Sin, Confession, Prayer, Restoration
This morning we conclude our Sunday morning study of the book of James. I imagine we will spend the rest of our lives trying to apply what we have learned. James continues his practical application of the truth right up to the final verse. As he concludes his letter he encourages us to help each other grow in the faith.
This is an important message for our day. We are becoming increasingly isolated as individuals and as a society. Our televisions get bigger and our conversations get shorter. We watch more and we read less. We keep in touch via e-mail and through text messaging where you don’t even use complete words to express yourself. There is an increasing self-absorption in our society. The prevailing mindset seems to be “I don’t care what you do, as long as it doesn’t affect me.” We have become cynical and feel everyone is out to rip us off or take advantage of us. We are afraid to get too involved because we know we could always be sued. We are moving away from each other.
James’ words stand as a stark contrast to this mindset. In the final verses of his letter I want to see three things he tells us we should do.
Confess Your Sins to Each Other
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (16)
This verse is spoken in the context of James’ instruction about physical healing. James acknowledged that our relationship with God affects our quality of life in the world. In other words sin has consequences and sometimes those consequences are physical. Some (not all) sickness is the result of sin. The solution is to regularly confess our sin to God, and to each other.
I don’t believe James is saying we need to confess every sin to each other. All sin should be confessed to the Lord in a specific and honest manner without excuses.
However we should confess our sin to each other in a couple of different situations. First, we need to confess our sin to another person when we have offended or hurt them. We are commanded by God to admit our sin and ask for forgiveness (regardless of what they have done). The only way to a restored relationship is to admit and acknowledge the wrong that was done and ask for forgiveness.
Second, we should confess our sin to each other when we are struggling. We have a very human tendency to want to deny that we have any problems. We want everyone to think that we “have it all together” and are living “in victory”. The truth is that we all struggle. We all are plagued by sins that seem to have a grip on our lives whether it is pride, lust, greed, anger, resentment, a competitive spirit, gossip or any number of other sins. I may not struggle with the same things with which you struggle, but I struggle nonetheless. Every believer struggles with doubt on occasion.
When we are honest and confess our sin to each other it humbles us before God and each other. Gerald Sittser writes,
Confession makes us sinners before one another, breaks us of our self-righteousness and enables us to become a fellowship of sinners. Thus we become the true church that is founded on Christ’s righteousness, not our own….confession levels the playing field of the church. It displays us as the sinners we are, mitigates conflicts that threaten to destroy the church and disarms our opponents by demonstrating the way of humility to them.
When we are honest about our own sin and struggles, others are set free to be honest about their weaknesses and needs as well. I wonder how many people in this sanctuary today are afraid to share their struggles because they believe other will think less of them if they knew they struggle. I wonder how many people drift away from the church because they are tired of pretending to be something they are not. I wonder how many people never enter into the church because they believe they are “not good enough” to be a part of the fellowship.
The church is supposed to be a place where sinful people come for healing. This is a community of people who have come to God for mercy and grace because we cannot make it on our own. We need to be honest with each other and stop pretending.
Confession opens us to healing and victory. You realize that before any problem can be solved, there must be a recognition that the problem exists. A couple cannot mend their relationship until they admit that the relationship is not what it should be. You can’t gain financial independence until you acknowledge that you have a problem with money management. You cannot gain victory over an addiction until you admit to yourself and others that an addiction exists. Confession is the first step to growth and healing. We need to be honest about our sin and our struggles with each other.
However, before you go spilling your guts to anyone who will listen, you need to be aware of some cautions.
- Make sure your confession is a humble confession of your sin or struggle and not a boasting about your sin. Do you ever get the feeling sometimes when someone is giving a testimony that they are bragging about how sinful they were? That’s not confession. Confession comes out of regret and brokenness.
- Choose carefully to whom you confess. Look for someone who 1) will not use the information against you. 2) Has the spiritual maturity to handle your confession and 3) is someone who has modeled openness in his/her own life.
