"Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and together serve God."
A great reminder: spiritual disciplines are not some magic bullet to make us super holy. Rather, they are critical tools that can help us stay focused on Christ more than on the many distractions around us. In other words, we cannot grow in holiness and intimacy with God without daily "exercises" to keep our souls responsive and hungry for more.
I came to Christ at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. That first year of faith was a whirlwind…I was blown away by the New Testament and could not read it fast enough. I was discovering the relief and power of prayer. I was talking to many friends about what I was learning, and some were coming to faith. It was an exciting time, and I still smile as I think about it.
Within a year or so I was encouraged by my Young Life leaders to try out for the “work crew” summer program, where students who have already been to camp are invited to contribute a month of their time to working at one of the summer camps, learning about service and discipleship at the same time. Part of the application process included attendance at several training meetings and scripture memorization. This is the verse I remember the most clearly, some 35 years later:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)While there were several other verses, some of which I remember in bits and pieces, this one is burned into my memory verbatim. Why is that?
In a brief article like this one it will be impossible to take on gargantuan topics like sin, forgiveness, resentment, redemption and confession. We are close to finishing up a year-long series of articles (we only have one more month) on the classic spiritual disciplines of church history (as listed by Richard Foster in The Celebration of Discipline). Nevertheless, even in the limited space here I can tell you that my own understanding and experience of sin, confession, and forgiveness is still a work in progress all these years after “praying the prayer” and becoming a Christian. As Foster wisely says, “The Bible views salvation as both an event and a process.” I do not write here as an expert on confession, but simply as a person like you, in desperate need of God’s grace, healing and transforming power every day.
In 2004, a man named Frank Warren had an idea for a community art project. He began handing out postcards to strangers and leaving them in public places—asking people to write down a secret they had never told anyone and mail it to him, anonymously. Since then he has received more than 150,000 anonymous postcards, and millions have viewed his website, PostSecret.com. Apart from revealing our strange, “National Enquirer” tendencies to enjoy reading about someone else’s problems (after all, it distracts attention away from our own, right?), this project also exposes a unique dynamic related to confession: we often do not feel released from our sins until we unburden ourselves to another person. (Though I would argue that doing so anonymously does not accomplish that release.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes our need well:
A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. (Life Together)While Protestant Christians believe that a priest is no longer needed to mediate our confessions, it is acceptable to recognize that it is often through the words and support of trusted friends and colleagues that God’s forgiveness can truly take hold in our lives.
So what does this look like for us as youthworkers? To begin with, this conversation goes in two opposite directions. On the one hand, we need to be followers of Christ who confess our sins, willing to have our lives regularly examined by those who know us best. On the other hand, we also need to be ready to know what to do with the many confessions we will receive as well.
Giving ConfessionIn last month’s post on the spiritual discipline of Guidance, I suggested that in order to know how to make wise decisions that one needs to “understand the power of accountable relationships.” Every Christian, and especially every Christian leader, needs to surround him or herself with people who both know and love them well AND who will level with them honestly, regardless of the issue. When I need an opinion on something, I am still amazed at how easy it is to find someone who will tell me what I want to hear! But no matter how tempting that is (and I have given in to that temptation more than a time or two), I have come to realize that I have to be willing to work closely with wise counselors who know where I need to be challenged. Just today, a few hours before I wrote this, I had such a person remind me of an area of life where I can tend to fall short of what God would want of me. At the same time, keep in mind that it is not the sole job of these others in our lives to hold us accountable; part of why my trusted mentor was able to call me out was because I have laid my life and frailties open before him.
Receiving ConfessionPart of the great privilege of youth ministry is that you are actively participating in some of the most dynamic years of development in a person’s entire life! For example, as human beings there is no other time where we grow more quickly (other than the toddler years) than during junior high and early high school. It is a time of explosive growth intellectually, socially, physically, and spiritually. Our students will face many intense situations for the first time, and not know how to respond. If we (and our adult volunteers) remain consistently involved, we will inevitably have students who confess significant things to us. What do we do when that happens? Syler Thomas wrote an outstanding article several years ago that I still use with youthworkers to help them understand how to manage confidentiality–make sure you read it. But apart from the delicacies of follow up, Richard Foster reminds us (in The Celebration of Discipline) of several key things to remember as you receive confession:
- Live “beneath the Cross.” In other words, be utterly aware of the wickedness and sinfulness of humans and also the dreadfulness of your own sin. If you do this, you will know that there is nothing that anyone can say that will disturb us.
- Convey a spirit of humility to others. They will then feel safe enough to come to us.
- Pray regularly for the light of Christ’s Spirit within you. You will be approachable when you radiate his life and light to others.
- Be quiet. When others open up their grief, do not be distracting or destructive. As I like to say, Job’s friends got it right for the first seven days, when they simply sat with Job in his grief. It’s when they opened their mouths that things got ugly.
- Figuratively (and prayerfully) set the cross between you and the person who is confessing. They will then receive divine love and not just human emotion.
- Pray for the person. Do not just counsel them. Pray for healing of wounds.
As I noted earlier, this formative verse on confession reached me early in my spiritual life:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)We cannot lead others spiritually unless we follow the model of our Lord, who laid his life before His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Mark 15). As Foster says, “The discipline of confession brings an end to pretense.” May we be honest with our sins and shortcomings, and be living witnesses of confession, healing, forgiveness, transformation and wholeness. When the work of the Cross is made manifest, you are then free to truly shepherd others.
Additional resourcesTo get started on the journey of confession and healing for yourself, a few books I would recommend are:
- Healing for Damaged Emotions by David Seamands
- The Wounded Healer by Dan Allender
- Forgive & Forget by Lewis Smedes
- Becoming a Healthier Pastor by Ron Richardson