June 23, 2017

Is There A Place To Repent? (Or Must I Make This Journey Alone?)

rpnt6: 9 Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, 10 or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. 11 Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. -Paul the Apostle, First Letter to the Corinthians

I’ve always been encouraged that there is so much discussion of the Gospel in the Christian blogosphere, but I’ve been disappointed where most of that discussion has focused. I’m sure there’s a great need to clarify the differences between Piper and Wright on the nature of justification, but I doubt that the church on the corner has many people walking in the doors who particularly care. (Oh, I know that the theologians among us can tell us why they should care, but the theological class has never suffered from a lack of confidence in the significance of their particular areas of interest, yours truly included.)

There are, however, areas of largely untouched Gospel proclamation and application that are walking into churches and sitting across from you at Panera Bread; areas and issues usually avoided and left unexplored. I rarely- never?- hear them addressed, which is what this blog is for, right?

I’m sure very few readers have failed to have I Corinthians 6:9-11 brought to their attention multiple times, mostly because it contains specific references to sexual sins and that those who “practice” and “indulge in” them will not inherit the Kingdom of God (one of Paul’s rare mentions of the Kingdom). If we could put aside for a moment the debate regarding exactly what sort of sexual sin Paul is describing or how we need to shout the sinfulness of sin louder than the world, there’s something else rather extraordinary about this passage, particularly given the portrait of the Corinthian church that emerges in the New Testament.

To the point, the Corinthian church, for all its lack of mature leadership, division, indulgence in the sins common in Greek culture and raucous abuse of the Lord’s Supper, must have, at least at some point, been a pretty good place to repent of serious sin and become an accepted part of the Christian community. As the NLT puts it, “Some of you were once like that,” “that” being the sins listed in that passage. “But now….” those same persons were in the Corinthian community hearing this letter.

In other words, repentance happens somewhere, if it happens, other than just in your head and heart. The Corinthian church appears to, at one time, have been one of those places.

This may shed some light on the situation in I Corinthians chapter 5, where Paul says the Corinthians are “proud of” their acceptance of a man living in a Jerry Springer-esque relationship with his step-mother. Acceptance of the sinner may have been the Corinthian’s strong suit if chapter 6 is any evidence, and their lack of discernment and leadership may have let them to sometimes tolerate too easily- even gladly- what they should have sometimes excluded as incompatible with belonging to Christ. In fact, a number of passages in these letters leave the impression that the Corinthians’ acceptance of real sinners and their patience in dealing with real sin may have gone off track without unified, mature leadership.

What I want you to see, however, is that their acceptance of sinful, repenting, in-the-process-of-changing new believers was a legitimate and importance application of the Gospel. We don’t just arrive at the destination; we travel the road and the road may be less than a straight line. The Christian community into which the Corinthians were all baptized as converts was, at any one moment, a community of persons moving from one kind of person to another; a community of persons acquiring in real time the inheritance and realities given them in their union with Christ in baptism and faith.

Our only other choice is to assume that the person who was “once” on the list in chapter 6 was excluded from the community until they became the new “you” of the same verses. There are Christians and communities that strive to be this very thing: communities where all transformation is instantaneous and the stated rules render the process of repentance and personal transformation unspeakable…unless it is finished. This, by the way, is the genius of Paul’s “sin lists,” which always counterbalance the “big” sins with what we would judge as more mundane sins, by human comparison. Of course you must exclude a persistent sexual sinner, but “greedy” people? We can work on that as we go along. No need to make a big deal about that sort of thing.

I’m not suggesting that Paul or any New Testament writer was advocating that anyone in leadership would be in the process of committing scandalous sin. The pastoral letters are clear on such matters. I am suggesting, with good evidence I think, that the Corinthian fellowship contained persons who entered into the Christian journey as they repented from real sins, and that such repentance was ongoing and, I’m certain, imperfect. That the church is to be a “hospital for sinners” and not a ward of healthy people telling stories of their former illnesses is a challenging calling.

Now I have more than a Bible study in mind this morning, and I want to get to the point. I think there are sins we virtually don’t talk about at all simply because we don’t want people in the process of repenting of those sins around us or our families, and so we fail to see that the church as community is, in many ways, much more like the moralistic, judgmental secular world than like the movement that grows from Jesus and his world-altering Gospel.

Consider the sin of domestic abuse, both emotional and physical. I believe it’s one of the great unmentioned sins in the church, because it is one of the great plagues of the culture. Christians don’t have a lot of verses on this one because the Bible was written in cultures that seldom defined abuse as we do today. Abuse of women and children- and occasionally men- is rampant, common and even accepted in many cultures. I am fairly certain I could walk- not drive- to the homes of several families I know that are dealing with this right now, including prominent families in churches.

Have you ever talked to a counselor- secular or Christian- about how they feel about abusive men? I have two books on emotional abuse on my bedroom shelves right now. Both say the emotional abuser will almost certainly never change and the victim/woman must divorce and leave such a man no matter what he says.

That is the message of the culture to the family that is struggling with emotional/verbal or physical abuse: no change possible. Get out. End it and start over. To do otherwise is the enable the abuser to continue the cycle of abuse.

Now I understand this, and I have advised many women to get out and have called social services on behalf of young people. I am not that guy who says “submit and take it,” so don’t write me with stories of how churches and pastors said stay and wait for him to change. I am basically on your side and I respect your pain and loss. I just have another problem.

