No Successful Cover-Ups

Among his collected proverbs, Solomon teaches us a few things about the wisdom of confession.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

First, attempts to conceal one’s sin ultimately fail because God already knows. Someone may ask how that observation comes from this verse. Here’s how. God’s fixes the truth in His universe that sin concealers cannot be a prosperers. But how does it work? Who enforces it? Assuming a successful cover-up as the verse does, how would we know whose prosperity to preclude? The principle holds because God knows. He cannot be snowed.

Second, confessing sin is the right foot forward and forsaking sin is the left foot, the necessary second step. Fools hop on confession alone. Honesty before God is good as far as it goes, but accurately describing a garden overgrown with weeds isn’t the same as pulling them out. Devoting time to confess sin should help us avoid the plastic smiles of hypocrites. But we also forsake sin rather than wallow in honest immorality.

Finally, the aim of confessing and forsaking is obtaining mercy. Confession doesn’t earn points with God; by itself, confession doesn’t make us presentable. We always need His mercy. In confession, we acknowledge our disobedience and our dependence on His grace. He gives grace to the needy, not to those who try to conceal their need by concealing their transgression. That’s why coming clean before God is wise.

Attitudinal Sins

What kinds of sins should we confess? What kinds of sins separate us from fellowship with God? What kind of sins did Jesus die for? The answer is the same for all three questions: all sins, every kind of sin, each sin.

I ask what kind of sins we should confess because a certain strain of defensiveness infects our hearts. This breed of defensiveness reasons and speaks about “attitudinal” sins in a way that suggests, or even asserts, that sins of attitude are untreatable.

Let’s acknowledge that we do not want to create an Attitude Bureau of sin detectives. It is not hard to imagine a Pride Gestapo getting out of hand, putting everyone in jail, then arresting themselves because they themselves were so proud to arrest proud people. The goal here isn’t to encourage quicker confrontation, but rather to encourage quicker confession.

Maybe the most protected attitudinal sin is pride and the denials are viral. “You don’t know what’s in my heart.” That’s true. We can’t know another’s heart absolutely, but what we see and hear comes from the heart, like it or not. “Everyone is proud.” That’s also true. But isn’t that an argument for recognizing sin and confessing, not against it?

Last week I read some reactions to a particular situation that’s become a very public confrontation of pride and other “heart” issues. Numerous responders seem to suggest that attitudinal sins ought to be left alone. Really?

So, as long as I don’t jab you in the throat with my “I’m #1” trophy, my anger and pride are untouchable? You’ve heard it said that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, but I say to you, unless that anger comes out in an objective way that everyone and their mother can identify, you really can’t call it anger or hold me responsible for it.

Sin comes through word and tone, in deed and motivation, in action and attitude. We ought to be gracious toward those with attitudinal sins in the same ways we ought to be gracious with all sorts of sinners (though graciousness is not the same as silence). Even more so, we ought to be ruthless in confessing all our own sins, including attitudinal sins.

Making a petty comment is easier to mitigate than punching someone in the face. It can be touchy to deal with things that aren’t superficial and obvious. But our hearts are also tricky and would prefer to hide. If it’s sin, it should be confessed, even if it’s our attitude.

Attached to Strings

When Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (see Luke 12:48), what was He talking about? In context, He certainly meant that those with great responsibilities should take great diligence in fulfilling those duties. In principle, He also meant that those with many resources should be great in sharing those resources. We received freely, we ought also to give freely. But is that all that is required from us with many blessings?

Is it not also true that those to whom much has been given, much rejoicing and thanksgiving is required? We received freely, we ought also to praise vigorously.

Openhanded sharing and openhearted celebration are not disconnected. Grateful people are more gracious, giving people. Those who sing at the top of their lungs are usually those who will sacrifice their lives. Conversely, a person who believes he doesn’t have enough to be thankful, won’t think he has enough to spare for others either. Those who fear that celebration might get out of control certainly can’t control what might happen if they give something to someone else. I mean, what if they don’t use it the right way? What if they aren’t appreciative enough?

Those questions, if accurate representations our perspective, condemn us. If God took that approach with us, would He ever give us anything? Instead, His generosity makes us generous and He has given much. In addition, He requires more than weak celebration. He requires not only that our hands receive and share, He also requires that our hearts receive and rejoice! We shouldn’t give with strings attached or sing like we’re attached to strings.

Good at What They Do

Our culture depends on deception. Our economy goes round as advertisers put the best face on their products, and it only takes $19.95 plus shipping and handling for us to realize that advertisers are good at what they do. In a similar way, much religious life goes round as church-goers stick on their best face for Sunday morning, and it only takes a little scratch before the sniff doesn’t smell so good.

