Christians, Not So Forgiving

Beware confessing your sins to another person, unless it’s a Catholic priest!

I attend a small, rural church in the Midwest. The people there are mostly salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people who take their faith seriously. However, there is a tendency by more urban Christians and non-Christians to stereotype us as backward, uneducated, uninformed, or characterize us as just plain suspicious of the world in general. While some of that may be true, there are many, many more people who are none of the above, especially at the church I attend.

That said, I would like to comment on conservative forms of Christianity in general. I’ve attended many types and sizes of churches in my faith journey, from different parts of the country and in different states, and I have gone through many stages of faith and doubt in the process. A consistant response to personal episodes of doubt or sin in any conservative church seems to be one of unforgiveness. What I mean is that, once you have confessed to your church or to your bible study group or to your sunday school class a particular besetting sin or doubt, you are immediately labeled as unreliable and suspect in other areas of service. Let me give you an example.

A brother or sister hears from the pulpit or from a bible study that confessing our sins to one another is the biblical and true way to experience repentance and forgiveness from God and from one another. We are supposed to be refreshed and renewed from the response of our fellow Christians and we are especially forgiven by God if we take this approach. The brother or sister confessing the sin takes this seriously and decides to share his/her struggles or doubt with the pastor or another brother/sister in Christ with a pastor, a Christian friend, or another member of the church. All seems to be well even after the initial dust-up and shock of the ones hearing the confession. But in reality, the confesser realizes that suspicion has begun in the minds of those she/he told. In the minds of the pastor or others of the church, you are branded for being honest. “Well,” they wonder, “if they have such doubts as these then they must not really be Christian!” OR “I can’t believe that they struggle so with this sin!! How awful. We don’t want our kids to learn from them.” OR “How can such a person lead bible study or serve on a committee when they’ve more or less confessed they don’t believe in (insert particular pet doctrine here)!?”

More progressive Christians understand that a person goes through many faith journeys in a lifetime and take these bumps on the road for what they really are, bumps along the road of faith, to be gotten over with the help of others. The brother or sister’s faith is never completely called into question in progressive communities because there is an understanding that EVERYONE goes through such periods of self-reflection or examination. There is plenty of grace to cover a multitude of sins. Yet, in conservative circles, you may get lip service to forgiveness and acceptance, but there are still those suspicious looks or gossipy rumors from other believers that send the message, “You can’t quite cut it here.”

I think the iniquity at work in these situations is spiritual pride and envy. Pride, because we believe our sins are somehow less offensive to God than other peoples’ sins. Envy, because we don’t have enough honesty with the group to confess our own sin while still pointing the finger of blame at others. And I can see why we don’t confess if this is the reaction we will meet up with!!

Jesus never pointed the finger of blame against those who came to him for forgiveness. His response? “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).  Shouldn’t that be our response? Shouldn’t children of God treat fellow believers with the same, if not much more, dignity than we reserve for those who do not have faith in God? Believers will bend over backwards to accept the repentant unbeliever to the fold, but will cause untold damage to the sheep that Jesus holds dear, who have repented of sins.

If you must confess, get thee to a priest! At least they can’t tell anybody.