These days I have been thinking about the issues of confession as it relates to our messy relationships in life. Two verses of Scripture come to mind regarding this issue. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus tells us that if someone sins against you, go talk to that person for the sake of restoration and healing. In James 5:16 we are also instructed to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that we might find healing.

It is striking to me that, practically speaking, within the church, these commands are largely ignored. I think they are ignored for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that: a) confrontation is difficult and uncomfortable; b) there is a gross misunderstanding of what Scripture teaches about “judging” others; c) we all  fear the exposure of our sin; and d) we lack a consistent ability to discern our own sin, a weakness fueled by a culture of blame-shifting. I’m sure there are other reasons as well.

But specifically related to the confession of our sins to one another, should we must the necessary courage to actually do what Scripture commands, what should these confession look like? Here is where I found some counsel from CJ Mahaney very helpful. Mahaney says:

When I have sinned against someone, a sincere confession is required. A confession that is sincere and pleasing to God will be specific and brief. I have learned to be suspicious of my confession if it’s general and lengthy. A sincere confession of sin should be specific (“I was arrogant and angry when I made that statement; will you please forgive me for sinning against you in this way?”) and brief (this shouldn’t take long). When I find myself adding an explanation to my confession, I’m not asking forgiveness but instead appealing for understanding.

If my so-called confession extends beyond a very specific (acknowledgement of sin) sentence or two, then I am most likely excusing my sin, and requesting understanding for my sin, rather than sincerely asking forgiveness because of my sin. So I have learned to be suspicious of any confession of sin that is lengthy. Genuine conviction of sin is evidenced by a sincere, specific, and brief confession of sin, without any reference to circumstances or the participation of anyone else. When I sin, I am responsible for my sin, and the cause of my sin is always within my heart and never lies outside my heart.

Often after I sin, and even after I confess my sin—most importantly to God to receive the forgiveness I need from him for my sin through the death of his Son for my many sins—I experience a conflict in my soul about the confessing, when necessary, to the appropriate individuals. And whenever there is this conflict in my soul about specifically confessing my sin, I am aware that pride is actively at work in my soul, opposing the confession and seeking to persuade me that it wouldn’t be wise or even necessary for me to confess. But I have learned to ignore this noise from my arrogant heart, and instead weaken this noise by specifically confessing my sin to the appropriate individual as quickly as possible.

When I do confess, first and foremost to God and then (where and when appropriate) to others, I want my confession to be sincere and specific. I want my confession to express genuine sorrow and gratefulness to God for the mercy I experience because of the substitutionary sacrifice of his Son for my sins on the cross.

And when I confess my sin to others and ask their forgiveness when I have sinned against them, I don’t want my confession to resemble the press conference of a high-profile athlete, characterized by evasive language and the refusal to be specific. Instead, I hope my confession of sin is the sincere and specific confession of one genuinely convicted of his sin, sorrowful about his sin, and amazed at the grace of God provided for the forgiveness of sin.

This is very helpful. For the full context of Mahaney’s comments you can read the entire post here.