Confession: Breakthrough to Community
Back again. I'm so glad that this series of Bonhoeffer posts seems to have prompted a few people to read Life Together. It's interesting to note that Bonhoeffer was in New York when he was asked to lead the underground confessing church in Nazi Germany. All he had to save his life was to say no. Saying yes, on the other hand, was quite likely tantamount to martyrdom. Yet Bonhoeffer did say yes, because--not knowing how long the Nazi Regime was going to hold sway over Germany--he knew that the discipling of the next generation was all-important if the church was to go on. That's why he wrote Life Together, and that's why this book, despite its brevity, has a seriousness and a depth of perspective that is quite moving.
In my last post I mentioned the four "breakthroughs" that are connected with the act of confession among believers. The first of these was "Breakthrough to Community."
As Bonhoeffer says, "Sin demands to have a man by himself." Sin separates us from each other. Just the way it broke the unity in the relationship between Adam and Eve, just the way it separated both of them from their Father, so that as He walked in the garden in the cool of the evening, they hid in the bushes, hastily applying their figleaf disguises, so it separates Christian from Christian.
Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness it poisons the whole being of a person.
And since we all sin, since we all fall short of the glory of God (how's that for understatement?), we all face this sin-effect. Have you ever read C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. In the beginning of that book, all the people are living in a place called Gray Town. There's constant bickering and mistrust, and so people are always trying to move to the outskirts, further from their neighbors. People are driven, it seems, to separate themselves from one another. Ultimately, this separation, as Lewis envisions it, becomes Hell itself.
But for the community of believers there is an alternative. It involves, instead of drawing away from one another, coming near through the act of confession.
In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).
We spend much of our mental energies simply trying to justify what we've done. In confession this last and most formidable stronghold is breached--self-justification comes to an end. Now the sinner "stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ."
This is no matter, you see, of the morally deficient approaching their moral superiors and begging forgiveness. This is the essense of fellowship among sinners. Pretending is laid aside. One sinner is willing at last to bring his sin into the light, to confess it, and another sinner is willing to be the vessel of God's spoken word of forgiveness and restoration through the blood of Jesus. And the power of sin is dealt a severe blow.
Everyone agrees that Christians need to forgive. But confession is the flip side of that coin. Don't expect to take the "high seat" of the merciful judge to whom all come for fogiveness, but never the low place of the guilty sinner seeking mercy.
Here's a personal note: I went for a walk with a friend of mine. I told him all about what I'd been reading concerning confession. I had a feeling it was something he needed to hear. So we sat on lawn chairs in a park by the harbor and he began to confess some things to me. Hard things. Things that have been weighing on him. And I proceeded to pronounce the forgiveness of God for him personally. Then the roles were reversed. I confessed, and he absolved. And all I can tell you is that since then it seems that, yes, the power of that sin I'd confessed seems to have been broken. The forgiveness of sinners was won for us on the Cross, but it must be walked out in relationships. Must be lived. Must be received again and again, even as we sin again and again.