Confession and deception occupy different sides of the field, and only one can side can advance the ball. In other words, it’s possible to gain ground in two directions but not at the same time. A man can mature in his integrity or in duplicity, in righteousness or in sin. He can become more practiced at living a whole life, the same inside and out, everywhere he goes. Or he can become better practiced at showing up as whoever he wants wherever he goes, a crafty actor putting on different faces.

Sinners who mature don’t sin less, they learn how to cover it better, or at least they think it’s covered better. We appreciate kids because they can’t help but speak candidly. Grown-ups are the ones who figured out the supposed benefits of distorting ugly words once they’ve left the heart on their way out the mouth. As we get older, it isn’t that we stop thinking foolish or sinful things. In many cases, we think worse things, but we’re more “wise” than to make it easy for others to see that we’re really fools.

Religious duplicity ruins the multi-faced and spoils everyone on whom it spills. Deceiving ourselves and others is easy, and is the easy way to destruction. We should do the harder work of confessing sin as sin in our hearts, turning toward light and walking in the truth, the only path to life.

Press On

It is a sin to be stagnant in spiritual growth. The apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). We always need to remember that we are saved and sanctified by faith alone in Christ alone, but true faith lives and grows. The Christian life is not a self-improvement project, but those who embrace the gospel cannot remain the same, they “press on.”

We are not done until we are complete in Christ. We long for the pure milk (of the Word) so that “by it [we] may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). We “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are [ours] and are increasing, they keep [us] from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

To be sure, growth is often slow, but slow moving is not stagnant. Growth may not be immediately obvious, as with the physical maturation process, overnight is rarely long enough to observe measurable progress. But regular check-ups, perhaps with the help of others who know what to look for, may be quite important, especially if faith and hope and affections are not stronger. Every believing pilgrim makes progress and sins by staying in the same place.

Wearing a Religious Hat

Taking oneself too seriously is a sin, and Christians sin this way a surprising amount.

We’re not surprised to see an unbeliever take himself too seriously. Showing off and then getting ticked off when others don’t acknowledge the greatness on display is natural for the natural man. We see Mr. Thinks-he’s-great at work all the time and it’s no surprise that he’s mad when others laugh.

But how does this happen among believers, among us? Christians take themselves too seriously due to the exact same problem. Pride still remains in our hearts, we just use Bible verses to defend it. It isn’t a different sin at all. It’s the same sin wearing a religious hat.

We must take some things seriously because God takes them seriously. Husbands ought to sanctify their wives by the washing of the water with the word (Ephesians 5:25-26). That’s serious. But, husbands, it’s not serious because we’re awesome. It’s serious because the husband/wife relationship illustrates Christ and His Bride.

Parents, in particular fathers, we will answer to God for bringing our children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). That’s serious, but it’s serious because of His standards, not ours. God gave us stewardship, but that stewardship is to point them to their great Father, their heavenly Father.

Church leaders and disciplers also fall into cul-de-sac ministry, becoming dead-end authorities rather than speaking authoritatively about someone else, the Head of the Church, the Lord who commissioned the work. We take ourselves too seriously when we fight more for others to respect us than revere Him.

Pastor-centered shepherding is still man-centered ministry, parent-centered families are not better than child-centered ones, and husbands who get angry because their sacrifice was ignored miss the point. In some ways, the pointy heads of pride under these hats are worse because they should know better, and should be more experienced at killing pride rather than justifying it.

Those Who Do Nothing Wrong

We’ve been on a roll reviewing some of the ways we distance ourselves from personal repentance, especially through various deflection techniques. Popular deflections include recrimination or counteraccusation, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, and whatever you say you do worse than I do.” Then there’s credentialism, demanding to see a badge of authority before offering to pay any attention. We also examined the offensive technique of first-strike, rebuking someone who we know will take it in order to throw the attention off of ourselves. Here’s one more technique that starts defensive and turns offensive.

I’m not sure what the word for it is, but it goes something like this. Person U approaches Person I and says, “It really seems that you are angry.” Person I responds, “But what about last week when I wasn’t mad at you? What about all those times when I haven’t been angry?”

Sure, what about last week? Agreed, Person I wasn’t mad last week. But we’re talking about this time, not those times.

Person I digs in, “Well, why aren’t you thankful for all the nice things I’ve said to you? That’s wrong!” Person U is confused. “Who said I wasn’t thankful for all those? I am thankful, that’s part of the reason I’m concerned about this. This doesn’t fit with those. This needs to be dealt with.”

