So, what did you want to tell me?” I sat silent and terrified, staring back at my friend as I tried to muster up the courage to respond to her kind inquiry. For months I had lied, run, and hidden from my friends to cover up an obsession with controlling my weight. It grew too big for me to handle alone, but more than that I had come to see the dark, twisted roots of envy and ambition that fueled the destructive habits for what they were. The Spirit had nudged me into the moment in which I found myself, staring off the edge of the cliff of exposure. Little did I know that the terrifying dive would eventually lead to profound healing. In that moment, I had to claw my way through an anticipated abyss of shame to admit, “I think I have an eating disorder.”
In that evening’s conversation along with those that followed, God’s people kindly listened as I confessed to lying to friends and mistreating my body. I felt so profoundly human as I stared down shame, while also recognizing my selfish desire to save face. Yet, as I embraced my weakness and wretchedness, my friends reminded me of God’s profound grace. When the apostle James ended his letter with the urging, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed,” he pointed to a vital weapon in the battle against sin. The discipline of confession long-practiced among Christ-followers engages believers in collectively recalling the great gift of the cross. Though our inner selves recoil against exposing our faults, believers ought to engage in the spiritual discipline of confession as God’s gracious means of healing.
Unfortunately, many Christ-followers miss out on the benefits that confession affords, since it requires pushing past our normal tendency to hide. Adam and Eve set the example that generations of men and women continued to pass down by hiding their sin. Even as God tenderly called them out, the first humans succumbed to shame, hiding from both him and from one another. The impulse continued across time and culture; we hide when faced with our sins. I lived it for months as I increasingly isolated myself from friends, using my workload as an excuse. I feared exposing my behaviors, so I separated myself with an illusion of busyness. I feared shame, so I justified my actions by calling it discipline. I covered up rather than revealed my wound to others, believing that it would be worse to expose my pain than to unsuccessfully try to control it.
The world only amplifies our heart’s deceptive impulse to hide. Numerous platforms for interconnectivity present abundant opportunity for good, but tend to be stages for polished portrayals of ourselves. We end up with a large helping of comparison, perfectionism, and a whole load of “shoulds” to labor under. We swallow down bow tie pasta with bitterness because it didn’t look nearly as good as the dish so-and-so whipped up for her family. We strive after the images set before us, sweeping the less-than-presentable things under the rug hoping that they go unnoticed. God calls his people to bear one another’s burdens, but our environments praise performance instead.
James’s admonition to confess our sin still rings out from scripture, echoing off the walls of history in the words of theologians and the practices of the church. Christians regularly confessed sins in their early gatherings. It’s looked differently across time and denominations—Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions most clearly varying from one another. As the Roman Catholic leadership pushed for a sacramental view of confession with a priest, protestants swung hard in a different direction. While trying to avoid exalting certain practices, protestant denominations neglected to encourage a healthy spiritual discipline. Historic Christian leaders, though, emphasized confession’s importance. Church fathers employed medical imagery, urging Christians to confess their sins to the “physicians,” or the leaders who were entrusted with caring for their souls to find healing. In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “Go into church and wipe out your sin. As often as you might fall down in the marketplace, you pick yourself up again. So too, as often as you sin, repent your sin. Do not despair…For here there is a physician’s office, not a courtroom; not a place where punishment of sin is exacted, but where the forgiveness of sin is granted.” The early Christian churches understood confession to be vital for a believer’s spiritual health.
Smack dab in the middle of a year full of conversations that exposed the dark idolatry of my heart, God surprised me with joy. In November, I visited home for Thanksgiving with family and ended up in a literal physician’s office because of the harm I had done to my body. While at a holiday service in my small home church, we sang hymns of gratitude to celebrate the season. The crowd started into a familiar tune: “I will come into his gates with thanksgiving in my heart. I will enter his courts with praise.” At this point in my life I knew clearly that I brought nothing to God’s gates of value. That perspective, though, stirred up more thanksgiving in my heart than I had previously experienced. I clung to the cross alone as my sufficient entry fee through those gates. Confession moved me towards healing, as it forced me to deny any merit I had claimed before. I entered with abounding praise, because I knew that grace and grace alone brought me there.
Cover image by Shalone Cason.