Too Ashamed to Confess

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If you have a sin that you’ve been hiding that you dare not confess, then consider the agony of Claudius.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet play, Claudius is a husband to the widow of the brother he murdered, an uncle to Hamlet whose father he killed, and a king of Denmark who usurped the throne by poisoning his brother to death. Although Claudius longs to set things right and pray for forgiveness, his great guilt militates against confession. What results is a speech that conveys the uniquely, and profoundly, human phenomenon called guilt:

Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. (Shakespeare, Hamlet,III, iii, 38-45)

The egregious nature of Claudius’s offense is highlighted by its comparison to a foul odor. His offense, like an odor, is invisible yet inconcealable. It “smells to the heavens” and invokes the condemnation not merely of men, but of God. Furthermore, Claudius underscores the gravity of his fratricide by alluding to Cain’s “primal eldest curse.” Like Cain, Claudius was driven by jealousy to murder his own brother. Can you relate to this? Unconfessed sins linger like a foul odor. You know that no one sees it, yet you feel as though everybody somehow “smells” it. Does your sin seem so odious that confessing to God, let alone confessing to other believers, is unthinkable?

“Though inclination be as sharp as will,” Claudius simply cannot bring himself to pray. He has resolved to pray, yet he cannot get himself to pray. The guilt simultaneously impels and impedes his confession. In the end, his guilt is greater than his desire to make restitution, since his “stronger guilt defeats [his] strong intent.” To illustrate this inner conflict, he likens himself to “a man to double business bound.” The chiastic consonance of the ‘b’ and ‘d’ sounds makes the syllables bounce off of each other, mirroring Claudius’s oscillating will and emphasizing the fact that he is “bound.” Immobilized by his clashing emotions, Claudius teeters noncommittally. He “stand[s] in pause” and neglects to act.

Do you ever feel paralyzed by guilt and shame by yourself? Do you want to deal with your sit, but fear people’s judgment and the consequences you might face? As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

A forgotten sin is not a forgiven sin, and as Proverbs 28:13 teaches, “whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” The instinct to preserve the status quo, your reputation, your job, whatever it might be, is misleading you.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking that a private confession between you and God is enough. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together:

“Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid sin poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and closed isolation of the heart. Sin must be brought into the light. What is unspoken is said openly and confessed. All that is secret and hidden comes to light. It is a hard struggle until the sin crosses one’s lips in confession. But God breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron (Ps. 107:16) Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of another Christian, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders, giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding the forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community. … Confession in the presence of another believer is the most profound kind of humiliation. It hurts, makes one feel small; it deals a terrible blow to one’s pride.”

It is that humiliation that makes confession to another believer particularly difficult, but though painful it may be, like the alcohol that stings yet sanitizes one’s wounds, confession is the prelude to healing. Jesus endured the shame of the cross and nailed our guilt upon it, so that we can die to our sin and live. It’s only in His presence, and in the presence of His people who dwell at the foot of the cross, that we can dare to be a sinner. By daring to be a sinner, we open the pathway for God’s grace and true community. Let not your courage fail when confession is needed!

Part 2 of 4: Why We Don’t See More Signs and Wonders Today

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:11-17).

I have to admit that it’s curious why spiritual gifts seem less prevalent today, especially given the much higher number of Christians today than in the first century. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Constantinianism. With Constantine and Licinius’s publication of the Edict of Milan in 313AD, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire exploded. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that from 300AD to 350AD, the number of Christians grew from 6,299,832 to 33,882,008 (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 7). The end of persecution was obviously a factor, and this is when the Church developed the doctrine of “the invisibility of the true Church,” which discriminated the truly elect from the conformists. When being a Christian became easy, wheats and tares were sown together (Matthew 13:24-30). So, even though the number of Christians may seem inflated today, the number of the elect may be quite a bit smaller.
  2. Nature of miracles. Miracles, by definition, are supernatural. It would be a miracle if I jumped off a building and then proceeded to float in the air instead of falling flat on the ground, because falling is natural. Natural laws are simply descriptions of what usually happens, and thus supernatural phenomena, by definition, cannot occur too often. This is the same explanation that Augustine adduced to account for the relative sparsity of miracles in his day, “lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should grow cold by becoming accustomed to things which when they were novelties kindled its faith” (Of True Religion, xxv.47).
  3. Skepticism. Miracles may be happening around us, but we simply don’t believe them. As Jesus said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Even some of Jesus’s disciples doubted him after the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). For moderns, our doubt is augmented by naturalism. The modern scientific mind assumes natural causes for every phenomenon because scientific methodology can only address natural causes. But this doesn’t mean that only natural causes exist. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes, that would be like “the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. (In fact it would go the drunk one better: it would be to insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.)” (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 406). Miracles often require faith (Mark 6:1-6; James 5:15). Jesus taught that “if you have faith and do not doubt … you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (Matthew 21:21). This is figurative speech of course, but the message is clear: we don’t see miracles because we don’t believe.

Also, the fact that you don’t see miracles in your part of the world doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening elsewhere. In countries that I have visited for missions work (e.g. Burma, Thailand), miracles are still one of the primary reasons why people consider the Christian faith. I have many friends at seminary hailing from places like Nigeria, DRC, and China who share about numerous occurrences of compelling miracles. I challenge you to try foreign missions work and see for yourself!

This is Part 2 of 4 posts in my series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Go to Part 1: Why the Gifts of the Holy Spirit Are for Today or to Part 3: Why We Need to Be Baptized in the Holy Spirit.

When People Are Big and God Is Small

Welch, Edward T. When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997.

