So, I hear Christians say this phrase quite often, “I am struggling with _________.” Actually, I have frequently used the phrase myself. Usually it is the context of confessing or sharing some sin or temptation in our personal lives. What I find interesting is the word “struggling.” What does that mean? What I have found we usually mean when we say it is one of two things: 1.) “I am being tempted with a certain sin and I am struggling to resist,” or 2.) “I have given into a particular sin, but saying I am struggling with it sounds better.”
What I find to be troubling is the reason behind why we word it this way. Essentially the reason we say we are struggling with something is because to come out and straight up say that, “I sinned and I sinned on purpose,” is just not acceptable in most Christian circles. Or to say, “I am being tempted, and it seems really appealing right now,” is also not very holy. We use generic wording because often times the church is not a safe place to confess. This is problematic because James 5:16 encourages us to confess our sins to one another so that we can find healing.
I remember the first time I really paid attention to this verse. Everything inside me wanted to reject the implications of this passage. “Confess… to one another… nope.” The idea of confessing the deep things in my heart that I knew were ugly and corrupted to other people was horrifying. The reason it was horrifying was because I was convinced that no one else was as sinful as I was inside, and if they knew… gasp, what would they think. The assumption is rooted in a fear of being judged by other people. Sadly, this fear is not totally unjustified because the church is sometimes a place of judgment rather than grace. How did this happen though? How did the community of people who believe that God, in an act of scandalous grace, offered his very life to atone for our sin become so ungracious with one another?
I went to a Christian high school that leaned a little bit towards legalism in my opinion. I remember it being well known that there were a few couples in the school who were having sex. This was against the rules and consequence for such a trespass was excommunication—I mean expulsion. There was one girl who experienced a sense of conviction after a series of chapel services and confessed to the administration, which included the pastor of the church. Instead of being extended the sort of grace that Jesus embodied to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1 -11), she was expelled and her sin somehow became very public. She was treated like a leper by some who were more “holy.” I remember talking to her once about how she felt her church was treating her and I remember hoping that she somehow experienced the love and forgiveness of Jesus despite the judgment his followers were showing her. I am not sure she ever did.
How different would the church be if people realized that we were all as capable as any other of the most grievous of sins? What if we all realized that we needed a Savior just us much as the murderers, rapists, racists, genocidal menaces, liars, thieves, adulterers, and idolaters? What if we were a community sinners dependent on grace rather than a community of righteous people dependent on our doctrinal beliefs? What if grace was abused? I know that is a dangerous statement to some, but grace is costly in that it cost Jesus everything, but it is only grace insomuch that it is freely offered to us.
I cannot say for certain that all churches tend to be an unsafe place to confess personal struggles, sins, and doubts, but I can say from my experience, there are not very many safe places for this sort of dialogue. The problem is that there are a number of people trying to live lives free of sin in isolation. There are a number of people who sit in a pew on Sunday morning, but do not have anywhere to go for real, vulnerable, authentic community. We have this mentality that “real” Christians who have a “strong” faith can withstand doubt and temptation on their own. This is simply incompatible with a gospel that calls us to depend on Christ and worship him in community. We were never created to live in isolation, but to live in relationship.
James writes that there is something about confession that has healing effects for the soul. I have found this to be true. There is something about releasing a weight of shame that you have been carrying and experiencing the grace and love of God through His Church. We are intended to embody God’s love to the world and to one another. When I can look at someone and admit my failure, and they look back at me without condoning the failure and affirm to me that I am a child of God—there is something healing in that.
I don’t know about you, but my soul needs to be reminded that I am a new creation in Christ. My soul needs to be reminded that forgiveness is here, love is here, the kingdom is here, grace is here. I am not advocating that our worship gatherings become a place for everyone’s dirty laundry to be exposed. But, I am advocating that we create spaces and opportunities for this sort of dialogue and community to develop. Some call it small groups or accountability groups. I don’t care what it is called—I just know the Church needs more of it. There are too many followers of Jesus who are pursuing Christ on an island of their personal spirituality that consists of their personal relationship with Jesus in which they personally confess their sins. I am not against the personalizing of our faith. I am for it. However, I am against the Americanized individualism that has seeped into the American Church. We need each other. We need to embody grace, mercy, and love for one another. Sometimes I need to be reminded by the community that I am accepted and loved in spite of my sin. I am suspicious that others need to be reminded of this too.
“’Confess your faults one to another’ (James 5:16) He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, not withstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break through to fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together