By Bob Hiller –
Why is everyone so afraid to confess their sins? What is it that prevents us from owning up and taking responsibility for our actions? I am sure there are all kinds of answers to these questions, but perhaps it all boils down to a fear of losing. I think people are afraid to admit they are wrong or sinful because they may lose respect, jobs, family, money, friends, etc. One may in their pride fear losing an inflated view of the self. There is a culture, even in the church, that won’t allow for people to own up to their sinfulness. Christians should be “overcomers” or “victorious” over their sins. People fear that if their sins are exposed, they will be seen as phony and they will lose the support of their brothers and sisters. In the worst cases, they have been taught to fear that struggle with sin means they don’t have the Holy Spirit. People fear their sins are going to ruin them and that exposing such sins will make the ruin worse. So, like Frodo and the ring, we keep our sins hidden; we keep them safe. And, if they are ever exposed, some will seek to pass the blame in order to save something of what they fear losing.
Consider the two students who precipitated that horrifying incident in a San Antonio high school football game. Two defensive players from John Jay High School, allegedly upset over a call made by one of the referees, violently tackled him in the middle of a play. As the play unfolded, one of the players ran up on the referee from behind and form tackled him. Once he hit the ground, the other player speared the defenseless ref with his helmet. Both players were ejected, suspended from school, and could now face criminal charges.
I have seen a lot of anger over bad calls before, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. What would drive two players to commit such a heinous act on a referee? This is no mere shouting at the ref; this is assault! Word is (though I haven’t seen an official statement) that the two boys allege they were provoked by racial slurs made by the referee. When an assistant coach heard about it, he said something along the lines of, “That ref has to pay for cheating us.” Somehow, then, this got interpreted as a green light for assault.
But, notice here the reasoning: two players are clearly breaking the law, they are clearly assaulting a referee. But, not so fast! It was provoked! He made racist comments. So, what else were they supposed to do? Their claims give them a reason for their wrong doing. Since they fear the loss their punishment will bring, they are seeking to demonstrate that their actions were justified. Racist comments make their actions someone else’s fault. Instead of confessing the wrongdoing and suffering the consequences, they are looking to prove they were victims before they were perpetrators. Victims lose less.
The reality is that what the referee said or didn’t say is irrelevant. What these boys did was just wrong. In the name of protecting their future, or out of fear of losing it, they are trying to pass the blame. If anyone around them truly loves them and truly cares about their future, they will tell them to do the right thing: blame no one, take responsibility for your actions, and own up to the consequences. To advise them otherwise is to teach them the ever-valuable lesson that permeates our culture: blame your wrongdoing on your circumstances and you won’t have to pay.
Now, what in the world does this have to do with why people won’t confess their sins in church? It seems to me that the same fear that is rightly imposed on these students for what they have done has too often been imposed by the church. The church is seen as a place where sinners merely lose, with no hope of anything more. Many feel that they will be left in their guilt to deal with the consequences with no love or support beyond that. They fear losing the respect of their fellow parishioners from whom they have successfully hidden their sins and they fear that they will lose God’s acceptance. Certainly self-justification for evil actions in everyday life makes sense, because folks who do wrong have no promise of mercy upon their confession. They must save themselves. Pride and fear in a world of law and judgment prevent repentance, because in a world of law and judgment, death and loss is all that can result.
Perhaps the problem for many is that the church has presented herself as a place of law and judgment, not of law and gospel; a place of death and shame, not a place of death and resurrection; a place where the guilty only stand to lose their life, and never gain something new. Too many sinners have feared losing the love of the people around them if they confess just how sinful they are. As I write this, I am convinced that if you knew the blackness of my heart, you would doubt my calling. The church talks a big game on grace, but as soon as the sins get too messy or the Christian life doesn’t improve quickly enough, she can tend to blindside the struggling sinner with more judgementalism.
True repentance can only take place where true forgiveness, true hope, and true freedom are given gratis, graciously. Or, perhaps better said, where death leads to life and loss leads to gain. The pain of repentance, the death it brings, is what prepares us for the healing Word of absolution and the life it brings. As the Psalmist says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:3-5) The church is a place where people with wasted bones and sapped strength, guilty hearts and guilty hands, come to lose their life, confess their sins, and be forgiven.
At least it should be. Woe to the church that heaps guilt on the weeping sinner. Woe to the church that comforts the proud and praises the self-righteous. Woe to the church that snuffs out smoldering wicks and breaks bruised reeds. Woe to the worldly church that sees its job as retribution and punishment and not repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Woe to the church which triumphs judgment over mercy. Woe to the church who withholds Christ from those who have lost everything and are dead in their sins. For that is a church that must confess it has lost what really matters: Jesus Christ.