Edward Welch insists that fear of man is an insidious sin that every human being deals with one way or another. For an adult, it is called codependency, for an adolescent, peer pressure. It is a desire to be valued and wanted by others that manifests itself in low self-esteem, shame, feelings of rejection, jealousy, anger, and/or preoccupation with external appearance.

Welch writes that the fear of man keeps us “in bondage, controlled by others and feeling empty,” because we are “controlled by whoever or whatever [we] believe can give [us] what [we] think [we] need” (13). In When People Are Big and God Is Small, Welch exposes this sin from the recesses of our hearts and prescribes ways to counteract it.

In order to demonstrate that this seemingly innocuous need to be loved by others is indeed harmful, Welch offers a fascinating critique of our Post-Modern culture. Beginning with Freud and Maslow’s propagation of the idea of psychological need, there has been a gradual shift in our culture from the older moral concern with self-control and self-sacrifice to an emphasis on self-expression, self-realization, and self-fulfillment (86).

Underlying this shift is the faulty assumption that human beings are inherently moral and that their emotions (i.e. feelings), therefore, always express what is true and good (81-84). This assumption elevates psychological “needs”(i.e. love, significance, security, etc.) to the level of biological (i.e. food, water, clothes, shelter) and spiritual (i.e. redemption, sanctification, and glorification) needs (138).

Many Christians have uncritically accepted this understanding of the human being as psychologically needy, arguing that there is a “God-given need to be loved that is born into every human infant … that must be met from cradle to grave,” and that “if that primal need for love is not met,” we’ll “carry the scars for life” (88).

However, Welch contends that this psychological “need,” far from being divinely-ordained in creation, was a consequence of the Fall. It reflects an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric, worldview. It is a “self-serving [need] … not meant to be satisfied, … [but] put to death” (162-163). In fact, this theory of psychological need is responsible for the unbridled self-ism and victim mentality of our therapeutic culture (89).

Welch observes that the idea of “psychological need” has found support in the common conception of a person as body, which has physical needs, soul, which has psychological needs, and spirit, which has spiritual needs. However, he insists that this tripartite view of personhood is inaccurate, because the Bible uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably (cf. Mt. 10:28 1 Cor. 7:34; Jas. 2:26). In cases where “soul” and “spirit” are separately mentioned (e.g. Heb. 4:12; 1 Thes. 5:23), the two words form a tandem describing one inner person (141-142).

If I may elaborate on Welch’s explanation, “soul and spirit” constitute a hendiadys, a rhetorical construct that expresses a single idea by two words connected with “and.” For example, when John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 3:11). He is not saying that we need to be baptized with both the Holy Spirit and fire, but rather conveying a single idea of the “fiery Holy Spirit.”

But don’t we have genuine, God-given need for other people? Didn’t God create mankind male and female because he deemed it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)? Didn’t Jesus intend that the Church be an interdependent body of believers that needs its various parts to fulfill their various roles (1 Cor. 12)? Didn’t God command us to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35)?

Welch does not discount these realities, but he makes a teleological distinction between these genuine, spiritual needs and pseudo-psychological needs. Psychological needs are inherently self-serving, while spiritual needs are God-honoring. What we really need, writes Welch, is not to feel better about ourselves, but to repent from our ways and obey God. We are called to love others, “not because people have psychological deficits,” but “because God first loved us” (162-163).

Our problem, then, is that “we need [people] (for ourselves) more than we love them (for the glory of God)” (19), and Welch’s main thesis is that we need to “need other people less [and] love other people more” (183). This, of course, is not a natural human inclination, and for this reason we need the fear of God. If the fear of man is a centripetal orientation that uses people for one’s own needs, the fear of God is a centrifugal orientation that loves people for God’s glory. 

But wait, what about 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” That is true, but the fear that is cast out is the terror of God’s judgment. For Christians who have been forgiven of their sins, the fear of God is a reverent submission to God that leads to obedience. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). “The fear of the LORD leads to life” (Prov. 19:23). “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13; Dt. 1:17).

In other words, the fear of God involves seeing God as He really is–powerful, awesome, and holy–and humbly submitting to Him. The fear of man puts man under a microscope and makes small people appear big, while the fear of God sets a telescope on God and makes our big God appear as He really is.

Welch goes further than most Evangelicals by saying that the “fear of God” rather than the “love of God” is the cure for the “fear of man.” It is true that God loves us, but applying this truth as a psychological balm is little more than a baptized version of Melody Beattie’s prescription that to be Codependent No More one must love him or herself more (18). It spurns personal repentance and condones a self-centered worldview in which God exists merely to boost our self-esteem (18).

As Welch puts it, “To look to Christ to meet our perceived psychological needs is to Christianize our lusts. We are asking God to give us what we want, so we can feel better about ourselves, or so we can have more happiness, not holiness, in our lives” (150). The antidote for the fear of man is not to think more highly of ourselves, but to think more rightly, and therefore more highly, of God. Then, we will not think so much about what other people think of us and more about how we can love them.

Those who have weathered a hurricane are not concerned about the spring rain. Those who have “walked among the giant redwoods [are] never … overwhelmed by the size of a dogwood tree” (119). In the same way, those who have been in the presence of God fear no man:

“Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Fire goes before Him and consumes His foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim His righteousness, and all peoples see His glory” (Ps. 97:2-6).

Welch’s simple, yet profound, little book offers a welcome alternative to the plethora of self-help books that pander to our self-centered worldviews.

Buy When People Are Big and God Is Small HERE.

Watch Me

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church on June 10th, 2012.

“Imitate those who hope in Christ.” LISTEN

Philippians 3:17-21
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.