Confession: The Blessing Nobody Expects

What comes to mind when you think of confession?  Think about it for a moment.

For some, the thought might be a simple private prayer, or for some a confessional booth.  For others, no specific images might come to mind, but just a feeling of someone “out to get you.”  I expect some of you thought of the Spanish Inquisition, or at least the Monty Python skit making fun of it[1].  Where do these ideas come from?

The blame belongs in many places: secular culture, bad experiences with church, an emphasis on external over internal religion, and even Monty Python comedy skits.  My fantasy baseball league even has a team named “Spanish Inquisition” because the manager of that team thinks no one expects him to win – not even himself.

The mocking of secular culture aside, confession is an uncomfortable topic even for sincere Christians.  In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, he shares the tension over confession between Tolkien and his then-fiancée Edith.  Tolkien was a practicing Catholic, while Edith was a member of the Church of England.  They had agreed as a couple to be Catholic, but Edith “began to dislike making her confession.  It was therefore all too easy when she was worried about her health (which was often) to postpone going to mass. She reported to Ronald [Tolkien] that getting up to go to church early in the morning and fasting until she had made her communion did not agree with her.”  She insisted “my health won’t stand it.”[2]  In my own Protestant church, we have a weekly prayer of confession, which the pastor regularly defends the importance of.  Few of us probably look forward to confession, whatever form we practice it in.

Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

This discomfort with confession seems to be a shared part of mankind’s fallen nature, but if we look at well-known Bible verses on confession, we find that it is really about restoration, a rebirth of man’s relationship with God and a renewal of man to his ideal nature.  It is as different from God being “out to get you” as it could be.  1 John 1:9 encourages confession, because: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  God wants to give us forgiveness and cleansing, not condemnation and guilt.  Isaiah 1:18 explains this cleansing more poetically:

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
            they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
            they shall become like wool.

Confession doesn’t need to be a dirty word.  The word “confess” means loosely to say the same thing about something, so confession means we agree with God (say the same thing he does) about sin – that it is bad.  But confession also applies to the rest of 1 John 1:9, that God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Full confession includes agreeing about the steadfast and dependable character of God, His faithfulness and justice, as well as His desire to forgive and cleanse.  If we doubt this desire, consider what He voluntarily suffered on the cross to provide for this forgiveness, and to demonstrate His enduring love.

By adding confession about the good things of God to our confession of our sin, our confession does not make us miserable about our own condition but shows us how different we are from what God wants for us, how deeply our sin needs to be corrected, and how wonderfully God has provided for the removal of sin.

But this does not come easily.  Referencing Hebrews 4:16, which says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote that “Christ went more willingly to the cross than we do to the throne of grace.”

Why is this?  Could it be that we have trouble whole-heartedly confessing that “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”?  Monty Python joke that “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but do we fully expect God’s throne to be one of grace when we come to confess?

[1] If you’re not familiar with the skit, here’s a 4-minute example:
[2] Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography.  (1977).  P. 68-69.

Help! There’s a Log in My Eye! (Part 2)

Dear fellow travelers,

Yesterday’s post started to discuss Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 – “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Jesus was telling His followers that they should help each other move closer to God, but only to remove specks from others’ eyes after dealing with their own logs.  The first lesson, covered yesterday, was to make sure our motive is right.  The second (today’s topic) is to learn from our own experience fighting the logs in our own eyes.  When I think about these logs, and really try to remove them, I realize it’s a lot harder than I might assume about specks in other people’s eyes.

First, being told I have a log in my eye might be counterproductive.  The hardest logs to get rid of are the ones we already know are wrong, and possibly because we know they are wrong.  Paul gives an example in Romans 7:7b-8a, saying “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  Being told my log is a sin isn’t necessarily going to get it out of my eye.  It might make things worse.

Second, the most stubborn logs might be there because I’ve decided, at least subconsciously, that I am better off with the log than I am without it.  Until we are perfected in heaven, part of us wants to listen to “the woman Folly,” who cries out that “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” in Proverbs 9:17.  Even though Wisdom offered a feast of meat and wine in Proverbs 9:2, our flesh is drawn to the bread and water because they are “stolen” in “secret.”  Whatever “bad” the log does to me, I sometimes prefer it to the “good” represented by the alternative.    Being told my log is bad for me might not overcome that.

