Dangers of Confession

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Even though we are commanded to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16) this does not mean that confessing our sins automatically accomplishes the goal, which is forgiveness and transformation into Christ’s image.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer mentions three specific dangers of confessing our sins and I want to add one more. First, there is the danger of being too general in confessing our sins.

For the sake of this certainty [the forgiveness of sins] confession should deal with concrete sins. People are usually satisfied when they make general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of the human nature…when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confession to a brother and thus miss the good of confession.

When we confess to our brothers we need to be specific with the sin. Give it a place and time and a biblical name.

Second, he notes that there should not be one person that everyone else is confessing to. This will burden the person being confessed to and thus it will all become routine. Instead of being able to shepherd each individual through God’s grace the confessional will become a place for “the spiritual domination of souls.” He also says in this section that anyone who hears confessions should also himself be confessing to others.

Third, there is the danger of confession becoming a pious work, a source of pride. I confess my sins. Do you? Here is what he says about that.

For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil.

To these three dangers, I would add the danger of confession becoming a substitute for repentance and change. Here is the problem with a lot of accountability groups. They confess their sins to each other and often in very great detail, but there is little change. Everyone leaves feeling better about themselves, but no one leaves ready to stop sinning. If confession is a substitute for real change it is a lie. I am not saying that once a person confesses they will never commit the sin again. But I am saying that after confession we should find ourselves climbing the mountain of holiness not sitting at the bottom feeling good about ourselves.

Biblical Decision Making

decisionThis is a slight revision of an old post from 2012. 

This past Sunday evening I taught on discerning God’s will, specifically discerning God’s will for those areas where there is no biblical guidance. In other words, how do we know what God wants when we are dealing with a non-moral issue?  Perhaps the most important point was that God does not guide us mystically or supernaturally. God generally guides us through people, prayer, circumstances, common sense, wisdom, and our own desires. God does occasionally guide us through a “gut feeling” or a “hunch.”   But these feelings are not infallible nor normative. Below is my pattern for biblical decision making. I am talking here mainly about major decisions, though there is some application to more minor ones.

1.      Read God’s Word a lot. Here we learn godliness, wisdom, and the path of righteousness.

As we become more intimately familiar with God’s Word in Scripture, we become more intimately familiar with God, his ways, his habits, his characteristic reactions. We can pray according to his will, finishing his sentences. This doesn’t come from looking over God’s shoulder, but from diligent study of the Scripture, faithful participation in worship and sacraments, the usual means by which God reveals himself and his will to us.  (Peter Leithart,  From Beyond the Veil, 177)

But do not rely on random Bible verses. Verses must be interpreted in context.  God of course, can use random Bible verses, but that does not mean we should make it our habit to interpret God’s Word this way.

Make sure it is not sin.  This means specific breaking of God’s law.  You can be sure sin is not God’s will.

What if something might be a sin, but you are not sure? Here you should follow Romans 14:23. If your conscience is pricked, that is if you feel guilty, do not do it.

Make sure you are loving God and loving your neighbor. Examine your motives. Why are you doing what you are doing? It is possible to make the right decision for the wrong reason. For example, a certain job could be where the Lord is leading you, but you could be taking it out of greed instead of love for God and neighbor.

2.      Pray over the decision, but do not sit around until an answer comes in the mail. Pray over it and trust that God is going to answer your prayer through normal rational means (see below). Don’t pray over it until you get a lightening strike from Heaven telling you what to do.

3.      Talk it over with your pastor, spouse, parents, elders, and/or friends. Ask those closest to you to help you with the decision. Ask those who have made a similar decision for their advice. But do not blame them for what happens, nor make their advice the equivalent of God’s Word. Collect data and get advice.

4.      Look at your circumstances. What makes the most sense in your situation? Do not be afraid to ask, “What do I want to do?” For example, when choosing a career the two questions you should ask are: “What do I like to do?” and “What am I good at?” Do your research when making a decision. But do not research it to death. In our age, where the floodgates of information have been opened, you can research forever. You will never have enough data to predict the future.

5.      Remember we rarely feel fine with any major decision we make. Every decision involves the cutting out of other decisions, which can leave an uneasy feeling in our gut.  Marrying this girl means I will never marry any other. Taking this career path probably means other career paths will be closed to me. Even decisions which are not as permanent cut us off from other options. If we buy this house, we cannot buy that house. Just because you are uneasy does not make it a wrong decision.

6.     Once you have studied God’s Word, prayed, taken counsel,  and researched your options, make a decision and don’t look back.  Trust God that he will guide you and direct you. If your decision turns out poorly do not assume that you made a mistake. God’s will often leads us through mistakes and failures.

Too Many Christian Misfires

One final set of quotes from David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant before I put it back on the shelf. In this section of the book he is discussing the lack of discipleship in the church. He uses the parable of the seed and sower in Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23 to illustrate his point. Here is Matthew 13:18-23 for reference.

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

He notes that the different categories of “Christians” are always represented in the church, but in 21st century America

The first two [actually categories 2& 3]-the stone in the heart and the weeds that choke the seed-are so abundant and so disproportionately represented. They are the exemplars of “Christianity Lite” that so many evangelical churches are propagating. What catches our attention-and our breath-are the vast numbers of Christian misfires Almost half of America is claiming to be born again, but fewer than one in ten has even the foggiest notion of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in biblical terms.

Wells goes on to blame two things: the love of affluence and comfort and the business model that pervades evangelical Christianity. Here are two quotes that address both of these.