- Confess only what needs to be confessed. When someone comes in to talk with me and confesses that they have had an adulterous relationship, I don’t need to know the details. When someone confesses that they have stolen from a company I don’t need to know (and don’t want to know) how you were able to pull it off. When someone confesses a bitter spirit I don’t need to know all the things that led to this bitterness. To many details create an unhealthy voyeurism in the one who is listening. In such cases your confession may do more harm than good.
Pray for each other
Last week we talked about the importance of prayer. We need to pray for each other when we are sick, when we are well, and when we are struggling. There is power in prayer. When we pray for each other we bring the resources of Heaven to the One being prayed for.
While Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration, the nine disciples left behind were brought a boy who was demon possessed. They tried all the techniques they knew but they could not help the boy. Jesus came down from the mountain and immediately cast the demon out of the boy. The disciples naturally asked what they were doing wrong. Jesus told them that this kind of work requires prayer (and some manuscripts add fasting).
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6,
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:12]
The battle we fight with sin is a spiritual battle. We need supernatural strength to fight this battle. The way we get that strength is through prayer. As we pray for each other we open the door for the Holy Spirit to do His work in the life of the one for whom we pray. I don’t know exactly how prayer works; I just know that when God’s people pray, things happen.
It is said that when George Whitefield (the “spark” that ignited the Great Awakening in America) would preach, there was an elderly crippled man back in the hotel room who traveled with him and who was praying for him. Nobody knows the man’s name. He isn’t ever mentioned in the history books, and those hundreds of thousands of people who were touched by the supernatural power of the ministry of George Whitefield weren’t even aware of him. But if you are looking for someone, other than God, who was responsible for the Great Awakening, don’t look so much to Whitefield– look to the little man who prayed.
When someone we care about is sick we get them to the Doctor. When we pray for someone we are doing the same thing: we are bringing that person to the Great Physician. God doesn’t require that you be some great prayer warrior. He only wants you to turn to Him,
James concludes his letter with these words,
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
The other day I was in Wal-Mart and I saw a mom turn down and aisle with her child in the cart. Another little boy who was walking alongside of her didn’t see the mom turn. I was walking behind this little boy. Suddenly he became panicked as he looked around for his mom. I asked if his mom had a baby in the cart. When he said “yes”, I pointed to the aisle she turned into and he ran there and was reunited with his mom. This is what James says we should do with each other.
People can wander away from the truth in their thinking. They may start to think of Jesus as “merely a man”. They may start watering down the authority of God’s Word. They might become attracted to un-Christian philosophies. In such cases we should help these people to see how they are drifting.
People can also wander from the truth in the way they live. When someone starts behaving in a way that is CLEARLY contradicted by Scripture, they are going in the wrong direction. They may start taking God’s name in vain, or start lying, or drift away from their commitment in marriage, or they may stop worshipping with the body of Christ. These are all things the Bible clearly says are wrong. If we truly care about these people we should try to help return to God’s way.
If someone was drowning in a lake we could all stand on the shore and talk about the person. We might talk about how stupid they were for going into deep water when they couldn’t swim. We might shake our head and say, “Someone needs to save them”. However, if we really cared about the person we would stop talking about them and we would do everything we could to rescue them.
James challenges us to stop merely shaking our heads (and sometimes fingers) at those who are in trouble. He challenges us to care enough to do what we can to rescue them. He calls us to be spiritual lifeguards for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Is there a risk to such action? Sure there is. The person could resist you, they might turn and attack you, or they might end your friendship. Love takes that risk. We can’t help people without some risk. To minimize the risk, here are some preparations to make before you confront someone.
- Make sure your information is correct. It is important not to jump to conclusions before you have all the information. Even as you talk to the person you should be open to information that might change your conclusion.
- Arm yourselves with Scriptural support. Our job is not to get people to conform to what we want them to do; it is to conform to Jesus. Christians disagree on various issues and they do so based on Scriptural truth. In these cases we discuss rather than rebuke. Make sure you can show someone from Scripture why what they are doing is wrong.
