September 17, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HEART HABITS: CONFESSION
I John 1:5-9
The second in a series of five.
Some of you may have missed part one in our heart habits series. The good news is that all you missed was the introduction. Today and for the next three Sundays, we are going to be looking at four bad habits that block our hearts, and four good habits that block the four bad habits and therefore open our hearts back up so they can function the way they were designed to.
We’re not talking about the heart in our chests that beats a little faster when we walk up a flight of stairs. We’re talking about the other heart, the heart which is the source of the person each one of us really is.
As we go through life, we develop habits of the heart. Too often the habits we develop are bad habits. Like all habits, good or bad, they are hard to break. Even when we see the destruction they cause, we feel powerless to do a thing about it. We feel stuck. Like the person who said, “Been there, done that. Then been there several more times. Because apparently I never learn.”
But we can learn. We talked about this last week. We can become aware of what is wrong and what needs to be done to make it right. Awareness is the key, but awareness alone is never enough. We also need the courage to take our awareness and then do what needs to be done. What needs to be done is to replace these four bad habits with four good habits.
Here are the four bad heart habits: guilt, anger, greed, and jealousy. I won’t give you the four good heart habits that go with these, because I want you coming back for the whole series. Guilt, anger, greed, and jealousy. You might look at this list and say, I don’t have a problem with any of these. But you probably do. It’s a rare person who doesn’t struggle with all four of these at one time or another. But even if you are that rare person, keep listening. You might learn something you can use to help someone else.
Maybe you’re wondering why there isn’t a fifth bad heart habit listed there. Lust. Lust can be a real problem that can cause some real problems, but if you think about it, lust is not really a problem to be solved. It is an appetite to be controlled. In the right relationship, lust is a gift from God. Without lust, I wouldn’t be here and I don’t think you would be here either.
First on the list is guilt. We feel guilty because we’ve done something we shouldn’t have done. Some people struggle with guilt way more than they should. Some people should struggle with guilt way more than they do. But the simple fact that we are all sinners means that we are all guilty. We have all done things we shouldn’t have done and left undone things we should have done. We plead guilty, therefore it’s only natural that we feel guilt.
There is such a thing as misplaced guilt. An example might be the black dog that ran in front of your car on a rainy night. You didn’t even see the dog until a split second before you hit her. You feel terrible. You feel guilty. But it really wasn’t your fault. Your guilt is misplaced. What helps in a case like this is to realize that you did nothing wrong and to be reminded of this by people you trust and love. Maybe, if you’re lucky, even by the owner of the dog. You are sorry, but you are sorry that the dog is dead, not that you did anything wrong.
We’re not talking about misplaced guilt today. We’re talking about real guilt – the guilt we feel, or should feel, because we are guilty. Guilt says, “I owe you.” I am responsible for hurting you, so I am responsible now for paying you back. It’s like a debt that we have incurred that we need to repay. We owe something to the one we hurt. We see this in the words we often use: “I owe you an apology.” We are in debt and until that debt is repaid, we feel terrible. Until that debt is repaid, the one we offended feels worse.
Just saying, “I’m sorry” goes a long way, but there is more to it than that. Imagine someone in your life who treats you horribly over and over again, but who is careful to say those magic words, “I’m sorry” every single time. You are owed an apology and you get one, but actually you are owed a lot more. Sin and guilt cannot be erased that easily.
The good heart habit that replaces the bad heart habit of guilt goes way beyond apology. It is called confession.
Our scripture today includes a verse I have always cherished. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). That is a pretty nifty concept if you think about it. Whatever you have done that makes you feel guilty, you just confess it to God, and your guilt is washed away and you are free to sin again. It’s a pretty good deal! You can do anything you feel like doing, even if you know it is wrong, because this verse is kind of like your “get out of jail free” card. At the end of one day, just say a prayer to God confessing it all, and then the very next day you can resume your life of sin. What a great God we have!
Is that what this verse means? I hate to disappoint you, but God takes sin more seriously than this. Confession means more than saying “I’m sorry” to God. Confession means more than going into a confessional booth and saying “I’m sorry” to a priest. If we are going to understand what I John 1:9 really means, we are going to have to look at what the rest of the Bible says about confession.
We’ll start clear back with the seldom read book of Numbers.
When a man or woman commits any of the sins that men commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person is guilty, he shall confess his sin which he has committed; and he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it, and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong (5:6-7).
What I want you to see here is that confession is connected to restitution. In other words, confession is not just something you say. It is also something you do. There is a debt to be paid, and you have to pay it.
Skipping ahead to John the Baptist, we see that confession is tied also to repentance.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5).
You might think repentance is just another word for confession, but the word repentance in Greek, “metanoia”, means a change of heart. It means a change in the direction of your life. So you don’t just confess to feel better. To stop feeling guilty. And you certainly don’t confess so you can go on sinning. Confession means you are sick and tired of the guilt you rightly feel, you are truly sorry for the harm you have caused, and you are serious about leaving your past behind.
Then we come to the famous story of Zacchaeus. Remember Zacchaeus, that vertically challenged man who wasn’t able to see Jesus over all the taller people, but who solved that problem by climbing a sycamore tree? It’s a cute story that children love, but really it’s the story of a wicked man. Zacchaeus robbed his own people. We was greedy as well as guilty. Maybe I’ll mention him again in two weeks when we talk about greed. The amazing thing about this little story is the change that came into Zacchaeus’ life simply by meeting Jesus. But it wasn’t enough to confess his sins to Jesus. Listen to what he says:
Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody of anything, I will pay back four times the amount (Luke 19:8).