In the West we have not the slightest inkling that, in reveling in affluence as we do, we are playing with fire. This affluence so easily becomes an alternative Way, Truth, and Life, a counterfeit gospel in which to have is to be saved and to have not is to be damned. Unfortunately, la dolce vita, is not itself satisfying, not in an enduring way. It tends to make us shallow, self-absorbed people who give ourselves to chasing what is superficial by way of styles, fads, and what is pleasurable provided there are no demands for commitments. The styles quickly become obsolete, the fads are forgotten, and the pleasures fad like the morning mist so that this kind of life constantly has to be reinventing itself. Those who fashion their lives around these things die of emptiness. The pains that linger in the soul like  a bad headache stay for a long, long time.

Later:

The church has been like a shortsighted business CEO who goes for quick profit and puts off the long-term considerations of these business decisions.So it is in American evangelicalism today. Far too many leaders and churches are out for the quick kill, the instant success, the enviable limelight, the flattering numbers, the bulging auditoria,  the numbers to be boasted about-“my church went from ten to ten thousand once I arrived!”-the filled parking lots, the success story all dolled up for the pages of Christianity Today or Leadership. All of this is about the short-term interest  of the pastor(s), not the long-term health of the church. In Christianity, cut rate products bring a cut-rate future.

Our failure to disciple, love of numbers, love for affluence, adaptation of the business model of church, and general worldliness have left us impoverished and unable to pass on the faith in any substantial way to those sitting in the pews.

Tyrants and Kicking Posts

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Correct doctrine does not inoculate against sin. Just because the right things are taught sin does not magically disappear. It is easy to believe that if we just teach a biblically grounded view of courtship then all we have to do is set those two young ones lose, following our courtship rules, and all will be well. Or if we have the right liturgy then the parishioners automatically become more righteous. Or if we teach our daughters modesty then all will be well and so on. The trouble with this perspective is that the problem with sin is rarely knowledge. Sin lives within us. Whatever system we have (and some are better than others) we bring our sin into it. Many pastors and parents function as if teaching the right doctrine automatically sanctifies. But it doesn’t. And this why a pastor must preach to his people, not just the right doctrine, but also that right doctrine must translate to right living.

In our church we teach headship and submission. It is a biblical concept. It is one of the key issues of our day, along with numerous other male/female, husband/wife issues. But teaching headship and submission is not a vaccine against headship submission sins. In fact, someone can believe in headship and submission and have a terrible, unbiblical marriage. Here are two specific sins that crop up when a church teaches headship.

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There will be men who are drawn to this teaching because they are tyrants. They use headship as a shield for accountability. They love headship because they think it means they get to do whatever they want. My wife is my servant and I am the master. These men are often over-controlling, easily offended, lack real accountability, think their children are too good for anyone else, etc. They keep their wife really close because who knows what will happen if she drifts. They speak in terms of protection, but what they really want is control. They speak of their sins in generic terms instead of specifics. They are good at cultural critique, but not good at self-critique. Continue reading

Parenting in the Present

arrowsWe all enjoy certain stages and aspects of parenting more than others.  Some parents love the baby years. Therefore as their kids get older they keep looking back with fondness to when they were cute, cuddly, and contained. Other parents are not so fond of diapers and constant noises that are indecipherable. They look forward to the years when their kids will be able to drive, do big chores, and talk in complete sentences.

Therefore one of the temptations in parenting is to be constantly looking back or forward. Maybe your child is very young and requires constant attention. You spend your days waiting until they can do chores and read. Or maybe you have an awkward, acne-faced teenager who tends to be independent. You look back to the days when he was on your hip and always around. But as parents our goal is to focus on the present. What do my children need from me right? What delight and joys can I find right now? Remember God has you at this phase of parenting.  You can’t go back and you can’t speed up time. The Lord wants you right where you are. When you live in the present with your children a couple of good things happen.

First, we meet our child’s current needs, whether those are physical, emotional, or spiritual. One problem with constantly look back or forward is that the child in front of us is often ignored. We are a waiting on the fifteen year old to show up and ignoring the ten year old in front of us. Instead of meeting the child’s needs we get irritated. Parenting the child in front of you will give you greater sensitivity to their needs.

Second, it is easier to be grateful. All stages of parenting are hard, but the one you are  in is the only one that feels hard. The game you won five years ago or the game you think you will win in five years is always seen in  more a rosy light than the game you are trying to win right now. Often our longing for the past we had or the future we want is a not so subtle complaint about the present God has given. When we accept the present stage we are in as God’s gift to us, no matter how difficult, then we learn to be thankful.  How would you feel if your employer was always looking for a better version of you? “Well you know one day you will be the type of employee I really want?” Or if your husband was always looking back to the early years of marriage? “Well maybe honey one day you will be the wife you were when we first got married.” Too often our children feel that way. We are not harsh or mean normally. But our actions and attitudes say to our children I wish you were different. Until we learn to focus on the present we will not love our children as we ought. We must learn to be grateful for our children as they are, not as they were or as they will be.

Finally, a focus on the present creates dependence on the Lord. It is impossible to depend upon the Lord for the past. And, while there is a sense in which we do, it is also difficult to depend  on the Lord of the future. But in the present, when we are dealing with the child right in front of our eyes, we learn to lean on the Lord. How do we deal with a sullen teenager? Not how will we, though that isn’t a terrible question. But how do we deal with a sullen sixteen year old.  When we parent in the present it is easier and more natural to pray, look to the Word, and rely upon our brothers and sisters in Christ. In my experience a constant longing for the future leads only to anxiety and complaining.

Parents be all there in your parenting. There are stages you will like better than others. That is natural. But, if your kids are older, don’t spend your time looking back to how it was. If your kids are young don’t sit there longing for the day when they will finally be able to talk in a way you understand and there won’t be poop on everything. Be grateful, even (especially?) when it is hard. Perhaps most importantly make sure the children you have right now are your delight. Don’t let them grow up always sensing that they come up short.