Day 33: How to Confess, and How Not To

We are sinners who need to confess our sins. When we do so, God is able and willing to forgive us. The question, then, is how we ought to confess. Jesus’ parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the Temple to pray provides an answer (Luke 18:9–14).

Luke explains the context of this parable in verse 9: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable….” From this introduction we can deduce that the spirit of confession is the antithesis of self-righteousness and judgmentalism.

Verses 11–12 describe the prayer of the Pharisee: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” According to verse 13, however, “the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

These two prayers present a study in contrasts. In terms of location, it seems that the Pharisee stood up where he could be seen by others, a practice which Jesus prohibited (Matt. 6:5). But the tax collector “stood at a distance,” away from the crowd, so that his prayer would not be hindered by a concern for what others thought of him, a practice which Jesus encouraged (Matt. 6:6). In terms of posture, Jesus emphasized the nonverbal behaviors that accompanied the tax collector’s prayer: “he would not even look up” and he “beat his breast.” In terms of content, the Pharisee’s prayer was ego-inflating. Basically, he prayed, “Look at me! I’m a fabulous human being, unlike that schmuck over there.” But the tax collector’s prayer was ego-deflating. “God, it’s true; I’m a schmuck. Please forgive me.”

Reflecting on these respective prayers, Jesus said, “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee] went home justified before God.” Why? Here’s the key lesson Jesus wants us to learn about confession: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Or, as David sang, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

From this, I think we can draw five conclusions about confession. It must be:

  1. humble, because we are sinners who cannot be “confident of [our] own righteousness”;
  2. private, lest we be tempted to impress others with our spirituality;
  3. authentic—that is, about ourselves alone, lest we be tempted to compare our actions to those of others rather than the requirements of God’s moral law;
  4. truthful, for we are sinners in desperate need of divine mercy;
  5. and resulting in change, for God expects and empowers us to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).

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