Should Evangelicals Revive Confession?

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. ~ James 5:16

In American popular culture, "confession" has become linked to—if not downright synonymous with—getting caught. Whether it is for an athlete, a politician, or a pastor, confession is what happens after the sin is discovered. When the facts are known, the story unearthed, and the verdict inevitable, only then will the confession come. The process runs from denial ("No, that wasn't me") to admission ("You got me") and finally to confession ("I'm guilty; forgive me"). This blueprint is understandable. Who wants to face private (much less public) vitriol, anger, disappointment, and humiliation for their actions, if those actions could otherwise remain hidden?

With this phenomenon in the backdrop, I recently watched Get Low, a 2010 film adaptation of a Tennessee fable about a backwoods recluse who throws his own funeral party before he dies. Robert Duvall is Felix Bush, the peculiar hermit whose violent past and purposeful isolation had become legendary in those parts. Duvall played the part with a combination of fierce and subtle intensity. Early into the story we sense that something bad caused Bush's decades-long withdrawal from civilized society. The story culminates in Bush's powerful confession: A passionate, earnest, and honest narration of the ways in which his sin led to a tragic event with devastating consequences.

A hermit with no friends or family, Bush was not compelled outwardly to confess his "sin." Many years had passed. He faced little danger of being caught. And yet he felt an inner compulsion to "get low," to make things right in the twilight of his life before death's night fell. He had to confess before as many people as possible. True, biblical, communal confession amounts to a relational and constructive 'preemptive strike.' Felix Bush had been keenly interested in the stories people told about him. But they didn't know the real story, the real Felix. They couldn't possibly have known, because his tragedy was hidden deep inside him—a dark, secret pearl.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Togetherthat the most relentless obstacle to true Christian community is the inability to fellowship with one another as sinners. Christians are typically proficient at behaving like "devout people," putting on religious airs and Christian language. "The pious fellowship," he says, "permits no one to be a sinner" (110). And yet we are sinners, all of us.

Our proficiency at religious pretension sometimes results in a "community" that is no community at all, but a façade, a social club, in which so much energy and effort is expended in concealing our true selves from each other. There are, of course, acceptable sins and flaws. We may be quick to fall back on these when put on the spot for personal prayer requests: "Lord, help me with my pride"; "Lord, forgive me for working too hard and neglecting my family"; "Lord, give me patience (but not yet)"; "Lord, free me from materialism." Not to make light of these sins and confessions, but often they express the dark side or the excess of otherwise esteemed qualities. For Americans, these might be ambition, hard work, and good old-fashioned rugged individualism.

But what if we were to include not just the safe sins in our confessions and prayers, but the darker struggles that can dominate or destroy our lives? What if it felt safe and natural to speak of our depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts? Our marital and relational struggles? Our sexual temptations, confusions, and sins? Our regular bouts with apathy toward the poor and the marginalized? Latent or blatant racism and harmful ethnocentricity?

In this respect, it is worth considering that the art of confession, when practiced in evangelical contexts, may focus so one-sidedly on sins associated with our individual, inward quest for sanctification that we may neglect a whole set of sins that pertain to our responsibilities to society. And when we focus on sins that we can clearly define and possibly even manage by ourselves, we miss the opportunity to narrate the deepest, most mysterious struggles of our humanity in the safety of Christian community.

Some of the greatest modern Protestant theologians were possessed with an acute sense of the "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humanity: Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer chief among them. Humans are sinners simply by being finite, created beings whose finitude expresses a gap between what we actually are and what we should, could, or one day will be. If this is true, confession is nothing but a spiritual exercise of naming our finitude and asking the Spirit of Christ in the body of Christ not to abroagate our humanity, but to advocate for us in the midst of it.