I deeply disagree with the hopelessness of the typical scenario. I believe Christ and the Gospel can change the abuser. I believe it, I’ve seen it, and- hang on- I want every church to have some kind of niche in their community- aside from a professional counselors office- where such repentance can go on. I want support for the abused, and I want some community for the genuinely repenting abuser. If we say no abuser ever tries to repent, then we deny the Gospel, and that’s a big deal.

Maybe a Samson Society. Maybe a Celebrate Recovery relationship. Maybe a Promise Keeper’s small group. Maybe a healing prayer service. Maybe a prayer partner. Maybe a mentor or accountability group. Someplace where it can happen in the real world, with other men, and not just in a counselor’s office where it’s unlikely he’ll hear the Gospel.

If there isn’t such a place for that man who seeks to repent of his shabby and rotten treatment of his wife and family, then what business do we have preaching the Gospel to that man? What business do we have reading him I Corinthians 6:9-11?

Oh, I know. Your mind is already going where mine went long ago: the who catalog of sins that our culture has placed in the “pariah” file. Pornography addicts. Sexual abusers. Violent criminals. Sociopaths. Child molesters.

No fellowship of mere humans can create the community where everyone can repent openly. It’s just not possible. Some sins and their consequences are too controversial and dangerous, even in the process of sincere repentance. Most churches are too imperfect to love every sinner as they should be loved. No church can turn an eye to realities of risk and recurrence.

God bless those in prison ministry and those who can go to the men and women no church can allow in, but are there churches seeking to call out and equip those persons for that ministry? Even if it that ministry can never result in joining the church’s formal, 3-D fellowship? (By the way, once again, one can see certain advantages to the Catholic way of doing church. It may fall short, in some of our assessments, in the quality of “typical” community, but it also may be much more accommodating to the person who, truly, can only come to confession, receive the sacraments and then must leave, or to the person who can’t enter a fellowship at all.)

I wonder how many who hear preachers inveigh against viewing internet porn are also sitting in a fellowship where there is a place one can confess, experience acceptance and become accountable for such a struggle with sin? How many are sitting in a place where Paul could write I Corinthians 6:9 with a modern list of shocking sins, but no one can say “I was one of those, but thanks to the Gospel I heard and experienced here, I am that no more?”

This is a real challenge, because the world is full of bad things and as often as we are accused of being rigid and Puritanical, we are also accused of being sloppy and naive with forgiveness. (Listen when someone on death row claims to have been forgiven by Jesus.) As Jesus shaped, Gospel loving people, the scandal and shock of forgiving real sinners is one sign we are getting it right. If the Corinthians went over the line and into the ditch, I’m just glad they were on the right side of the road. For too many of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers, there is very little mercy for anything resembling the prodigal unless he comes home looking very good and sporting a nifty testimony. We don’t want to be in the business of cleaning that kid up.

In most of the churches I’ve served, someone has been convicted of a crime and gone to jail. Some of those persons were sitting in the church’s pews the weeks before. Paul Zahl says you would be very surprised to discover how many people you know have spent a night in jail.

You’d probably be more surprised to learn that the woman next to you at the gym is there because her husband verbally abuses her about her weight. Or what your best friend’s husband is doing on that work computer. Or who is on the sex offender’s registry because as a 22 year old public school coach they had consensual sex with a 17 year old student. Or who is addicted to prescription medications. Or who punched their 15 year old son in the jaw. Or who is paying the mortgage having sex with strangers off of Craig’s list. Or who is a three time convicted shoplifter. Or who was arrested for a DUI last month. Or who smokes pot every day.

Yes, most of us don’t want to think about it, because these are messy, life dominating sins, scattering trails of wreckage behind them that no one wants to become involved with. But we preach the Gospel to them when we preach it to anyone.

We have a Word to hear, an aisle to walk, water to be washed in and a table to come to, but do we have a people gathered around that Gospel who will strive to make a community of repentance possible?

NOTE: For those who are interested in this topic, the life’s work and especially the recent writing of Dr. Larry Crabb is invaluable.

Comments

  1. Great thoughts as always Michael. We have a significant servant in our congregation with a drug conviction in their past and I am helping a couple reconcile through physical abuse. Real Christianity is messy and seldom its into our prepackaged ideas.

    Thanks for the reminder that we need to be the place where repentance is allowable and acceptable, and where we rejoice when repentance happens instead of judging the sin that was repented of.

  2. A very true and encouraging write up Mr. Spencer! In my own life I need to learn how to love in truth more profoundly in my day to day living to my fellow friends on the journey and my everyday neighbor.

    Well done!

  3. Lisa Rhone says:

    I wholeheartedly agree and can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t. Thank the Lord for the people who do strive to make a “community of repentence” possible…even if that community of repentance isn’t a Sunday Morning Church Service. I don’t know where I would be without them. That’s genuine Christianity and not just religious rhetoric. God is so good and “will travel any road to find us” [the Shack]. I love this scripture…Great post! Hebrews 7:25

  4. I think you make some good points here. It is easy to talk about repentance and proclaim that everyone should do it, but it is so much harder to actually take a repentant person into the church and not see them through the lens of their former self regardless of actual change in their life. Sometimes it is even harder for church leaders to find a place of confession and repentance themselves for sins they still commit — leaders are expected to be perfect, it seems.

  5. I accompanied a man who had attended our congregation to court just a couple of weeks ago. He was sentenced to a year and a half in jail.

    With regard to the blogosphere, it is easier to be a teacher of souls than a physician of souls. It is easier on myself to post wise-sounding things than it is to accompany that man during his time in jail. Yes, I will accompany him.

    But, when one works with those who fit the list of 1 Corinthians, one has to open oneself up to a lot of pain, to failure, and to few good words thrown in your direction. And, one may not even get any word of thanks until that day when we stand before Our Lord and hear those words we so desire to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It is a hard ministry to be a physician of souls.

  6. Great thoughts Michael, offering insight and reflection, something I will chew on over the coming days.

  7. michael

    thanks for your thoughts. i have recognized this for the first time recently, as i am now-proclaimed former “self-righteous” person, that there is huge need to reach out to people in these “categories” because i myself am one of these. thanks for the encouraging post.

    peter

  8. Michael,

    This raises the same issue, from a different angle, as your post on the “horror” of people who have had their fill of sermons. In fact, this may have been exactly what I was thinking of when I said that evangelicals are over-reliant on the sermon to bring about change. No amount of amazing sermons is going to just change people. We can’t get around the overwhelming need for more relational help. The call to preach has largely eclipsed all the one-another-ing we’re called to do, and, of course, preaching is a lot easier. If churches at the time AA was founded were communities of repentance as you describe here–literally full of folks ready, willing and able to help people actually repent and change directions, AA never would never have been founded. Really, that’s not overstating. A “community of repentance” is exactly what AA became, what works, and what churches still struggle to be. The explosion of AA in this century is a testimony to how lacking this is in the Church. We just want change to happen in other ways–namely from the “Word to hear, an aisle to walk, water to be washed in [or the] table to come to.” Those are supposed to be our magic pills, but they’re all void of relationship.

    • Well said, and the Word, the invitation, the water and the table should create a particular kind of people and a particular kind of spirituality. (Read my book!) This is our failure. The Jesus disconnect. And YES PREACHING can be a huge Jesus disconnect. Many people see preaching as a sacrament, when it is, in fact, the proclamation of the mediator and his Good News. We must have the community created around the basics of our identity.

  9. First Corinthians 6 has come up frequently among Christians in Maine lately, because our state legislature has ruled that same-sex marriage is legal. Without spinning into the tangent of homosexuality in this post, it’s good to read 1 Cor 6 in the light of repentance instead of judgment.

    I agree that churches need to have a mechanism for confession and accountability, and you may be right that the Catholics offer this better than the evangelicals.

    To risk spinning into another old tangent, namely post-evangelicalism, let me say that the failure of evangelical churches in the matter of accountability, confession and counseling may contribute to the fulfilment of your prophecy of our coming collapse. For a pastor to preach a 40-minute sermon each Sunday (one of your other laments about evangelicalism) and then, in a clumsy counseling session on Tuesday, to suggest that the counselee needs to “get himself right with Christ” before he can get anywhere, spells judgment rather than the empathy needed to work through the problem toward forgiveness.

    Should the evangelical experience revolve around the 40-minute sermon (trying hard to avoid the tangent here)? Or can we also provide some means of listening that will encourage repentance?

    I understand that pastors can easily burn out listening to the woes of their flocks, and that the sermon may be the most efficient means of communicating, but is this an either/or choice? What effective means do we have to offer counseling in a strictly confidential, non-threatening, non-judgmental way? Are there seminars that deacons can attend? Should we hire as a second pastor someone trained in counseling? Should we offer referral services to Christian counselors outside our own church? Should sermons speak to this topic more?

    1 John 2:1 says: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

    Any ideas? How do we encourage people to avoid the sin in the first place, but, failing this, to encourage them toward repentance yet without prematurely making them feel beaten over the head by judgment?

  10. I couldn’t agree with you more, Michael. Very good post.

    This intersect with something that I have been pondering recently as I begin a journey of ministry myself. In my denomination, part of being ordained into the church, as I hope to do one day, requires answering the question, “Do you expect to acheive perfection in this life?” The correct answer is, “With the help of Jesus.”

    However, coming from a background where I have sinned, and from a reality where, given time, I will sin again, I feel a little different about that questions. In this life, I expect to acheive moments of perfection. With the help of the Holy Spirit in my life, I see the possibility that those moments could grow into longer periods of time, say minutes or hours. Maybe even days sometimes.

    But in this world, we are sinners. Therefore, I do not expect to acheive perfection until I am perfected in God’s Kingdom upon the return of Jesus.

    Yes, I will strive for perfection in this world. And I will try to prepare the world for God’s Kingdom by encouraging others to live as Jesus taught. But as a descendent of Adam, can I expect long-term perfection prior to the return of Jesus? I just don’t think that I can.

    Why do I say all that? Well, it is because that, as I know that I have sinned and will sin again, I have to allow others to sin without condemning them. I also know that God’s love can change a life. It has changed mine. If God can turn me around, he can turn anyone around, and we have to love Him for it. We also have to love our fellow sinners so that they have the chance to turn around.

    Now to enact that in my daily life more fully.

    Continuing on the road to perfection,
    JAy.

  11. I agree with the other agree-ers. This is such an important thing that when it is missed, an essential part of gospel application is absent.

    My wife and I recently attended a week long intensive with “Living Waters” in Sydney (that is the Desert Streams, Andrew Comisky “Living Waters”…not the myriad of others things around with the same name). I was suprised at how it was exactly what you’re talking about here. The format was: teaching, then big group ministry (yes, charismatic in style) and then small groups. Confession, forgiveness, repentance among people who are struggling with relational and sexual issues (from rejection to all sorts of sexual addiction). No one was expected to be instantly healed. There was a lot of grace also for people falling back into sin, but there was also an expectation that Jesus was in the process of healing people and a continual reference and reliance on the cross. Because they also address people with unwanted same-sex attraction, they are part of the larger “ex-gay” movement that is loudly proclaimed to “not work”, and I’m sure for some that’s true. But it seemed to work for a lot of people I met!

    How that gets put back into the Church…okay, I give up. But I think it needs to.

  12. As one who has struggled with sins that will get you on the shunned list as soon as they hit the light of day, I found that place of repentance in personal confession. It was/is a safe place to deal with your sins and hear God’s forgiveness. It took months and years confessing the same stuff over and over, and being called to repent ,but it kept me in the church, and helped me not to become completely discouraged and give up the faith. Some sins fell away quickly, others I still fight against, but it has been a great help.

    The Catholics have a strong tradition of confession, and most Lutheran pastors will hear your confession too. I think there is a similar tradition in the Anglican and Orthodox churches. Each tradition is going to have it’s own particular theological”flavor” but there are churches and pastors around that will still do it.

    I know of non-Catholics who have sought out a Catholic priest to confess and repent of their sins, and of protestant clergymen who have shown up on the doorstep of a Lutheran church looking for someone who will hear their sins. I think there are tons of people that desperately want to confess their sins and be forgiven. Look at all of the online sites that let people confess their sins in cyberspace. (These places don’t call for repentance or offer hope of Chris’s forgiveness, but they are pretty busy nontheless.)

    There is a huge need in our culture for a safe place to confess and repent, its too bad the church is no longer the first place people look for that.

  13. Being from a small town, I could sit in any local assembly and look around and know exactly which sins people struggle with (or not), which makes it taboo for our pastor to even mention sin or a host of other topics. And when someone has real trouble, they just disappear for a while. The gospel provides the answer, but people don’t use the power in it to even try to improve. It’s as if growing closer to Christ is something that we learn in Sunday School, not something we actually do. Are we that numb? Perhaps I am too skeptical.

  14. octavato says:

    —–

    Quote Patrick Kyle

    As one who has struggled with sins that will get you on the shunned list as soon as they hit the light of day, I found that place of repentance in personal confession. It was/is a safe place to deal with your sins and hear God’s forgiveness. It took months and years confessing the same stuff over and over, and being called to repent ,but it kept me in the church, and helped me not to become completely discouraged and give up the faith. Some sins fell away quickly, others I still fight against, but it has been a great help. </i?.

    —–

    Patrick, that is a very astute and true statement. In my personal experience, I have found that one day, many many years later when you have long moved past that confession into victory, someone who was in that "confession accountability group" will usually bring that confessed sin back up and into the public arena. This is especially true if you are being nominated for some prestigious church committee or are being honored for some deed or service and jealousy rears it's ugly head.

    Kinda like politicians with their mudslinging or what Supreme Court justices go through.

    Then usually what happens is that people either shun you to the point of "re-punishing" the person like God punished Moses out of the Promised Land when he struck the rock instead of speaking to the rock to which there appears to be no recovery but to leave and start all over in a new fellowship

    and / or

    they start digging around some more to try to "find more stuff"

    And that is why your statement in bold is to me, the right way to go.

  15. Werther: You just proved why I have to put some people in moderation. Don’t try to post on this thread again. Completely inappropriate comments.

  16. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is the church full of saints can be more financially stable than the hospital for sinners.

    It’s sad, but people often come to the hospital church when they are struggling, but when they no longer need care they move on… many times back to their unchurched existence or the holier-than-thou church they left because they were shunned for their sins.

    And preaching the Word is still seen as the primary gift a pastor needs, when – as has been pointed out over and over – it’s a pretty ineffective way of healing. A therapist or a doctor or any other healer doesn’t preach or lecture. They listen and they’re there for the sick.

    Too many people treat church as a country club. They pay their dues in order to get a good sermon and music every week, and to have a place to drop their kids off for Sunday School.

    Thus, the “free market” drives the church we have now. The quest for money.

  17. Like John Correia I have been involved in counseling someone who was physically abusive. Fortunately his church was also supportive (a bit of a rarity, from everything I know on the subject), so he was able to receive congregational and pastoral support as well, at least during those crucial initial stages. So I greatly appreciate your candor on this subject.

  18. Very interesting issues related to this. I agree that evangelicals largely miss out on repentance in the community. Our most recent church tried pretty hard to be a hospital for believers on the journey, but probably went a bit in the ditch on the right side of the road, as you put it, accepting people who were still persisting in some sins. Say what you will, it’s hard to see someone who has mightily and remorselessly abused their now ex-spouse parade proudly into church with their new spouse, especially when (and possibly because) the family is well connected with the church leadership.

    Also related to this tangentially, what does anyone here think about the school of Christian counseling that believes a person can’t begin to be helped in any way really unless they get right spiritually/ with Jesus first?

    • Chad Rushing says:

      Also related to this tangentially, what does anyone here think about the school of Christian counseling that believes a person can’t begin to be helped in any way really unless they get right spiritually/ with Jesus first?

      Although I am not a professional counselor by any means, many friends of mine come to me for advice with various life issues, and I have no choice but to offer different advice to fellow Christians than I offer to non-Christian friends who are not open to accepting Christ, the latter choosing to go it on their own rather than looking to God for support and guidance.

      Of course, there are many things that a non-believer can do to improve their life situation: switch occupations, give up a bad habit (or usually swap it for a less bad habit), break off a destructive relationship, and so forth. However, even if they get all of their other ducks in a row, there will still be this huge, persistent, God-shaped hole in their heart and a dominating sinful nature that cannot be effectively challenged through worldly means.

      I am convinced that the only way to find lasting joy, peace, and contentment, the kind that the Apostle Paul exhibited even while imprisoned, is through reconcilation with Father God through Jesus Christ; the world offers no real substitute for that.

  19. MY first confession lasted an hour, the irony is I did it as a sort of right of passage to communion, to my surprise it was liberating and full of freedom, I thought I had dwelt with and repented of these many issues between me and the Lord, but to my surprise just saying out loud to a church authority and receiving absolution was a surprising comfort. I had a rough week this week and blurted out G D, I told the Lord I was sorry yet retained a heavy heart for the next couple of days, made it to confession this morning and I kid you not the grace of God is present in a special way. I think we need this more than we realize.

  20. Interesting – that we most have cited their annectodal stories of “others” or “people they know/knew” as fitting into one of these “areas of struggle”..

    I have a Pastor friend. Spends a few hours a week thumbing through the phone book. Looks up Churches and calls the Pastor/Minister/Priest. When they answer, he introduces himself and without wasting much time, asks them if they are struggling with Porn or in danger of/currently involved in an affair. You can imagine the array of responses – from seething cursing to broken tears and release for being able to confess their sin.

    We all need to own our stuff. What a simple concept so wonderfully told in the act of confessing our sins “one to another”, and in doing so walking in the light. That – I believe is the heart of confession and the start and end of victory.

  21. In past churches I’ve belonged to, the process of coming clean with your sins as a Christian primarily took the form of “re-dedication.” You only walk the aisle to re-dedicate yourself if you feel you’ve been a really bad sinner; occasional “slip-ups” didn’t constitute the need. But you can only do that aisle-walking thing so often. Too much, and your sincerity is questioned. You should have changed by now, have your life back together for good. And the dreaded fear that since people can’t fall away, you must never have really been saved and sincere enough in the first place. Life is a cycle of re-dedications, most of which never took.

    The only sort of personal accountability groups/partners I’ve ever experienced (other than my husband and pastor) have taken the form of Christians telling their fellow Christians that their behavior is probably sinful and is offensive to them, and that they probably need to repent. This is called “holding your brother accountable,” so you can do it and still feel like a pious Christian. Almost none of the offending deeds were actually sins at all. I’ve seen someone call out their fellow Christian on text-messaging a person instead of phoning them, accusing them of being sinfully anti-social. I’ve heard a young woman complain about being invited to a New Year’s Eve party full of Christians sharing in wine coolers in a responsible manner. In the name of accountability, I personally have been accused of laziness and was told to repent because I didn’t offer some help once to a person I didn’t know needed it. The result of all this was a lot of inter-relationship bitterness, self-righteousness, and worst of all: a gutting of the Law of God into petty moralisms, and consequently a gutting of the real Gospel. If we don’t have real sins, we can’t have real forgiveness. Maybe it’s because we think that real sins never exist in our midst, so we have to invent new, little, mean ones.

    It’s great to experience churches where sins are confessed every single week, corporately or privately, and real absolution offered. The understanding that repentance, forgiveness, and the struggle against sin is a daily pattern throughout the Christian life is wonderfully liberating. Like you say, we probably can’t or shouldn’t go around confessing all of our sins to all of our fellow church members in the name of having a healthy and transparent community. But at churches that strongly and publicly acknowledge the ongoing struggle, and provide ways to deal with that other than “just try harder next time,” seem to be on the right track.

    • Chad Rushing says:

      In past churches I’ve belonged to, the process of coming clean with your sins as a Christian primarily took the form of “re-dedication.” You only walk the aisle to re-dedicate yourself if you feel you’ve been a really bad sinner; occasional “slip-ups” didn’t constitute the need.

      I can so relate to that practice in churches I have attended. It seems to be the confessional method of choice at Christian youth retreats, too. I told my teenaged niece (who is a Christian) that if she ever needed to confess some sin in her life and repent from it, she did not need to make a big show of doing it via an explicit “rededication.” There is nothing about walking an aisle in front of a large group of people with somber music playing that makes repentance more valid.

  22. this brought tears to my eyes. thank you.

  23. How odd. I was just thinking about just this sort of thing, and in the context of abuse, too.

    It seems to me that the church would be a lot more successful in encouraging/facilitating repentance if:

    1. It didn’t take a “you are on your own” approach: Telling someone to change an ingrained behavior or attitude is unlikely to provoke change.
    2. It could get a bit more creative: Christians could discover ways in which they can insert themselves into the lives of others so as to throw a wrench in bad behavior cycles.
    3. It could stop confusing accountability/transparency with repentance: Instead of just getting people to identify sin, the church could teach people how to stop sinning.

  24. Terri Watters says:

    I love this blog.

  25. To John, above at 12:28 AM : In response to your question, “what does anyone here think about the school of Christian counseling that believes a person can’t begin to be helped in any way really unless they get right spiritually/ with Jesus first?”

    This was a question of mine too. That school of counseling is (probably) correct theologically but very unwise in practice. I have no training in counseling, but if I were a counselee and heard “You need to get yourself right with Christ” I would take that as judgment. I would also think that the pastor or counselor was taking the lazy way out, or was being callous, impatient, arrogant, or any number of confusing and negative qualities. I would also not go back to him.

    A counselor, even if he believes that a counselee needs to repent/get right with Christ should excercise compassion and patience, leading the counselee into this realization, understanding that there may be a number of factors.

    Also, and we’re being abstract here, a counseling problem may be one of severe temptation rather than outright sin, and the counselee is seeking relief from the temptation. Let’s remind ourselves that temptation itself, no matter how powerful, is not sin. It’s the surrender to it that constitutes sin. Jesus himself was tempted powerfully on many occasions.

    Hebrews 4:15-16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

    If Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses a counselor should at least try to. The goal is to lead the counselee into receiving mercy and grace in his time of need, not to pronounce judgment, even unintentionally.

    • Ted,

      That is a good point that you make, about severe temptation and counseling. Along with repentance and forgiveness, if we are severely tempted with the same things repeatedly, then counseling to help is wise.

      I just wonder how many leaders/church members think that temptation = sin.

      • Chad Rushing says:

        I just wonder how many leaders/church members think that temptation = sin.

        The percentage is probably far more than is healthy for the church. Any time you hear someone start to equate temptation with sin proper, remind them that Jesus Christ was tempted in every way possible, but He was still sinless; not giving in to the the temptation is always the key.

        In fact, I would not be surprised if Satan, who can only be at one place at any time, followed Jesus everywhere He went during his earthly ministry, constantly throwing temptations at Him in hopes of making Him slip up somehow just once. It is amazing to think that even one act of gluttony (i.e., eating for pure self-indulgence) or covetousness on His part would have completely disqualified Him as Savior!

    • Christian Counseling – What a can of worms that is.

      What if “Getting right with Jesus first” includes the counseling experience?

      The whole subject is a tinderbox among many Evangelical Churches. I’ve personally lived the entire spectrum – from attending seminars early in church life to teach me how, all counselors are from the pit of hell, sent by Satan to infiltrate the masses with secular humanistic focus to finding myself attending a one day “Life Coaching” seminar where all that was needed in my life was to realize my “inner god potential”.

      I’ve seen believers asked to step down from ministry because they were found to be seeing a professional therapist, told that if they just “read the bible more and prayed more” they would have God’s healing in their lives. I’ve hear MacArthur say, that all depression is really sin – and that it is self focus. I often wonder how that goes over with those who have chemical imbalance and are genuinely struggling with chronic depression or post traumatic stress syndrome/disorder.

      The key of course is that many professionals do not share the Christian world view do attempt to describe “sin” as behavior that is self-destructive in one manner or another. This then differentiates (supposedly) the designation of Christian or non-Christian counselors. Even in Christian Counseling, there is a danger for some who find help in this forum to enter a false relationship whereby they replace Christ and the hard work of learning to be a Christian the counseling relationship itself.

      I believe a healthy Christian Counseling relationship can be very Christ-like if the goal is to understand the dynamics that drive isolationist behavior, help us understand the trust dynamic, the reliance of one’s self on another, i.e., Christ, etc. There are also medical issues that may be part of the mix as well.

      Good “Christian Counseling” should, as in my own experience do exactly what my pastor is trained to do instinctively – to direct me away from myself and toward the cross. They will have different methodology perhaps than my pastor, and are trained to assist in dealing with trauma, abuse, etc. But in the end, I should find myself back where my pastor is trying to direct me.

      I always find when I am feeling isolated, lonely and disconnected that I’ve first strayed in my intimacy with Christ. This is the symptom, not the cure. The cure is found in me working out my salvation in fear and trembling. When I stop repenting I usually find it’s because I’m not in a place where I can repent.

  26. Well said. One of the unintentional products of avoiding this issue is that we teach people that the church will either white wash their sin or give them the boot. We are dealing with that right now, trying to help an abusive couple get the help they need. They are slowly becoming receptive, but were shocked that we didn’t think a prayer of forgiveness was enough to have things “back to normal”. It is long, hard and messy work, but they (and the community) are being transformed through the process.

    Ever notice in movies how, in the rare moments where the “bad guy” truly repents, they most often kill him/her off? We cannot stand to consider what it would mean to truly walk through redemption with people. Great post!

    Peace,
    Jamie

    • Good point, Jamie. I never thought about it this way, but it does seem that, in fiction, anyway, those who repent are “redeemed” by death. I wonder if the problem is, as you suggest, that authors (and readers) are uncomfortable with repentance, or whether such a story would be too hard to write, or even if it would be considered remarkably boring and/or hard-to-follow!

      I am often struck by how many “testimonies” leave out this “messy middle”. A person will describe, often in lurid detail, their past sins, then a dramatic “encounter with God”, and then go on to describe their “new life in Christ”. While they may give lip service to “ongoing struggles”, little is said of the process of change. I have to wonder why this is.

      • Good observation, maybe Hollywood is even less receptive to redemptive themes than we “the redeemed” are. Les Mis might be a good story to consider, while there are few stories that highlight repentance, I think there are a few (and only a few I am sure). And in Les Mis we see the work of grace at work.

        • One fairly recent movie that highlights repentance and grace is “Gran Torino” Granted it does have a bit of violence, but appropriate.

          I highly recommend it.

  27. As someone who has been under the repentance microscope (and as much or moreso my own microscope–day after… week after… year after… and in a Luther-esque obsessive type fashion–breaking down and analyzing my every last infraction and wondering if I had really repented) I have learned a thing or two about the kindness of God which has continually brought me to the “place of repentance” (more than I bother to notice, albeit, he has used various means including but not limited to groups like SS, and I’d agree with you big time Michael on your overall sentiments on counseling–here in this post anyways). If we are going to discuss getting to a “place of repentance” I’d say it’s imperative we understand just what “it” (repentance) is. Steve Brown defines “it” the best I have run across and I have re-visited this quote from time to time as I still struggle with a serious proclivity to question over and over by somehow gaging whether I have been thorough enough in terms of my own repentance.

    “Repentance is so often misunderstood. Repentance is not changing; it is God’s way to change us. The Greek word for ‘repent’ refers to ‘changing one’s mind.’ It isn’t changing one’s behavior as is often taught. If it is that, then there are times we can repent and other times (especially in obsessive or besetting sin) when it is simply impossible.

    …For years, I taught that repenting was not just asking for forgiveness for spilling the milk… it was getting a mop and cleaning it up, and then going to the store to buy some more milk for the person who owned it. So, because I believed that, I could not repent of some bad stuff in my life and I thereby robbed myself of one of the most important and wonderful teachings of the Bible. God changes us and sanctification is as much a work of God’s grace as is justification.

    …Thus, I teach that repentance isn’t changing. It is ‘knowing who you are, who God is, what you have done and going to Him with it.’ At that point the ball is in God’s court and He begins an amazing work of the Holy Spirit in making us more and more like Jesus.”

    Brown concludes… “If repentance is something different than what I have just described, I don’t have a prayer. Nobody else does either, even if they don’t admit it.”

    Thank you Steve Brown. There comes a place in the repentance process (and I call it a process for several reasons) in which we must learn to wallow in and be washed by the mercy and forgiveness found only in Christ–as he is our salvation I’d venture to say he is our repentance as well. No disrespect Lanie, because it’s a novel idea… but teaching “people how to stop sinning” only goes so far–we will continue to sin as long as we live in these fallen shells.

    A more practical and helpful idea than teaching people how not to sin would be to proclaim the gospel which announces that we can trust exclusively in the grace and mercy of Christ instead of our best, willful, constant, and doomed efforts to be repentant.

    • Hey Ken,

      I didn’t take your response as “disrespect”, and I thank you for correcting my misunderstanding of repentance!

      My response was mainly in the context of what I understood as Michael’s concern for individuals who are faced with repenting on their own, without companionship or support. But perhaps my response is better understood in the context of the fruits of repentance, rather than repentance itself.

      • …well, thank you for the kind words. I wasn’t rying to give you the correct definition or even my working definition on repentance so much as I was just trying to express my view of it via scripture in my last paragragh there–if it helped so be it–glad I could do so.

  28. As a Catholic priest who was raised one foot in evangelicalism and one in Catholicism, I am always fascinated and edified by what happens on the boundary between the traditions. A couple of things I have learned along this boundary inform my ministry as a priest.

    First, learning from evangelical preaching I lay a heavy emphasis on telling the stories of conversions, not TO the church, but of people who are already Christians and suddenly have a changing encounter with Christ. You are right, the people in our pews are in a constant desperate need for conversion and change in their lives. I want them to be reminded frequently that God will do powerful things in them when they are ready to let him in. This consciousness of sin and conversion among believers, in time, changes the way a parish understands itself as a refuge not only for those outside but for those there every Sunday.

    Second, in the confessional, a priest who takes people’s sins seriously, doesn’t diminish them or excuse them, but gives sound spiritual advice and hope will become known as a good confessor. Sit in the stall and they will come. In recent years I have had the experience of a surprising number of non-Catholic Christians approaching the sacrament because they feel uncomfortable with their minister’s approach. Some fear he or she will not keep a confidence. Some feel their sins are not taken seriously or that they get directed to a book or website or some para-church ministry rather than be ministered to directly, pastor to sinner.

    I have heard a surprising number of confessions of abortion from Protestants over the years. They mostly come because they believe that abortion in its spiritual consequences and in its many layers of guilt, shame, and despair are not well appreciated by their pastors who too often only refer to abortion as a political issue.

    In short, raising a consciousness of sin is not to make people feel bad, but to speak to their condition which they hold in secret and which for them is their axis of despair. To touch this raw place takes some pastoral courage, gentleness, kindness, hopefulness, conviction and ultimately some firmness.

    Thanks for broaching the subject. A reader new to your blog, I am thoroughly enjoying it.

  29. This.

    After going through five psychologists for religious OCD and help with a sinful habit, I found the most help from an agnostic lapsed Catholic. Unlike the others, he understood how important my religion was to me, and was helpful in teasing out actual religious beliefs from scrupulous ones. I also felt he would be less judgmental than a pastor. I did have good pastors, but they didn’t actually do much counseling themselves, especially not long-term – it was farmed out to pastoral counselors whom I didn’t know. Plus, the pastors had a high opinion of me, and I was afraid if I came to them with my issues, their opinion of me would be lowered. (Probably would have been good for me, to be fair.) This shrink, being raised Catholic, was also familiar with the concepts of mortal vs. venial sin, and confession. His familiarity with these concepts were immensely helpful in our conversations.

    I think a counselor needs to have unconditional positive regard for his patient, but also needs to have respect for his patient’s religious beliefs, and not seek to change them in the name of mental health (as did one of the psychologists I went through, who suggested I deal with my scrupulosity-fueled discomfort with references to sex by watching pornography). Counselors don’t need to be religious themselves, but the willingness to support the patient in the proper and healthy expression of his religion – including consulting a member of the clergy if needed – is vital.

  30. I’ve been considering becoming Catholic for a year and a half now and one of the things that has enticed me from very early on is Confession. Certainly it’s one thing to pray to God about sins, but it is a whole other thing to completely confess your sins to another…as we are commanded “Confess your sins one to another.”

    I like what you brought up about things Paul has written being ignored. It’s almost as thought we just like to focus on Paul for the main theological purposes (to prove against works of any kind, justification, etc) but we don’t pay attention to those things which he commands. Those “small sins” – greed, gossip (ouch!), lust, things that will keep us from the Kingdom of heaven. Something I’ve been struggling with lately is his COMMAND that woman wear head coverings when she prays, lest she shame herself; that a man NOT wear anything on his head or have long hair, lest he shame himself. Are these trivial? Or are they commands?

    It is very interesting the things we choose to overlook…

    • Michelle,

      as a post-Evangelical and a recent Catholic convert I totally understand your allure to the sacrament of Confession in the Catholic Tradition. what’s more, I can tell you from experience that it is every bit as humbling, cleansing, and rejuvenating as it appears from the outside.

      the way I prepare for Confession – one of the ways they showed us during RCIA – is to spend at least 20 minutes in prayer and reflection. good ways to start are to reflect on the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes, but Confession is nowhere near as ‘legalistic’ as some people might think. we don’t just run thru the lists of rules and check a box next to each we’ve broken. take time to think about each, and how it helps in our relationship with God and with others. so it’s not just ‘have I committed adultery?’ but ‘have I loved women and men in my life as God’s daughters and sons? or have I lusted for them? have I incited lust in others? have I celebrated love with my own spouse as a figure of God’s love, or have I treated them as a sexual object?’

      I tend to think of the ‘small sins’ in a similar way to ‘small sins’ in my human relationships. does drinking around some of your friends damage your relationship with them? does getting drunk? sometimes these things are trivial, but other times they’re not. I think iMonk is right – there’s room for contextualizing to the culture. when you pray and reflect in a spirit of repentance, ask yourself for your intentions in the ‘small sins’ – are you turning from God or neglectfully ignoring God by commission or omission?

      God has given us His Spirit, which proceeds from the Loving relationship of the Father and Son. I believe if we reflect on ourselves for a while, we’ll know pretty well when we’ve broken or bruised that Love.

  31. And also, those things which we overlook only backs us into a corner. I heard of one gay-rights activistic even using the argument “Well, Paul also tells women to wear head coverings, but they aren’t.” And surely we could say “Oh, it was just cultural,” but then the gay person could just as well respond with the same thing.

  32. Head coverings aren’t part of the creation order. They may be a cultural expression of the creation order, but that’s different. Where is gay marriage part of the creation order? Apples and oranges.

  33. Even though Paul says to wear it as a sign of the creation order (a sign of authority on her head, for man was not made for woman, but woman for man)?

  34. Unless we’re going to say that slavery is part of the creation order, then we have to assume that Paul was a person operating in culture like the rest of us. Believing in the inspiration of scripture doesn’t mean that Paul himself didn’t live in and operate in the assumptions of culture at times. No one reads scripture today with the assumption that we should discount all references to ancient culture. God inspired people in history and we have to deal with how they viewed the world in order to understand the truth that they communicated for all time.

  35. Right on target, iMonk. I’m one of those “surprising” sinners you listed, and a pillar of my congregation. Struggle with it constantly, wouldn’t dream of mentioning it to anyone at church. A formal confessional would be good “cover” to mention stuff like this. Out-loud confession makes me feel like I’ve got an ally in the fight. Oftentimes I feel like a horrible Christian, a poor advertisement for Christ in the faith marketplace. Also got nailed once in Sunday School: asked what it meant if you had to repeatedly repent of the same sin. One guy said it meant I hadn’t truly repented or God would have sanctified me and kept me from that sin. I’ve despised him ever since.

  36. I have been blessed enough to have a pastor who is very good at hearing confessions. Many of her sermons have the theme of forgiveness (since there are a lot of wounded people at this church), and so she is good at listening to ‘it’, no matter how bad ‘it’ may be, and gently offering advice and comfort.

  37. Would also add that it makes it easier, for me at least, when the person hearing the confession is a woman.

  38. I have gained so much from the Lutheran practice of individual absolution and confession.

    A distinction: in Lutheran practice, there is no advice offered or penance required. Also, there is no attempt to counsel or heal the sinner. All it is is Christ’s word of forgiveness spoken FOR YOU by the pastor. Confession of individual sins is not required, but is certainly allowed.

    I don’t believe this is the only way that Christ forgives our sins, but it is a way that makes our forgiveness very, very clear.

    Despite the blessings of individual confession and absolution, many Lutherans, even confessional Lutherans, remain very uncomfortable with this practice and suspect that it is “too Roman.”

    Of course, true repentence is never easy or comfortable.