The Ugly Side of Confession

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “Today,” that non of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
— Hebrews 3:13

Last Sunday, Chuck preached a beautiful message on the importance of living in community. He talked about the importance of growing together, the art of exhortation, and the benefit of confession to each other. It had a deep impact, and it is a good word for any follower of Christ (click here to watch/listen).

As I was thinking about the strength and benefits of living in community, my mind raced to another reality. After 20+ years of ministry and mission, I’ve heard far too many stories of people in community bearing their soul only to feel mocked, scorned, judged, or even ignored. A lot of people have experienced the ugly side of confession and significant hurt in the context of community.

If you’ve been hurt and have run from community, I am truly sorry. I don’t blame you. In fact, I’ve been there. It’s tough. I’ve experienced the feeling of, “I’ll never do that again.” However, when I let the truth of the Gospel soak in, it’s clear to see that being in community is the right place to be. What happened to me and countless others is not the way God intended community to be. Healthy community is out there, and it’s worth pursuing. I encourage you listen to the message and see if the Gospel might compel you to give it another try.

Thinking about that hurt, I pondered a question. “What is the responsibility of the person on the receiving end of the confession?” I’m concerned that when someone finally has the courage to ask for help, confess a sin, or ask a sincere question that it is commonly responded to in a way that pushes them away from the community God intended. I decided to dig in a bit and work through a better way to respond to someone on the other side of the table who is being vulnerable with their struggles and/or sins.

1. Be humble and gracious
It is an honor to be able to serve each other and to disciple someone in the faith. If someone trusts you enough to ask you a question or confess a sin, that is a big responsibility. That responsibility is something to be stewarded. It’s an opportunity not only for their faithfulness, but for ours as well. When they come, we need to be reminded of the humility in which Jesus came (or comes) to us and subsequently invites us to His throne to find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need.

2. Be empathetic and sincere
Sometimes I can relate to what people share, and sometimes I can’t. When I can’t, it’s easy to not engage with what they need from me. Because of this, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from. When I can’t relate, I try to repeat back what they’ve said and ask if I understand it correctly.

At this point I don’t have to agree or disagree, I just have to understand. Sometimes someone will share something that you think is crazy (and it may very well be), but you have a responsibility to honor the person talking to you. If you make fun of them or don’t take them seriously, then you will close the door they’ve opened in their pursuit of freedom. Likewise, if you act shocked or appalled, you may quench what the Spirit is doing. Receiving questions and/or confession is serious business, and it should be done with empathy and sincerity.

3. Be grateful
This happened beautifully in a group I was recently leading. Folks in the room shared some serious pains and hurts. They trusted us enough to lay it all out there, and we were able to work it out together. To my delight, one of the other people in the room responded to them immediately, “Thank you for sharing that with us. That couldn’t have been easy.”

Rarely are issues in people’s lives fixed in one conversation. Expressing gratitude is being a good steward of the trust they’ve given you. It leaves the door open for a future conversation, and it is likely they will be able to come to you again as a safe place.

4. Be Gospel-Centered
In a time where advice is rampant and a google search can give conflicting responses, what everyone needs more than an opinion is the Gospel. The issue is not what we think, the issue is what the Gospel has said. In the case of a believer, it is helpful to say something like, “That reminds me of David in the Psalms who said he was struggling with his enemies.” For a follower of Christ, it is good to appeal to a common belief that is a reminder of what the Gospel says. Appeal to their faith and a gospel truth more than fixing a problem.

The Gospel is Good News! When it comes face to face with an honest question or confession, it should feel like Good News to the person sharing with you. Judgment and condemnation is not our job. Our privilege is helping someone align their life with Christ through repentance and confession. Our privilege is helping somebody battle through the shackles of unbelief. Even correction, rebuke and teaching should feel like Good News.

5. Be aware of your limits
It’s tempting when someone comes to you with a confession or question to answer everything they’re asking. They may ask questions you are comfortable answering, but it is also possible they will ask questions beyond what you can credibly respond to. If that is the case, it is most appropriate to ask permission to bring someone else into the mix that has more expertise in the area. Just because someone trusts us, doesn’t mean we have to have all the answers. If you need to call for back-up, do it. A follow-up like that also shows the person that you care enough to go above and beyond for them.

Also, we are limited to listening, teaching, coaching, correcting, exhorting, and encouraging. It is the Spirit’s job to make changes and bring freedom. Our goal is not to force people to change. Our job is to point them to Jesus in such a fashion that they experience conviction of their own. If they have experienced conviction and ask you to help with boundaries or obedience in a new direction, that’s great. However, if they haven’t connected with the Spirit at a heart level, instructing them of what they need to do won’t be what they need.

6. Be prayerful
It’s always a good idea to pray. When you have an experience of genuine community, prayer reminds both of you that God orchestrated something significant. It also makes it different than just a time of venting or advising. It is a spiritual act of worship to confess sin and battle unbelief. Prayer is powerful in the moment, and it is also necessary moving forward. Continue to pray for the person who trusted you. As you pray for them, let them know the next day or week that you are praying for them. As you consistently pray for them, it is more natural to follow up to ask how they’re doing. Being prayerful is a powerful reality to keep us focused on the only power that can set us free.

Let’s be leaders who facilitate healthy environments for questions, struggles, and the confession of sin. This is a critical element of making disciples, and this will help people long for experiences of healthy community.

- Jason Bollinger, Mobilization Pastor