The FISHERS Magazine (Issue 224)
The passage in James 5:13-18 speaks about confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another. What exactly did James have in mind when he asked us to confess our sins one to another? As Christians interact with one another within the church, hurtful words will be said and selfish acts done and we hurt one another. That is why we need to learn how to deal with such sins.
When Do We Confess Our sins?
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Jesus gave us the basic principle of handling sins within the local church. When other believers sin against us, then we must confront the sin and seek to bring the erring brethren to repentance in the Lord. Even in this instance, Jesus highlighted that such matters must be dealt with privately and discreetly. If the erring brethren refuses to listen to counsel, only then would the matter be escalated to the entire church. This exhortation in James is in concert with the principle given by Jesus in Matthew 18.
The confessing to one another takes place when our sins have hurt another and there is a need for repentance followed by restoration of the relationship. That being the case, why is this practice not taking place more often within the local church?
There will be many occasions when we have to confess our sins to one another and seek forgiveness. If church members have never confessed to one another and sought forgiveness, it either means that they have never sinned against each other, or they are so detached from each other that there are no opportunities for sins to be committed.
Jesus has said that the act of confession and seeking forgiveness must be kept private and confidential between the two parties involved. It must not be broadcast to the entire congregation. On the other hand, when Christians fall into open sins and their sins are widely known, not just within the church but even in the local community, then the confession of such sins can no longer be kept private. It must be done publicly for the sake of the sinners so that they understand the gravity of their sins. Public confession means that we announce it to the local congregation. The confession is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the congregation the gravity of sins and when repentance has taken place, the erring brethren can be received back into fellowship by the body of Christ.
James was not restricting this exhortation to sins between church members. Think about the conflicts between husbands and wives. How often have spouses said or done things to one another and then refused to confess their sins? Instead they spend days and weeks avoiding one another and being angry with one another.
There are also times when heated exchanges take place between parents and their children and things are said that should not be said. The parents expect the children to make the first move even if the sin was committed by the parents. The converse is also true and the children instead of apologising, expect their parents to understand and forgive them. The closer we are in our relationship with another person, the more likely such sins are going to be committed.
However, parents who have children need to remember that they are watching you. If they have never seen you confess your sins and ask for forgiveness, they will assume that this is the norm for Christian behaviour. Children learn by example and it is good for parents to model such repentance in their homes and let the children see that you do not take sins lightly.
At times when we have to confess our sins to another is when we struggle with besetting sins. We all struggle with one form of besetting sin or another. Some may struggle with pride while others struggle with love for the world but in most instances, it is between us and God. However, some may struggle with the sins of pornography, or gambling or alcoholism or homosexual relationships. For such, confessing our sins to another close believer is important in helping us stay away from those sins. We are enlisting another Christian to help us be accountable and be our keeper so that we do not stray into those besetting sins and grieve the Lord. Often our spouses, an older mature Christian, the elders and pastors of the church could be that someone in whom we could confide and ask for help to watch over us.
The Manner of Confession
There are also occasions when a person said sorry to the offended party as if the word “sorry” means their sins must be forgiven and the pain they caused no longer exists. The word “confess” does not simply mean verbalising the words “sorry” or “I apologise” but if understood in the context of Matthew 18, indicates confession accompanied by repentance. Otherwise, how can forgiveness take place and the relationship be healed? Sins must never be trivialised and the one who has sinned must never think “it was not a big deal after all”.
The recipient ends up trivialising the sin and then lying. Instead, we must concur with them that the sin was hurtful and it was displeasing to God. Since they had the courage to own up to their sins, we would also respond in a manner that God has instructed us and forgive them. Both the offending party and offended party need to realise that confessing our sins and receiving the confession does not come naturally. We do it because God has ordained such a practice to be the norm between Christians. When sins are dealt with in its proper manner, it will lead to restoration of the broken relationship between the sinner and God and between believers. Instead of sin becoming an instrument that Satan uses to destroy the unity within the local church, sins that are dealt with correctly strengthens the relationship between believers.
Prayer Must Accompany Confession of Sins
Whether a Christian has sinned publicly or privately, when he eventually comes to true repentance through the work of the Holy Spirit, the duty of the other members is not done. They need to uphold the repentant Christian in their prayers because they are vulnerable to fall into the same sins or other sins. So, in 2 Corinthian 2:6-8, Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians not only to forgive the one who had committed sins through an incestuous relationship but to comfort him lest he be overwhelmed by the excessive sorrow. Sadly, what happens in churches today is that instead of comforting, we gossip about the matter because we have failed to pray for the repentant Christians. When you are actively praying for someone and upholding them in your prayers, you are unlikely to be gossiping about them. While we do not want to trivialise sins, we must also realise that the repentant sinners are prone to fall back into sin if we do not uphold them in our prayers.
That is why James reminds us to pray for one another. We also need to pray for the repentant sinners to know the assurance of God’s forgiveness as well as the forgiveness of the person or persons they had offended. It would not surprise us that the repentant sinners may be so sensitive to the reaction of others around them, especially those they had offended, that they often wonder if God is still punishing them for their sins or that others are still angry with them.
How else can we pray for the repentant sinners? We pray for their restoration to usefulness because they will feel sinful, useless and unworthy to serve in any ministry. Obviously, we do not push those who have just repented immediately into ministry as there needs to be a period of observation. However, we continue to uphold them in prayer that God would eventually restore them to useful service. Otherwise the repentant sinners may withdraw and no longer play a part in the life and ministries within the local church.
When sin has been committed publicly and the Lord’s name has been shamed in the community, we also need to pray that the damage may be contained and not harm further Gospel opportunities. For example, if someone from among our congregation had been involved in some illegal activities resulting in the authorities coming down hard on our church, the person who committed the sin may have repented but the consequences of his actions have repercussions downstream. We, as a church, then need to pray that God would intervene and contain the damage done to His name and to our Gospel witness.
The Outcome of Confession of Sins
Let us recall David’s experience of unconfessed sins recorded in Psalm 32:3-5. When David failed to deal with his sins of murder and adultery, the effects of those sins were devastating and much worse than even physical diseases. He described them as like his bones wasting away and his strength being sapped away by the heat of summer. Sins that are not dealt with can harm the conscience and the wellbeing of the Christian as much as physical illness. That was why James said that when the sin has been dealt with, the repentant sinner may be healed and his conscience and spiritual wellbeing restored.