- Pick the right time. When Jesus talked about talking to someone who had offended us he said we should go to them privately. That’s good advice here as well. Anytime we have to talk to someone about something sensitive we should do it privately. I have learned through painful experience that such confrontation should also be in person. Trying to do this over the phone or via e-mail doesn’t work well.
- Make sure you have the right attitude. Paul wrote, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. [Galatians 6:1] This is such wise counsel. We should always confront another person in a spirit of love and humility.
Even the strongest believer can drift into error. We must not forget this. We all need people around us who will hold us accountable.
You’ve heard the story of the writing of the hymn, “It is Well with My Soul”. Hoaratio Spafford had lost everything in the Chicago fire of 1871. Following this an even greater tragedy happened. His family was sent ahead of him to Europe and on the way the four Spafford daughters drown when the ship sank. His wife, Anna, survived and sent him a note saying “Saved alone.”
Later when Spafford was making the same journey to Europe and stood on the deck of his ship, at approximately the place where his daughters died, he wrote the incredible words of the great hymn. “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot God has taught me to say: “It is well, it is well with my soul.” These words are incredible testimony of faith. We admire such faithfulness.
We don’t often hear the rest of the story. In later life Spafford had a mental breakdown that prompted him to move to Jerusalem, thinking he was the “second Messiah.” He died in Jerusalem at the age of sixty.
Even those who have attained great spiritual insight can drift from the truth if they are not surrounded by those who will stand with them and alert them to dangers.
James reminds us that when we turn a sinner from the error of their ways (whether they are a brother or a non-believer), we turn them away from spiritual death (because they have wandered from the truth) and we lead them to experience the joy of forgiveness and God’s grace with a new freshness.
James reminds us that a standard of truth exists. There are many who say there is no such thing as absolute truth (and they state that as an absolute truth!) As a consequence, these people have no reference point for their lives. They spend their lives adrift. The only thing that matters is “what’s in it for me.” As believers we know better. There is a standard of truth that is the Word of God. This truth will lead us to enjoy life to the fullest and will lead us to life beyond the grave. We must hold to this truth and encourage others to hold to it as well.
We must be clear of what is at stake. Sin destroys. Error leads us to destruction. If we truly care about people we cannot be indifferent to where they will spend eternity. Our job is to help others find the truth.
God has placed us in community so we can help each other. We see the value of this in other areas of our lives. When there is a destructive tornado, a devastating fire, or a death in the family, neighbors rally. They show up to help, they bring food, and they offer their services. The same is supposed to be true in the church. When one member is caught up in sin the rest of us should rally to their aid.
Our challenge is threefold: First, we must care enough to get involved. We are to defend each other and protect each other. If you know someone who is drifting from the faith I encourage you to examine your own heart, prayerfully seek God’s wisdom, and then in a framework of humility and love care enough to talk to that person about their life. Perhaps you know someone who has drifted from the church . . .talk to them now before they drift too far!
Second, when someone confesses a struggle to us our job is not to condemn; our just is to do what we can to help. We should pray, listen, encourage and point the person to relevant passages of Scripture.
Third, we need to ask for help when we are struggling. It’s not easy to admit weakness but it is essential to health. It’s not easy to live for Christ in a world that is constantly encouraging us to ignore Him. It’s not easy to live by His standards when everyone around us is disregarding them and seeming to do just fine . . . . for now! We must adopt a posture of humility and admit when we are struggling so that we can receive help from those who care about us.
James reminds us that faith is something that needs to be lived and not simply studied. True faith involves following Jesus in the day to day decisions of our lives. The true believer understands that we need to help each other. We need to help each other get up when we fall; get going when we have become lazy; and to keep drawing on God’s strength. James could have ended his letter with this haunting question, “If you were on trial for being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence in your life to convict you?” James has argued: if you do not show Christ in the way you live, you probably aren’t really one of His followers, whether you think you are or not. It’s time to take stock of our lives and make whatever changes are necessary.