Third, I know that Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye,” and I’m tempted to think the log in other people’s eyes give them no right to be judgmental.  As noted yesterday, for some, the lesson of Jesus’ words is about how to identify a hypocrite.  For others, the lesson may be that people should mind their own business.  Of course, once I think that, I’m trying to remove a speck from their eye, judging them and saying their behavior should be changed.  Maybe in writing this, I’m being judgmental myself.  Avoiding being judgmental is perhaps the hardest thing for a person to do, while graciously accepting the imperfect love of a brother can sometimes be harder.

Who do you trust with your eyes? Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

So, what’s the solution?  There may not be a magic formula, but in examining our own logs, we learn to approach others in loving service, not judgment, understanding what Paul said at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10:13, that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”    Fighting sin is hard.  For all of us.  It requires overcoming our natural response to rules, requires trust that His way is better than ours (proof isn’t always possible), and requires relationships that nurture meaningful involvement – even around the parts of our lives that, like our eyes, we fiercely protect.  We won’t often let anyone near the speck in our eye who hasn’t proven their love by tangible acts.  People can tell when (or imagine that) our motivation is our own anxiety, envy, or anger.

Me First (Redux)
Immediately after the version of the speck and log story in Luke’s gospel, Luke records Jesus saying: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.[1]

I believe Luke puts this here because removing our own logs makes us more like a good tree that can produce good fruit.  Only by knowing and relying on God can we approach the specks in our brother’s eyes inspired by grace not legalism, concern not unwelcome intrusiveness, and love not judgment.

God, the only righteous judge, forgave us our sins by taking the judgment we deserved upon Himself on the cross.  Instead of fretting over evildoers, He sought to save them.  Knowing our Lord and how He approaches us in our sin as our Savior helps us see more clearly to help our brothers remove the specks from their eyes.  Only He can heal us, but sometimes He wants us to participate in His work.

“…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

[1] Luke 6:43-45

Help! There’s a Log in My Eye! (Part 1)

Until we get to heaven, none of us can fully understand what God is telling us in the Bible, but I believe one particularly tricky passage is this one: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:3-5

For some, the lesson is about how to identify a hypocrite.  For others, the lesson may be that people should mind their own business.  Some might think it has applications for the church’s role toward the sinners of the world.

While there might be good points to be made about those lessons, here I want to focus on what Jesus told those listening to actually do: 1) “take the log out of your own eye,” and 2) “take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  Jesus is definitely not saying His people should always ignore every speck and log.  His mission is to make His church holy, and we participate in that work.  Christians are supposed to help each other move closer to God.  However, there are right ways, and very wrong ways, to remove specks and logs.  He says do (1), then only do (2) afterward.

When saying “first take the log out of your own eye,” I think Jesus is offering two bits of advice.  First, be more concerned about your own sin first before dealing with the sin of others.  Second, take what you learn about overcoming your own logs of sin and apply it to ministering to others with their specks.  The cure for hypocrisy here is not to do nothing about the brother’s speck.  It is to remove our own log first, so we “will see clearly.”

This is a huge topic, but today’s post will briefly cover the first point, and tomorrows will cover the second point.  There’s definitely a lot more that has been, and can be, said.

Me First
By focusing on our own problems first, we might avoid three problems, the first being putting ourselves through endless anxiety about the sins of the world.  Psalm 37:1 advises “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!”  When God chose to love the world, He did so knowing that the world contained nothing but evildoers, and therefore advises not to fret about evil.  He has a plan, and that plan is not that we need to address or fix every problem.

Later in the same Psalm, verse 8 advises: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”  This means that fretting over the sins of others leads us to wrong emotions and motives, particularly envy and wrath.  Referring back to verse 1, “be not envious of wrongdoers”, because we may be tempted to participate in their wrongdoing.  If we think they’ve done well by sinning, and that there was no negative consequence, we might persuade ourselves to join in out of envy for their “success”.  So, we add the speck in their eye to the log in our own, and everyone is worse off.

