August 20, 2015
What to Do When Someone Opens Up About Their Sin
By Carl Bussema
[intro]How do we respond when someone confesses to us?[/intro]
There are two main reasons for peer confession: because you are looking for help from your fellow believers, usually in dealing with some habitual sin, and because you have wronged someone.
I’ve been in the room when someone opens their life to fellow believers and have seen (and given) a wide range of responses: awkward silence, changing the subject, holier-than-thou, genuine understanding, and helpful prayer. Thinking about how we would want someone to respond to our confession (for either reason) can guide us to better responses to our fellow believers.
Those awkward first few moments
“Can I talk to you?” Five words that can invoke a variety of emotional responses: fear, guilt, concern, and others, but mostly negative emotions. If someone opens a conversation this way, you don’t even know why they want to talk to you, but it could be a lead-up to confession, so try remaining calm; even if you are about to get bad news, being relaxed can make it easier for everyone involved.
Some confessions may take some time to complete; in these cases, do your best to remain calm and attentive, and do not interrupt. Hear everything that the other person wants to say before responding, and even then, you may want to take a minute to gather your thoughts, or even pray before you respond. From here, your response will take different shape depending on the reason for the confession.
Helping your brothers or sisters struggling with habitual sin
Someone in your life group just told you that they’re having trouble with a sin. Often times you had no idea that this was a problem for them, but sometimes there is a sense of relief that they have finally opened up or asked for help. Try to remember that this person is crying out for help, not for judgement, and focus on that as you start to respond. Also, resist making little or light of their problem; no matter how you may feel, if your friend feels convicted enough to come to you, take the matter seriously.
Above all, be compassionate in your response (Ephesians 4:32). For many people, it takes a great deal of courage to talk about themselves at a deeply personal level. Remember though, that they may not be interested in you “fixing” their problems, but you can focus on being a good listener and explore how the sin is affecting their relationship with God.
You may feel like you have no idea what to say. That’s normal, but also not helpful. Be sincere and honest in your answers. You can say things like “Thank you for coming to me, I want to help you. I know that must have been difficult. Let’s pray about it now before anything else.” Moving past that, you can work together about ways you can help overcome this habitual sin.
You can serve as an accountability partner for your friend: someone who promises to pray for them often, but also to check in and talk openly to them about their daily struggles. If you are going to do this, you need to be willing to follow through, actually praying and calling them (and yes, actually call or use a video chat program. Do not rely on texts alone—it is harder to lie in a live conversation). Be available as close to 24/7 as you can, and make sure they know they can call you if they are feeling tempted. If you can do all that, you may be a valuable ally to your friend in their war against this sin.
However, there a few good reasons why you might need to say, “I am not a good person to help you with this long-term, but I will work with you short-term to make sure we find someone who is.” Among those reasons:
- You struggle with the same sin;
- You would be a temptation (often related to sexual sin);
- You are not willing to commit to the prayer and check-ins required; or
- You would have a hard time finding a balance between compassion and tough love if your friend does sin again.
Entire books have been written about accountability, but the important things to remember are to be supportive without being permissive of sin and to be diligent in your prayers and communications. If you start to feel overwhelmed or out of your depth, ask for help without breaking confidentiality, such as from a life group mentor or another mature Christian.
“As we forgive our debtors”
You’ve just learned that someone close to you, likely someone you trusted, has hurt you. Your initial response is probably a mixture of anger and sadness, and that’s not wrong. Neither anger nor sadness is evil: Jesus exhibited both (John 2:13:17, Luke 22:39-46), but at the same time, screaming and throwing things is not going to help the current situation either.
Scripture is clear on one thing: we have to forgive those who hurt us. From the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6) to “forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven!” (Matthew 18) to Jesus’ plea on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23), there are instructions and examples everywhere. I’ve heard many Christians say things like “I just can’t forgive” someone, but I wonder if this stems from a misunderstanding about what forgiveness really is.
Human forgiveness is different than divine forgiveness for the simple reason that we are all sinful. When Christ died to forgive our sins, his blood washed over them so completely, it is as if they never existed. But in our human limitations, we cannot just “flip a switch” as it were and make the sin disappear. Let me be clear: Sin has real, earthly consequences. Forgiving someone does not negate those consequences; it does not make everything instantly “all better.”
I struggled for a long time to try to come up with a succinct definition of what forgiveness is, and ultimately turned to those wiser than I. Back in the 17th century, a Puritan preacher named Thomas Watson put it this way in his writings about the Lord’s Prayer:
Question: When do we forgive others?
Answer: When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.
—Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, as quoted by John Piper
That’s a lot to think about, but the general idea is this: Don’t seek revenge or to do harm; in fact, wish them well. Treat them as you would other Christians that you know casually: pray for them, be ready to help them if they need it. This may take time, especially depending on the severity of the sin; but start with that very first bit: do not aim for revenge. Work your way through the rest, remembering that no matter how unpleasant it may seem, forgiveness is not optional; it is a clear command in Scripture.
Forgiveness can be extremely difficult. If you are having a hard time forgiving someone, you may need to seek counseling. Riv’s Stephen Ministers may be able to help, or you may want to seek out professional counseling. Work toward that ultimate goal of reconciling with the other person and thereby obeying God, who “forgives us, as we forgive our debtors.”
Image credit: Sagar
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