What comes to mind when you hear the word “confession”? What emotions stir when you think about admitting to another human being your darkest secrets, the sins you confess to God alone? I grew up thinking of confession as a “Catholic” practice. Seriously, I never heard of such a thing in my Baptist church. I mean, sure, we believed in confessing our sins to God. But we didn’t tell other PEOPLE about them. The very thought of admitting my secret failures and struggles to another person made my heart race. The idea terrified me. I feared rejection and condemnation, shame and disgrace. You see, my secret struggle was with the sin of lust…toward other men.
Needless to say, I didn’t practice confession with other Christians for many years. Can you relate? Based on my experience, I don’t think I was alone in that mindset. In fact, I would say that confession in the context of Christian community wasn’t really a topic of conversation or sermons in the general evangelical community until the last decade. Which is ironic because it is a pretty clear command in Scripture. James writes,
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (5:16)
That’s pretty plain and simple: “Confess your sins to one another.” What!? How do we justify ignoring this verse? Why wasn’t it preached and practiced? It wasn’t a secret; I memorized this verse as a kid in Awana. I just never heard it discussed or explained.
Why did it take so long to “click”? I think it was just so unthinkable I couldn’t receive it. I didn’t see how it could help, didn’t understand why God would say that. So I didn’t obey it, with the consequence that I suffered alone, without encouragement or prayer, because no one knew what I was fighting in secret. I grew up living in fear that people would find out that I struggled with same-sex attraction and would reject me. I lived without the comfort of knowing that friends were praying for me, without their encouragement or support, lonely and stuck.
That’s where I was, decades later, when in 2017 God opened my eyes to the power of confession one evening in a men’s Bible study. We were studying “The Conqueror Series,” a video-based Bible study program aimed at sexual purity and specifically freedom from pornography. It was already a milestone for me, because I had never admitted to anyone that I struggled with lust or porn. Attending that study was for me a silent admission, and it was hard. To say I was scared that first night is an understatement. It was a struggle just to sign up for that study. Showing up was a battle. I felt such shame and fear.
But that first evening, after the video, we broke up into smaller discussion groups of 3-4, and I landed in a small side room of the host’s home with a group of college students. There I was, a 48-year-old husband and father, supposedly a “mature Christian” and a leader in the church, sitting with three 20-somethings. I let them share first, each one confessing his struggle with porn. Then my turn came, and I decided to be honest. “I struggle with porn too,” I admitted. Then I added the darkest part of it, “Gay porn.” All my life I had feared that admission. I imagined it would be met with horror and disgust, with judgment and rejection. Rejection by other men had been a fear since I was a kid, when I experienced bullying and rejection by other boys. Yes, 40 years later, I still struggled with the wounds of that childhood trauma. That night as I looked at those young men and told them about my struggle with same-sex attraction, lust and pornography, I felt like a kid, ashamed and afraid.
But something happened in that room that I never expected. I experienced the love of God through three young Christian brothers, who looked at me with compassion and sympathy. There was no condemnation in their eyes, only compassion and respect. They comforted and encouraged me, and as we prayed together, I felt the beginning of that “healing” James wrote about.
Oh that I had believed this beautiful truth years ago, that confessional community is healing community! How much lighter my heart might have been had I shared my struggle with fellow believers and invited them to pray with me! But the enemy of all saints had me in bondage to fear, believing that honesty would hurt rather than help. I had been deceived by the lie that confession would result in rejection. It was one of many lies that had followed me from childhood into adulthood, and that night of confession was the beginning of healing and freedom from lies for me.
I have read that conversation with an empathetic, compassionate listener literally changes the brain by building new neural pathways and enabling the individual to experience a sense of well-being and comfort not unlike the feelings produced by exposure to porn. Not sure how that sounds, bringing it in unexpectedly. The brain produces dopamine, the pleasure hormone, when we share our hearts with an intimate friend! This is the reason that professional counseling can help us work through trauma and the reason that confession heals. God designed us to heal emotionally, mentally and yes, spiritually, as we confess our brokenness, disordered desires, and wrong behavior to each other in a spirit of humility and hear the same confessions with a heart of compassion.
My healing began that night in February 2017, and it has continued as I have learned to trust my brothers and sisters in Christ with my authentic, messy self. The journey hasn’t been without adjustments and some pain. My wife says that I am harder to live with these days! It is true, because I am no longer trying to hide the broken version of myself. The public Brian and the private Brian have merged, so to speak, and I am whole–authentic–which also means I am messy and people know it. And that is a good thing!
Dane Ortlund, in Deeper, writes: ““Here’s what happens when we begin to get honest, even with just one other person. The two circles of what we know ourselves to be and what we present ourselves to be overlap. Rather than the private Dane being one person and the public Dane a different person, there’s just one Dane. We become whole. Integrated. Strong.”
A key part of my ministry today is teaching and encouraging others to “walk in the light” and practice confession with trusted friends in their spiritual family. The results of such honesty and obedience are truly beautiful. Not only do I see personal healing as others become whole, but I see community growing and thriving within the body of Christ. In 1 John 1:6-7, the Apostle John writes, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” It is interesting that the direct result of walking in the light–practicing honesty through confession not only to God but to others–is “fellowship with each other.” This is Scriptural truth backed by science here, the kind of intimate communication that takes place in confessional community leads to interpersonal connections and relational bonds that promote emotional health and mental healing.
Do I air my dirty laundry with total strangers or even casual friends? No. I save my confession for close trusted brothers and sisters in my church. But I do strive to be more authentic and honest in my walk with everyone. My church body knows that I am happily married to my wife Kim, that I am a father of three, that I love Jesus and my church family–and they also know that I am imperfect and struggle with same-sex attraction. They know one Brian, messy but saved by grace, and I hope that encourages them to be whole themselves as they experience the healing that confessional community brings.