Third, if we see that wrongdoers are not punished, and are frustrated by it, we can be tempted to take it into our own hands to “correct” their situation by removing their speck.  In this case, we’re motivated by wrath, instead of a loving desire to do the best for our brother.  Also, others might see that we did this, got away with it, and be tempted to join in (envy again?), and so these 2nd and 3rd points can become a vicious cultural cycle within a community of believers.

In another post, The Desires He Delights to Give, I wrote about verses 4-6 of Psalm 37 and it would a good read for context here, but the summary is that when we seek to please God, we will learn to be less anxious about evildoers, and also feel less envy and wrath.

So, Jesus’ first advice before removing a speck from someone else’s eye seems to be to make sure we have the right motive – love.  Tomorrow, part 2 will briefly talk about how hard it is to remove the real logs in our own eyes.

What are We Willing to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor?

From earliest times, debate has raged over whether God’s word can be taken literally.  Since the serpent asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?[1] people have debated if the world was created in 6 days.  If Moses really parted the Red Sea.  If Jonah really spent 3 days inside a great fish.  And so on.  Talk about whether the Bible means what it says often focuses on the miraculous events within.

But what about verses like Ephesians 4:29?  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  When Paul wrote that, did he literally mean “no corrupting talk,” or just to aim for less crude language than the average person?  Did Paul mean each word needs to “fit the occasion,” or to repeat whatever catchphrase seems to work in most situations?  Did Paul mean everything we say should “give grace” to others, or is it ok if sometimes we want to look good or appear gracious?  Do we need to always build up those who hear us?  Did Paul “actually say” what he wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

Failure to meet our ideals
does not mean that
we should change them.

We might reply that this is an impossible standard, but Jesus in Luke 18:19 said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  In that one statement, Jesus testifies that no one is good (everyone misses the mark), and also that He is God in the flesh, come to save us from failing to meet the standard.

So yes, Ephesians 4:29 should be taken literally, but we should also take literally that only Jesus can meet the standard, and that He did meet the standard.  Failure to meet our ideals does not mean they are the wrong ideals and that we should change them.  Holiness is holiness.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that “it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”[2]

In film editing, “the cutting room floor” refers to pieces of physical film that (in pre-digital times) were cut out of the movie and left lying on the floor.  When writing this blog, one of the hardest things to do is to cut out parts or phrases I care deeply about, but sometimes it’s necessary, because my words aren’t always Ephesians 4:29 words.  Finding these failures can be fruitful if I learn from them and move closer to the ideal.  In real-time, daily conversation it’s even harder, but to take Ephesians 4:29 literally, we all have to figuratively ask:

What are we willing to leave on the cutting room floor today?

[1] Genesis 3:1
[2] Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy (1908).  P. 163.

How Bad Was Rahab’s Lie?

In chapter two of the book of Joshua we meet a prostitute named Rahab, who lived in Jericho.  When Joshua sent spies into Jericho, Rahab hid them and lied about it.  Bible commentators have a lot of things to say about Rahab’s lie:  Perhaps a lie isn’t as bad a sin as letting the spies be caught.  Maybe it was ok because she did it for a good reason.  Or it was ok because it was somehow in faith.  These explanations should worry us, because if we accept any of them, we can be tempted to apply the same principles anywhere we see fit.  Should we rank sins, and allow ourselves to “only” do the lesser ones?  Or only do them when we think it is in the best interest of the church or our country?  Should murder or other crimes be allowed when we think it is for the greater good of mankind?

I think what really makes the story of Rahab tricky isn’t whether what she did was a sin, but that we know – in general – that God works through sinners, but we don’t like to think that through to the specifics.  We don’t want the sins of the sinner to happen quite so close to God’s action of working through sinners.  It makes us a little uncomfortable, but the truth is that God has only worked through one sinless person ever – Jesus.  Every other person He has used has sinned, and God’s will has always come out ahead.

The message of Rahab’s lie might not be that sin is sometimes ok.  It might be that no matter how bad our sin, Christ’s sacrifice is greater.  Without this being true, there is no gospel, but somehow it still makes us uncomfortable at times and we want an explanation for God using sinners that just isn’t there, except the explanation of the cross.

Sometimes God’s grace overwhelms our sin, and we succeed in spite of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we did the right thing.  Thank God for His love and let His grace overwhelm you today!  Don’t look for explanations or excuses, but kneel before the cross where sins of all kinds and degrees were paid for.