Third person observers know that this is not a good situation. This is how Person I deflects confession and repentance by attempting to make the other person feel guilty for something completely unrelated. “I covered the dunghill with snow. Why are you (sinning by) complaining about the stink?” “Even though I was punching you in the gut, at least I had my left arm around you holding you up. Where’s the thanks for that?”

There is no forgiveness for those who do nothing wrong. There are few relationships that can survive with this type of perfect person who does nothing wrong, either. We should pray that God won’t allow us to get away from sin in our hearts no matter how hard we try.

Field Full of Boulders

I listened to a sermon by Doug Wilson a week or so ago in which he said,

Often we rebuke not the ones who need it, but the ones who will take it.

I’d like to work that soil a bit and talk about why we do that.

Rebuke is a strong word, and not every situation requires it. With that said, situations that call for rebuke usually are not the ideal teachable moments where the other person is listening and wants to do better. When rebuke is necessary it probably means that the other person isn’t thinking or listening or responding to gentler measures. Who wants to step into that? Who wants to plow a field full of boulders?

So instead, we search for softer fields. We aim our rebukes at those who don’t need to be rebuked, but at least we will feel like we accomplished something. Rebuke isn’t always necessary when the other person is already listening, already sensitive. But that’s the person who will feel our blow and, not only will they learn how wrong they are, they will also learn how much more we love righteousness than they do. What a large pile of dirt we can show after digging where the soil was already turned over.

Why not just remain quiet? Say you’re not strong enough to rebuke the hard case, why lay into the weaker one? Not everyone does, some are always quiet and occasionally that’s wise and not a compromise. But why do some go for the scold? Because at least that keeps the attention on someone else. Recrimination and credentialism are defensive techniques to avoid confessing sin ourselves. Rebuking those who don’t need it is an offensive move, but still deflection. We think it keeps people from seeing our own field full of boulders.

Insulation Techniques

We construct elaborate but rickety structures to shield ourselves from confession. One of the most popular insulation techniques is recrimination, accusing the other person of what the other person accused us of. It’s ugly business and, even though countercharging doesn’t make sin disappear, it at least leads to weeks or months in the appeals system before a verdict is made. Who knows, maybe the initial allegation will even get dropped because, really, who has the time and resources to endure the litigation?

Another useful technique to dodge confession we might call credentialism, asking the other person what gives them the right to confront us or call us to repent. In this game, the parent card trumps the kid card, the shepherd card trumps the sheep card and, sadly, there is no joker for those who claim the upper hand. Arguing that authority is infallible by definition is a logical fallacy. But even when it doesn’t work, at least we can waste time forming a committee to investigate who’s responsible and we might forget about the original sin after a while.

Here’s the thing: the other person might be guilty of what they’re accusing us of. Perhaps that’s why they can see our sin so accurately; they know exactly what they’re looking at. Also, the other person may not actually have authority over us, but they see what the underneath of our authority looks like in a way we hadn’t considered from the top. Either way, the question is: are we sinning?

Blowing smoke in the face of others doesn’t put out the fire. There are all sorts of ways we can distance ourselves from and argue ourselves out of confession. As we do so, we also distance ourselves from forgiveness and fellowship with Christ and with each other.

Portions of Grace

Do you remember the story of Elijah, the widow, and the container of oil that never ran out? In the midst of a severe drought, with the prophet and her own son to care for, we can all imagine how cautious the widow must have felt making cakes day after day. But, according to the word of the Lord, the household ate for many days, the jar of flour was never spent and the jug of oil never emptied. How did that happen? It was a supernatural work of God.

The Christian life is also supernatural. It should not be explainable except for God’s work in us. According to Philippians 2, we’re to give ourselves for others, to treat them as more important than ourselves, and to see Christ as our model for humility such as this. That sort of a serving life is supernatural.

I’d like to knead that dough a little more. I think it’s a common experience for us to be very cautious with the portions of grace we give to others. We know that we’re supposed to give it, so we’re careful to position ourselves on the giving side of the line. But we also try to stay as close to the line as possible for fear that our bottle might run dry. Sure. We all understand that. That’s natural.

The problem is that we’re supposed to be supernatural, and being on the opposite side of the stingy line is not necessarily supernatural generosity.

As we angle to guard our flour and hoard our oil, we reflect a God who is not grace-full. We have received from His fulness, a fulness that is never spent and grace that is never emptied. Serving is better than no serving but, according to the word of the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, He fills us for much more than panicky, self-protective, bottom of the barrel serving.