The Dynamics of Change: Confession

Dr. Brian Allison

When was the last time that you had to eat your words? When was the last time you had to swallow your pride and eat crow? This past week a few public figures had to eat their words; they had to swallow their pride. Brian Henderson and Dick Smythe, two well-known Toronto radio commentators, uttered some racial slurs this past week. They spoke politically incorrect statements. They slammed the Jews. Now, as a result of their remarks, many from the Jewish community were offended and incensed. Consequently, both these men publicly retracted their remarks.

This past week, Grant Hill, a Reformed MP, mimicked and mocked Diane Marleau, the Minister of Health, in the House of Commons. The following day, he publicly denounced his actions. Brian Henderson, Dick Smythe, and Grant Hill apologized to those they had offended. Apparently, these apologies were accepted. Now the reason why an apology carries power – quells anger and reaction, and satisfies the offended – is that it serves to set things right. It is the act of making amends. Not only does an apology show that someone has committed a wrong and is 'coming clean,' but the offended party may acquire a sense of satisfaction that justice has indeed been served because the individual, in offering the apology, is humiliated and thus seemingly put in his or her place again.

Confession required for change

An apology is simply a confession of wrongdoing. The power of confession not only changes the negative attitude and reactive behaviour of the offended party, but also may positively effect the attitude and behaviour of the one who actually confesses. Confession can result in change for the better. In the book of Ezra, chapter 9, we are presented with the situation of Israel intermarrying with the surrounding pagan nations. This was a very serious problem and sin. Israel had committed covenant unfaithfulness, religious compromise, and was worthy of harsh penal action. Israel had been sternly warned in their Law not to intermarry with these nations. We read, "When the LORD your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favour to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and He will quickly destroy you" (Deut. 7:1-4; cf. Ex. 34:11ff.). (The New Testament counterpart to this injunction is: A Christian must not marry a non-Christian. The wedding of a believer with an unbeliever is an unlawful 'mixed marriage.')

So Israel had committed a grave sin. The religious leaders were foremost in this matter. Needless to say, a radical change of behaviour (i.e., repentance) was required. According to this account, the key dynamic that brought about a change for the better was that of confession. Confession is a precondition, as well as a catalyst, for change for the better. Ezra, a ready scribe and a teacher in the Law of Moses, therefore led the people in a prayer of confession. We read, "But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and I stretched out my hand to the LORD my God; and I said, 'O, my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to Thee, for our iniquities have risen above our heads, and our guilt has grown even to the heavens'" (Ezr. 9:5). Further on, we read that many Israelites personally confessed this sin (Ezr. 10:1ff.). This confession resulted in a religious reformation.

Before any significant change can occur in your life, you must first admit that you have a problem; you must acknowledge that you have made mistakes, you must own up to your failures. When I was a young lad, my brother, my uncle, and I visited a jewelry store, not to buy, but to steal. Realizing that no one was looking, I slipped some jewelry from the counter into my pocket and continued to walk around the store. Without thinking, I pulled it out again and started to fiddle with it. One of the store clerks confronted me, "Hey, did you get that from the counter?" That was a moment of decision for me. I could have said, "No." Instead, with shame, I said, "Yes." That admission cost me humiliation, but it led to change; it was the last time I stole.

The anatomy of confession

What is involved in confession? What are the elements that make for true confession? The passage of Ezra 9 and 10 clearly presents the essential elements of true confession.

a. Realization of personal guilt

The first element of real confession, which is rather self-evident, is the realization that you have personally committed a wrong or have personally sinned. So, we read, "Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, 'The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abomination...For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands'" (Ezr. 9:1,2). The sin of Israel was identified. Further, the people who had actually sinned clearly recognized their sin (Ezr. 10:2b).

Before true confession (i.e., confession that produces positive change), you must recognize that wrongs need to be righted; and such a recognition will require ruthless honesty. There can be no denial, no self-justification, no shirking of personal onus. You must be courageous enough to see the matter as it really is, even though the facts may not be pleasant. When I paid a visit to Philadelphia, a case was presented to me of a young lady who had alienated herself from her dad. Apparently, her dad was very controlling, authoritative, and verbally abusive. His behaviour drove the daughter away. She, being very hurt, refused to have any relations with him. For a long period of time, the dad failed to recognize his errors, wrongdoing, and mishandling of the situation. He seemed to be a rather self-righteous man. For a time, he could not see that he was the main reason for family disharmony and disunity. His actions even ostracized his wife. However, he eventually came to realize that he was much to blame for the family's unrest. He realized that he was responsible for the family's unhappiness because of his personal standards and expectations.

Now, this matter of recognizing the problem or sin, often presupposes the act of self-examination (i.e., taking a microscopic and dissecting look at your life and at who you are). You must be courageous enough to look at yourself in the mirror of God's spiritual and moral standards, no longer deceiving yourself. Beneficial self-examination thus demands a time of privacy and quiet. Do you regularly set aside quality time in order to examine yourself and your life in the light of God's Holy Word? That can be pretty scary. Most of us discover things that we do not like, and thus we may become averse to even looking. Martin Luther experienced profound inner turmoil before discovering the Bible's teaching on justification through faith alone. In striving and working for peace and acceptance with God (whom he viewed as an austere Judge), he had the courage to examine the spiritual state of his heart and to honestly admit that he hated this God. In that admission, he thought he had committed the unpardonable sin. In his brokenness, God gave him an understanding of His grace.

Now the honesty of self-examination, should generate a twofold understanding, which, in turn, will fuel and shape true confession. The first understanding concerns God. Through self-examination, you should realize that God is good, merciful, and loving, as well as righteous. Ezra knew this. He prayed, "But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place...For we are slaves; yet in our bondage, our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia...O LORD God of Israel, Thou art righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant as it is this day" (Ezr. 9:8,9,15a).

The second understanding concerns yourself. Through self-examination, you should realize that you have repeatedly spurned God's goodness, mercy, and love, and that you have failed to conform to His righteous standards and expectations. Ezra realized this. He prayed, "Behold, we are before Thee in our guilt, for no one can stand before you because of this" (Ezr. 9:15b).

Another way to state this twofold understanding is that you must understand God as being true and faithful and yourself as being untrue and unfaithful; and with this twofold understanding, which is foundational for confession, you will be prepared to change for the better.

b. Experience of penetrating shame

The second element that makes for true or real confession is the sense of horror at the ugliness of the wrong or sin committed. Simply put, you must experience appall or disgust – essentially the feelings of shame. That was Ezra's experience. "And when I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled...and I sat appalled until the evening offering. But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God" (Ezr. 9:3,4c,5). With the recognition of having done something wrong, one experiences guilt (i.e., the sense of conviction). With the realization of the horror, the ugliness, of having done something wrong, one experiences shame (i.e., the feeling of a loss of dignity or self-respect). So, we read, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to Thee, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads, and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hands of the kings of the land, to the sword, to captivity, and to plunder and to open shame as it is this day" (Ezr. 9:6,7). For true confession, you need to feel bad for what you have done. You need to feel upset for the sin committed. Even though you do realize that you have done wrong, if you are not ashamed of the wrongdoing, if you are not embarrassed because of the wrongdoing, if there is not this sense of horror and ugliness at the wrongdoing, then there will not be any positive change. For example, Ted Bundy, the serial killer of supposedly over 100 women, experienced guilt, but not enough to change for the better. He was devoid of shame. Simply put, no shame, no change.

With the experience of shame, one has acquired a true sense of sin. John Colquhoun (1748-1827), in his book Repentance, writes, "A genuine sense of sin consists of an affecting sight, and a painful feeling, not only of the hurtfulness and danger, but also of the deformity and hatefulness of sin...The sin which sat lightly on him [or her] before becomes now a burden too heavy for him [or her]...A true sense of sin is an affecting sight and feeling, especially of the exceeding sinfulness or malignity of sin. It is a sense not only of our evil doings but of the evil of our doings; not only of our sin but of the exceeding sinfulness of our sin; and not merely of things which are in themselves sinful but of the iniquity even of our holy things. The true penitent has a deep and affecting sense of the evil that cleaves even to his [or her] best performances (pp. 16,17).

Now, the realization which underlies this experience of being appalled or disgusted is that of the holiness of God. On the one hand, in understanding God's righteousness – that He is the Lawgiver and that you have violated that righteousness – you feel guilt. On the other hand, in understanding God's holiness – that He is too pure to behold iniquity and cannot look favourably on sin – you feel shame. In Isaiah 6, God's holiness is highlighted. The seraphim cried out, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory" (vs. 3). Isaiah, in seeing the holiness of God in the temple, and thus having his own unholiness exposed, bewailed, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (vs. 5). When you understand your sin on the backdrop of the holiness of God, then you will be filled with shame and disgust. Have you seen His holiness?

c. Emotion of purifying grief

The third element that makes for true confession is the emotion of grief or sorrow over the wrong or sin committed. If there is not this emotional component or aspect to this particular experience, there will not be any change for the better (i.e., true repentance). You must genuinely weep over your sin. This grief is at the heart of brokenness. Unless you know real brokenness, there will be no transformation; perhaps modification, or even adjustment, but no transformation. Richard Baker pithily states, "Other things may be the worse for breaking, yet a heart is never at the best till it be broken." Many Israelites experienced this medicinal brokenness. We read, "Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women, and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly" (Ezr. 10:1).

When I was in university (before I became a Christian), I went out and really overindulged in alcohol and made an utter fool of myself. That evening I stumbled home, bumping into everything, and when I arrived home, realizing even in my stupor what had taken place that night, I grieved and wept because of my sin. Do you know what it is like to weep over your sin – over that act of anger, over that act of adultery, over that act of homosexuality, over that act of unfaithfulness, over that act of fantasizing and having weird, false, or evil imagining, over that...etc? Do you know what it is like to be utterly broken in the presence of a righteous and holy God who has been offended?

The account of the conversion of Augustine (354-430) is a classic one in highlighting the necessity of grief, as well as shame, in the process of positive change. In his Confessions, he writes, "Thus soul-sick I was, and in this manner tormented; accusing myself much more eagerly than I was wont, turning and winding myself in my chain, till that which held me might be utterly broken...And thou, O Lord, pressedst upon in my inward parts, by a most severe mercy redoubling my lashes of fear and shame...So soon therefore as a deep consideration even from the secret bottom of my soul, had drawn together and laid all my misery upon one heap before the eyes of my heart; there rose up a mighty storm, bringing as mighty a shower of tears with it...I flung down myself I know not how, under a certain fig tree, giving all liberty to my tears; whereupon the floods of mine eyes gushed out, an acceptable sacrifice to thee, O Lord...said I unto thee...'Wherefore even this very hour is there not an end put to my uncleanness?' Thus much I uttered, weeping, in the most bitter contrition of my heart" (Bk. VIII; Ch. XI, XII). Within minutes of this grief experience, Augustine was soundly converted. Grief precedes true change. Before experiencing grief, you must realize that you hurt yourself, others, and God, when you committed that sin. You must realize that that sin brings misery into your life and into the lives of others. You need to realize the mercy of God.

So, with these three elements – realization of wrongdoing, experience of shame for the wrongdoing, and the grief or sorrow over the wrongdoing – true confession is possible.

Confession must be specific

Ezra confessed specifically the sin of the people. There is pain in specificity, but it is a pain that brings healing. We read, "And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Thy commandments, which Thou has commanded by Thy servants the prophets, saying, 'The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the land, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity. So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons'" (9:10-12a; also 10:2).

Now, with this confession, Israel was prepared to change for the better, that is, they experienced true repentance. True repentance puts one's life back on track, and one begins to move in the right direction. We read that many in Israel repented, "'Yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children...Arise [Ezra]! For this matter is your responsibility; but we will be with you; be courageous and act'" (Ezr. 10:3,4).

Those who make true confession

Notice who are the proper candidates for the change of true repentance. True confession comes from people who sustain a particular relationship to God and His Word. So, we read, "Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel...gathered to me...'according to the counsel of my lord [i.e., Ezra] and of those who tremble at the commandment of God'" (Ezr. 9:4; 10:3b). True confession comes from those who are willing to submit themselves to God's searching Word; from those who in the face of God's Word are filled with holy fear simply because it is God's Word. These ones recognize that mere man has not spoken, but God Himself, and that He has spoken clearly. Do you tremble at God's Word? When you read God's Word and meditate on the commandments of the New Testament, do you tremble? Is there this sense of godly fear? Or are you complacent and smug? Do you say something like this, "Well, the Bible says some very good things, but they are just words." The fear of the Lord is to depart from evil.

We all have some wrongdoing, failure, or sin to confess in our lives. Daniel Webster (1782-1852) said, "There is no refuge from confession but suicide; and suicide is confession." Right now, a film called 'Seven' is playing in the theatre. The title is a reference to the seven deadly sins. These sins are not a new idea; they have been a part of the Church's teaching since the Middle Ages. Do you know what the seven deadly sins are? First, pride. Maybe that is what you need to confess – pride of appearance, pride of status, pride of prestige. Second, anger. Are you angry with your colleague, with your wife, with your friends? Do you get mad when they do not meet your expectations? Maybe you need to confess anger. Third, lechery (i.e., sexual lust). Are you lusting after some man or woman? Maybe you need to confess lechery. Fourth, envy. Do you covet your neighbour's car, or home, or family or lifestyle? Maybe you need to confess envy. Fifth, gluttony. You would be surprised at how many Christians suffer from this sin of 'stuffing their faces.' Maybe you need to confess gluttony. Sixth, avarice (i.e., greed, especially for money). Do you have an inappropriate desire for money? Maybe you need to confess avarice. Seventh, sloth (i.e., laziness). Were you unduly idle this past week? Maybe you need to confess sloth.

So what do you need to confess? Do you see that you have a problem? Do you see the ugliness of that problem? Are you upset; do you feel bad because of that problem? If so, you are ready for true confession, and you are ready to change for the better. The Psalmist says, "I acknowledged my sin to Thee, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;' and Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to Thee in a time when Thou mayest be found." (Ps. 32:5,6a). If you are lacking the elements of true confession, ask God for them. If you have become hardened or indifferent, ask God to soften your heart. With true confession, you will repent; and repentance is the way of life.