So does Jesus say, “No need for that Zacchaeus! You’ve already confessed your sins. You’re good!”? No, the confession is tied both to repentance and to restitution. Way more restitution than was required according to that passage we read from Numbers. The law said to pay back 20% more than you took. Zacchaeus is paying back 400% more than he took. In addition, he is giving half his net worth to the poor. And Jesus says in effect, “Salvation has come to this house, because I am looking right now at a new man with a changed heart.”
We skip ahead to an important verse about confession in the Book of James.
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (5:15-16).
It is saying that unconfessed sin can make a person physically sick. I don’t suggest you write this verse on the get well card you send to your sick friend. I think it’s pretty clear that even the most saintly of people get sick now and then.
The thing I want you to see here is what it says here about how we are to confess our sins. It says “confess your sins to each other”. Don’t keep them to yourselves. Don’t keep it just between you and God. It’s public confession that James is talking about here. Take you secrets out of the darkness and bring them out into the light of day. There is tremendous power in that. And yes, I believe healing power.
One more scripture to help us see that confession is more than a “get out of jail free” card. Jesus said something that must have been shocking to those who thought they had God all figured out.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
What Jesus seems to be saying here is that your relationship with other people sometimes comes first even before your relationship with God. Because the two cannot be separated. If you have a strained relationship with another person, and you haven’t done all in your power to make things right with that person, you have a strained relationship with God.
So don’t just say in your private prayer to God that you are sorry about the wrong you did to that person. Go to that person and make it right. In fact, Jesus is giving you permission right now to stand up and walk out of here and go take care of that unfinished business. It is that important.
Your question still might be, why? Why is it that important? Why is it even necessary? God has already forgiven me. Just like it says in I John 1:9. I have “confessed my sin” and it says right there that “God is faithful and just and will forgive my sin and cleanse me from all unrighteousness.”
If you’ve been paying attention to all these other scriptures, you already know the answer. God may have already forgiven you, but God was not the only one you hurt. Confessing to God is just part of what it takes to address the bad heart habit of guilt. And confession is bigger than just saying “sorry”. Confession as taught in the Bible includes the 3 R’s: repentance, restitution, and restoration.
We repent, which means “metanoia” – changing the direction of our lives. We make restitution, which means we make it right to the person we wronged, whether it is monetarily or whatever it takes to repay our debt. And we do all in our power to achieve restoration. That means to restore the broken relationship, both with God and with the person we have wronged.
There are no shortcuts. Those who lack the awareness and the courage to confess the way the Bible teaches are those who tend to be repeat offenders. They are the “been there, done that, then been there several more times, because I never learn” crowd. The purpose of confession is not to make us feel better. The purpose of confession is change, change from the inside out. A changed heart.
It will also make you feel better. Carrying around a load of guilt that never goes away is a terrible burden. Getting rid of it is a wonderful feeling.
But here’s another way to look at it. If it makes you feel better to get rid of your guilt, imagine what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Think with me about someone who wronged you and it still hurts. It’s still an open sore. It’s the one apology you most want but least expect. Because as far as you can tell, the one who did this to you doesn’t even feel guilty about it. This person is oblivious to your hurt.
Imagine how you would feel if that very person paid you a surprise visit and took full responsibility for what he or she did. Imagine what it would do to your heart if this person, with complete humility offered to do whatever it took to make restitution to you. I don’t think you would ever be the same again. That is the power of confession.
Years ago, in the very first church I served, I was the new, young associate pastor at a large church. I attended my first Administrative Board meeting. It was a large group and they did their business in a very formal way. It was strictly according to Roberts Rules of Order. I tried to make a motion or I tried to say something. After all these years I have no idea what it was. But the older gentleman who was running the meeting called me on it. His name was Bob Baccus.
I say “older gentleman”. I looked up his obituary. At the meeting I am describing he was exactly the age I am right now.
So I said or did something that did not follow proper protocol, whatever it was. As I recall, he was he was right and I was wrong. I had been out of order. I didn’t feel wronged. I really don’t think I thought a thing of it. But Bob Baccus felt guilty.
He called me the next morning. He told me he hadn’t been able to sleep very well that night. He kept thinking about how he had treated me. He told me he owed me an apology. I told him I didn’t think he did. But here’s the thing I want you to hear. After all these years, I still remember how good his phone call made me feel. And I cherish the wonderful friendship with that dear man that probably never would have happened if he hadn’t picked up the phone the morning after that Administrative Board meeting.
Bob Baccus had learned the power of confession. For him it wasn’t something he did now and then when he had really had something serious to confess. It was a way of life for him, even for something as trivial as whatever he said to me during that meeting. It was a heart habit for him.
May it be a heart habit for you. And the way to start any habit is pretty simple. You start. You do it once. That’s the hardest. Then you do it again and it’s still hard, but it’s a little easier. And every time you do it after that it keeps getting easier and easier. Because it now has become a habit.
So maybe somebody has a phone call to make this afternoon. I hope so.
Dear God, we know that you have forgiven us. We know that Jesus died for our sins. The penalty for our sins has already been paid. So why do we still feel guilty? Maybe because we haven’t taken the next step. We have used your abundant mercy and amazing grace as an excuse to avoid the pain and embarrassment involved in reconciling with that person we know we hurt. We’ve tried the shortcut, and we’ve found it doesn’t get us where we need to go. Now we have the awareness. Now all we need is the courage. Grant us that we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.