One of the most common criticisms of the Church is the hypocritical nature of its fellowship. We who are in the church are quick to point out that we have our faults and that God is not finished with us. Do we not after all, publicly confess our sins each and every Sunday?
The problem lies in the fact that our Christian fellowship doesn’t always extend to all the levels of our life. We are very different people in church than we are at other times and in other places. This little deception is not an act. It’s just that in the pious fellowship of believers we find it easier to put our best foot forward. But there is a down side to this as well.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the “pious fellowship” of believers “allows no one to be a sinner.” This is the reason we hide our faults from each other and sometimes even from ourselves. We can’t escape the haunting thought that many of the people with whom we share casual fellowship might shrink from us if they knew us better. And we wonder if we would still be friends if they could see us exposed and vulnerable.
“Confess your faults to one another” (James 5:16). The fact is we all have our faults. We are all sinners. We have confessed this before God and congregation many times. But even in this there is room for deception. Sometimes when we think we are confessing to God we are actually confessing to ourselves and granting ourselves absolution in the bargain. When we confess our faults to another human being we can be a sinner and still enjoy divine forgiveness.
When we share ourselves in this manner, we are no longer isolated and alone. We can hear the words of forgiveness, as if they came from God himself, from the lips of someone with whom we share mutual love and respect. A fellow sinner, like ourselves, who knows what it means to be personally forgiven. Moreover when we confess specific sins we can be assured that they too are forgiven by a loving God.
Finally, Bonhoeffer asks the question to whom should we confess. According to the promise of Jesus, every Christian can hear the confession of another. But will they all understand? Bonhoeffer suggests that only someone who has come to grips with the horror of his own sin and has known the sweet forgiveness of the cross can hear the sins of another. It is not the experience of life but the experience of being accepted in grace and mercy that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. We have always heard that confession is good for the soul. Now we know, why that is true.