. Let him apply grace to the wounds.
We need a prayer of grace-based confession, like David's. After a year of denial and a cover-up, he finally prayed, "God, be merciful to me because you are loving. Because you are always ready to be merciful, wipe out all my wrongs. Wash away all my guilt and make me clean again. I know about my wrongs, and I can't forget my sin. You are the only one I have sinned against; I have done what you say is wrong. You are right when you speak and fair when you judge" (Ps. 51:1-4, NCV).
David waved the white flag. No more combat. No more arguing with heaven. He came clean with God. And you? Your moment might look something like this.
Late evening. Bedtime. The pillow beckons. But so does your guilty conscience. An encounter with a church member turned nasty earlier in the day. Words were exchanged. Accusations made. Lines drawn in the sand. Names called. Tacky, tacky, tacky behavior. You bear some, if not most, of the blame.
The old version of you would have suppressed the argument. Crammed it into an already-crowded cellar of unresolved conflicts. Slapped putty on rotten wood. The quarrel would have festered into bitterness and poisoned another relationship. But you aren't the old version of you. Grace is happening, rising like a morning sun over a wintry meadow, scattering shadows, melting frost. Warmth. God doesn't scowl at the sight of you. You once thought he did. Arms crossed and angry, perpetually ticked off. Now you know better. You've been bought, foot washed and indwelled by Christ. You can risk honesty with God.
You tell the pillow to wait, and you step into the presence of Jesus. "Can we talk about today's argument? I am sorry that I reacted in the way I did. I was harsh, judgmental, and impatient. You have given me so much grace. I gave so little. Please forgive me."
There, doesn't that feel better? No special location required. No chant or candle needed. Just a prayer. The prayer will likely prompt an apology, and the apology will quite possibly preserve a friendship and protect a heart. You might even hang a sign on your church office wall: "Grace happens here."
Or maybe your prayer needs to probe deeper. Beneath the epidermis of today's deeds are the unresolved actions of years past. Like King David, you made one stupid decision after another. You stayed when you should have gone, looked when you should have turned, seduced when you should have abstained, hurt when you should have helped, denied when you should have confessed.
Talk to God about these buried blades. Go to him as you would go to a trusted physician. Explain the pain, and revisit the transgression together. Welcome his probing and healing touch. And, this is important, trust his ability to receive your confession more than your ability to make it. Oh, that unruly perfectionist who indwells us, especially us church leaders. He raises cankerous doubts: "Was my confession sincere? Sufficient? Did I forget any sin?"
Of course you did. Who among us knows all our violations? Who has felt sufficient remorse? If the cleansing of confession depends on the confessor, we are all sunk, for none of us have confessed accurately or adequately. The power of confession lies not with the person who makes it but the God who hears it.
God may send you to talk to your congregation. "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed" (James 5:16, NASB, emphasis mine). James calls us not only to confess up to God but also to confess out to each other.
A Clean Slate
I did this. You are wondering what happened with my hypocrisy. First I threw the can of beer in the trash. Next I sat in the car for a long time, praying. Then I scheduled a visit with our church elders. I didn't embellish or downplay my actions; I just confessed them. And they, in turn, pronounced forgiveness over me. Jim Potts, a dear, silver-haired saint, reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder and said something like this: "What you did was wrong. But what you are doing tonight is right. God's love is great enough to cover your sin. Trust his grace." That was it. No controversy. No brouhaha. Just healing.
After talking to the elders, I spoke to the church. At our midweek gathering I once again told the story. I apologized for my duplicity and requested the prayers of the congregation. What followed was a refreshing hour of confession in which other people did the same. The church was strengthened, not weakened, by our honesty. I thought of the church in ancient Ephesus where "many of the believers began to confess openly and tell all the evil things they had done" (Acts 19:18, NCV). The result of their confessions? "In a powerful way the word of the Lord kept spreading and growing" (v. 20).
Attracted to Honesty
Jesus is honest about the life we are called to lead. There is no guarantee that just because we belong to him we will go unscathed. There is no guarantee that confession will not affect you negatively. But the positives of creating a transparent, honest church community are boundless.
Common belief identifies members of God's family. And common affection unites them. And I have seen that common confession seals them together in a profound way. We need to realize honest confession not only increases our own spiritual health, but also the health of the congregations we lead. It can change the DNA of the entire church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person." Isn't that our calling as pastors?
Instill in your congregation the importance of confession. Avoid fostering the image that your fellowship is full of perfect people (you won't fit in). Instead, show by example a church where members and leaders alike confess their sins and show humility, where the price of admission is simply an admission of guilt. Healing happens in a church like this. Grace happens in a church like this. Followers of Christ have been given authority to hear confession and proclaim grace. "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23, NCV).
Confessors find a freedom that deniers don't. And confessing pastors lead freedom filled churches.
"if we confess our sins, he will forgive our sins, because we can trust God to do what is right. He will cleanse us" (1 John 1:9, NCV).
Oh, the sweet certainty of these words. "He will cleanse us." Not he might, could, would, or has been known to. He will cleanse you. So confess. Then let the pure water of grace flow over your mistakes.
Max Lucado is a minister of writing and preaching at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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Max Lucado is minister of writing and preaching at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas.