Confession of sin
I recently responded to the issue of confessing sin. Click here. One of us sinned greatly against a spouse and the question was should she tell him. I expressed the opinion that the woman (who is genuinely repentant and free from a reoccurrence) might consider it best not to tell him, depending on her intimate knowledge of her entire situation. The ideal situation would be that the sin never occurred but since it did it would be ideal if they could share the burden and enter more deeply into their relationship with Christ and one another despite it and even through it—learning from it and being shaped by it.
I think it irresponsible to advise someone we don't know to confess to another that we don't know something so serious while knowing absolutely nothing about the entire setting and the numerous people who would be affected.
Some thought that my remarks didn't take adultery seriously enough. Let me assure you that that was not my intention at all.
Some seemed to think that if she didn't confess to her husband she was living in violation of God's law. (Their speech was ambiguous and when pressed they wavered a bit.) Some thought that if she didn't confess to her husband that she was "living in pretence". Some said if she didn't confess to her husband that she was "hiding her sin". Some thought that if she didn't confess to him that she was "violating the nature of the marriage covenant, part of which is to promote openness". Some thought that she should confess to him or she'd "live in ever-deepening misery". Some thought that confession was part of repentance so that if she truly repented it would necessarily involve confession. Some thought that the scriptures plainly require that she confess so further discussion is unnecessary (compare James 5:16). And so forth.
Let's get something clear from the start: any behaviour, from a "mild flirtation" to full blown sexual intercourse (and all stages in between) is out of order. Any relationship that involves any of this is in that respect unhealthy and sinful.
I accept that there can be good-natured and innocent speech/activity that shouldn't be so categorised but making judgements in this area can be very tricky. Still, as one American judge famously and rightly remarked in another context, we may not be able to define "harmful" but we know it when we're doing it.
And yet, sometimes we're doing more than we know and what may be harmless in one setting and on any given day may be harmful in another and on another day. Laughingly and openly flirt with someone who's life is grand and no harm ensues. Do it with someone who is under life's whip and we might begin something tragic and sinful. Flirt and you may be able to dismiss it as nothing—certainly there was no sinister intent—while the vulnerable snatches at it and a slide begins.
When I was younger I was a drinker. I had a nephew I loved dearly—Billy. He and his family moved to Australia and many years later I met up with them on one of my trips there. Billy was a hard-drinker and a street-fighter. Poor thing, his life was pretty much a shambles. I think I asked him how it all got started and he said something I can't forget, "D'you know who gave me my first drink?" I told him no and he said, "You!" I got free from the booze and he never did. For good or ill, we do more than we know.
There's a difference between an habitual offender and a one-time offender. An habitual offender could easily be a desperate struggler against what it is he/she is offending in, so he/she isn't to be dismissed as heartless or uncaring. Nevertheless, if we know they're working havoc they must be stopped (where that's possible and to whatever degree that's possible)—the innocent need protection. Of course, in the area we're discussing, when evil occurs neither party is innocent (but there are family and friends and dependants that often suffer). Our help of and advice to an habitual offender will and should differ in many respects from how we will work with a one-time offender. Those that don't know this shouldn't offer advice in any shape or form.
There's "pretending" and pretending. There's "hiding" and hiding. Here's "John" and "Joan". They've been married twenty-two years, are devoted to each other and have raised three great kids. Sustained financial troubles, fear of unemployment, a period of domestic tension and a "fling" that last several months and is the cause of terrible guilt feelings. John is genuinely grieved, ends the nonsense and purposes no more of it. While the affair was ongoing his guilt led him to act toward her with more sensitivity and since he was now done with the wickedness his care for her is even more sensitive and deep than his pre-affair devotion. For multiple reasons, best known to him, he chooses for the present at least not to tell Joan about his sin.
It would be true to say that he's hiding his sin from her! But to say he's "hiding his sin" is a phrase that suggests hypocrisy and something sinister—it is almost the equivalent to saying he is not repentant over it; but John is deeply repentant over it. He's certainly "hiding" his sin from her in the sense that he has chosen not to disclose it—that's what hiding it means; but so much depends on why he chooses to hide it. If because he knows and loves her and fears that it would needlessly injure her if he told her, he hides it, it has nothing to do with impenitence. Others might think he is making a poor judgment call but what they cannot know and shouldn't claim to know is that he's "hiding" his sin for some sinister reason.
Suppose he carries his secret for many months or longer, are we to say that he is living a life of pretence during that time? We need to be careful with our words! In what way would his life be a life of pretending? Is he pretending that he loves his wife? Is he pretending that in a healthy but very marked way he is catering to her needs as a woman and a wife and a mother and friend? If we knew that John was a lying and hypocritical rascal who felt no remorse or guilt, who stayed with Joan only because there were advantages he would lose if he walked off—if we knew that that was the case then we'd say he lives a life of pretence. But it would be sheer nonsense to say that because he has chosen for the present at least not to reveal his sin to his wife that his life is mere pretence.
Is he "pretending" that he has always been sexually faithful to Joan if he doesn't tell her of his sin? Here again, we need to be careful how we speak especially since we are dealing with actual cases—some we may know about and some we aren't aware of! Should we take the view that because Joan—without ever asking—believes he has been with no one else that John is pretending if he doesn't tell her? Is all silence pretence? Honesty and openness are virtues to be prized and pursued but are they to be worshiped? Do the virtues of compassion and considerateness ever come into play? Is withholding information always lying? And is refusing to tell always hypocrisy no matter what the reasons are for remaining silent?
What if Joan asks him one day? What if she never does? Yes, but what if she asks him one day? If she did, that would change the whole setting of the discussion we're having and so doesn't add anything useful to it! What if she asks him some day? Then he will need to find a way in truth to deal with her question! But that has nothing to do with the present discussion!
If he doesn't confess will he not live in ever-deepening misery? That's very possible but such situations are much more complex than the question might imply. There are those who fear so greatly that the confession of their sin would destroy innocent lives that the only thing that keeps their head above water is their not telling. It's too easy for those of us whose lives are filled with peace and joy to come to conclusions for others whose lives are anything but peaceful. In light of the full acceptance we enjoy with our families and friends we think that if we were to behave abominably we could confess it without life going to pieces. Maybe that's true; but if it's true it's because we know our situation and would act on that sure knowledge. It may even be presumptuous to think that what we know about ourselves is true of those about whom we know nothing and that the good advice we would give ourselves would be good advice for those who are complete strangers to us!
Again, there are some of us whose deep misery is the recurring fear that our shame and wickedness might become known. The depth of the shame is what keeps us silent so our not telling it to others is less misery than the misery we'd experience if others were to know. This kind of silence can easily be self-serving since our comfort can become the primary or even the sole motivation for our silence. If we know our silence is bought at the unquestionable expense of others we are not doing right in keeping silent. (Imagine, for example, my doing wrong and someone else getting the blame while I, knowing it and saying nothing, allow them to suffer.)
It might still be true that a wife will live in prolonged misery if she doesn't tell her husband. This would be an additional tragedy and not an unusual fruit of our sinfulness but at least it would mean that she takes her sin seriously. So, is that it, we're to encourage her to suffocate in her misery? Indeed not, we might well urge her to find a wise and God-centred counsellor before whom she could unburden her heart while she waits for the time when she believes she can tell her husband.
With my hand on my heart I say that I believe the sinner's peace of mind matters! But the sinner's peace of mind must not be made the primary thing that matters! Some of us live with guilt and the pain that comes from secret sin and we accept that under present circumstances that is part of the price of sin. It isn't for nothing that a proverb says the way of the sinner is hard. [Read of Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne's, The Scarlet Letter.] If some poor guilty soul is bearing a burden that can't be removed except by placing horrendous burdens on others who are innocent he/she will have to weigh the options and ask for God's sustaining grace.
James 5:16 says we are to confess our sins to one another. Well, there's no arguing with James; but it isn't enough to quote James and move on as if by quoting him we've understood him. If I commit adultery with another man's wife I've sinned against him (and many others). Does James 5:16 require me to tell that husband? I've sinned against him as surely as I've sinned against my wife (and others) so does he have the right to know and should I make amends to him by confession? Does it matter if my co-sinner assures me with tears that my confession will "destroy him" and the children? If my co-sinner assures me that their marital union is more than a little shaky at present and that her sin and mine would be the last straw and if she urged me to remain silent until she and her husband were well over the fragile phase they were going through due to illness of the children, financial pressures or employment difficulties—this should be given very serious consideration when working with James 5:16.
When James says "to one another" does he confine it only to husbands and wives confessing to each other? Does he confine it only to those we've immediately sinned against? Should we confess our sins congregationally (even if they are known only to one or two people)? An eldership I know of forbade a man to explicitly confess before the assembly that he had committed adultery with a sister in that church. Would James have been upset with those shepherds? If we think the shepherds were wise can they be wise if they have skated around James 5:16? The man wanted to confess, they forbade him, did that violate James 5:16? Why do you think they might have forbade him?
Who, exactly, is "one another"? And what are the circumstances James envisages? Are we sure that that section of James is speaking of what we might call "general confession"? Read it and see what you think.
I may take this up again.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website,theabidingword.com.