image courtesy of elephantjournal.com
“So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you will be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” — 5:16
We all know and believe that, if we confess our sins to God, he is faithful to forgive us. And I’m not suggesting we’re experts at acknowledging our sins before God; I’m sure we attempt to explain away our shortcomings to him just as we do to our fellow Christians.
But this verse stands out to me. It stands out because, while God is faithful to forgive us when we confess our sins to him, we only find healing after confessing our sins to one another. How many times have we disclosed our sins to God, but still shouldered the burden of those sins and the guilt associated with them? In those cases, I’d argue, we’ve received forgiveness but not healing.
[Warning: I’m about to speculate and hypothesize concerning ideas about which I can’t be certain. I am not speaking for God, but for myself — out of my own thoughts and experiences. And before I go there, I should explain something. Clearly the context of this James passage demonstrates that prayer to God is powerful. And when we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, these prayers are answered and we find healing. This passage is first and foremost about the power of intercessory prayer. I do not want to diminish that.]
Here are my thoughts:
I believe there’s something special about Christians offering one another God-like forgiveness, caring, and concern. And I believe this something special is important in the healing process. We can know in our heads that God has forgiven us, but we don’t feel that forgiveness in our hearts. That’s where other Christians come in. The church extends to us in tangible human form the forgiveness God has already granted. And we heal.
I believe much of the purpose of the church is to make tangible to humanity the love of God. And one way in which we demonstrate this love is to show our brothers and sisters the same forgiveness God offers. In doing so the forgiver speaks and acts on behalf of God, the sinner finds healing, and the church more clearly represents Christ to the world. A cycle is begun. Others will confess and be prayed for, receiving both forgiveness and healing from their church family. And that church family becomes a beautiful picture of God in a terribly ugly world.
Sadly, though, the converse is also true — and entirely too commonplace. When Christians fail (or refuse) to display God’s forgiveness to another, he finds no healing and the church looks less and less like Christ. Soon no one will confess his sins for fear of being judged harshly and viewed as a criminal. And so, another cycle is begun. No one confesses, no one prays for him, no one demonstrates God’s forgiveness, no one finds healing, and no one represents Christ to the ugly world in which we live. One more beautiful picture of God is lost.
And when some brave individual attempts to break that mold by walking forward after a sermon to confess his recent sins, he’s beaten down by the whispering in the pews and the Sunday lunch gossip. And what everyone knew is confirmed yet again — there is no healing in confession, and the Spirit of God is not present in this church.