I am convinced that sin takes its most vigorous and incapacitating form as it festers in secrecy. When a Christian shields his sins from others and outwardly portrays himself to be more whole and stable than he truly is—this Christian is in the direst of predicaments. You would never know it because he won’t let you see his true state. He may not even really know it himself, because he may be so caught up in his charade that he actually believes his polished exterior is an accurate representation of his true condition. But despite its lack of visibility or his unawareness of it, his private iniquity is eating away at his soul, slowly devouring his joy in Christ and love for God and others. Will it consume his faith entirely? Maybe. I know too many “ex-Christians” whose apostasy followed years of spiritual pretense and concealment of sin.
Living in secret sin is no trivial thing—it always hinders the outworking of a person’s faith and always possesses the power to destroy a person’s faith. However, God has given us the practice of confession to protect us from these hindrances and endangerments. When I say “confession,” please resist envisioning a person sitting in a confessional box and spilling all their deepest, darkest secrets to a non-visible priest sitting on the other side of the wall. Though I see how that can and does serve a purpose, such practice is not the primary mode of biblical confession. When the Bible talks about confession, it’s talking about 1) personally confessing our sins to God and 2) confessing our sins to a trusted brother or sister in Christ.
Do all sins need to be confessed both to God and to a fellow believer? I don’t think so. There is not enough time in the world to disclose all of our evil intentions, white lies, and lustful entertainments to other Christians. Every single trespass of which we are aware should be confessed to God, but not every sin we commit warrants a horizontal, face-to-face confession. However, if we have been or are currently entangled in a pattern of sin, or if we have committed some large-scale sin, or if we have personally trespassed against another believer, I believe face-to-face confession is biblically mandated.
In his letter, James commands us to confess our sins to one another, adding that “healing” is attainable through this practice (James 5:16). Does he mean physical healing? Perhaps. I tend to think, though, that he is using “healing” in a more holistic sense—including spiritual, emotional, and relational healing. John likewise teaches that confession is a necessary component of walking in the light (1 John 1:5-10). Some may argue that this “confession” to which John refers is the initial, one-time confession of sin made at the moment of conversion. However, I don’t think John is describing a moment-in-time occurrence but rather a way of life. I believe John is saying that an earmark of genuine faith is a willingness to consistently walk in humble transparency before Christ and His Body.
Most of us know and agree with all that, don’t we? Yet even still, so many of us continue to conceal our truest, sin-ridden self from the eyes of even our closest friends in Christ. I receive scores of emails from people who have for years been secretly dominated by various sinful behaviors, yet they’ve never told a soul (other than me, but sending an email to a stranger doesn’t count). They justify their concealment by telling themselves that their confession to God was sufficient. And sometimes, that’s a valid justification. Like I have already argued, not every single sin merits horizontal confession.
However, many do.
There are some trespasses for which we need forgiveness not only from God but also from the one against whom we’ve sinned. In fact, Jesus commands that we seek forgiveness from those we’ve offended before we even approach his altar (Matthew 5:23-24). If we have committed adultery against our spouse, walking in the light demands a face-to-face confession. If we have stolen from someone, walking in the light demands a face-to-face confession. If we have slandered or gossiped about a brother or sister, walking in the light demands a face-to-face confession.
And then there are trespasses we commit only against God and ourselves. While we may not need to seek the forgiveness of others for these kinds of sins, I believe confessing some of them to a trusted brother or sister in Christ is of the utmost necessity. The degree to which we are willing to be horizontally forthcoming about the true condition of our lives is always indicative of how humble and submissive our hearts really are before God. When we confess our sins to one another, we 1) protect ourselves from the inevitable pitfalls of prideful, hypocritical living, and 2) we gain access to the wisdom, prayers, and accountability that our Christian friends can provide. If we have been drinking ourselves into oblivion or snorting coke or shooting up, we should be horizontally forthcoming with a trusted Christian. If we have been overtaken by pornography for weeks or months or years, we should be horizontally forthcoming with a trusted Christian. If we have been consumed by internalized bitterness or envy or anger, we should be horizontally forthcoming with a trusted Christian.
The Christian who refuses to confess his or her sins to those against whom they have sinned is a Christian walking in darkness. The Christian who refuses to confess his or her serious, non-relational sins to a trusted spiritual sibling is a Christian walking in darkness. And walking in darkness never ends well. Shielding our true condition from others’ sight and setting forth a pretty but inaccurate portrayal of ourselves is a hypocritical practice that poisons and potentially endangers our faith. “Saving face” is the work of the flesh, not the Spirit—it is indicative of a heart that is dominated by pride, not faith. And fleshly, prideful living always precedes a great and terrible fall (Proverbs 16:18).
If you are walking in the darkness today, honor God and protect yourself by stepping into the light—even if your legs tremble as you do. Make a way for reconciliation and restoration by confessing your sins to those you have offended. Invite others to help you and hold you accountable by being forthcoming about your most secretive battles against the flesh. You don’t have to tell everybody. You don’t even have to tell multiple people. Just tell somebody. It will be tremendously uncomfortable and your ego will be crushed—but the Spirit of Freedom will rise in its place. You will be free from guilt’s hauntings, unbound from the chains of hypocritical living, and be able to finally enjoy all the benefits of walking in light-filled fellowship with God and others.