Wretched Sinners Onymous


There is no shortage of verses in the Bible that address the topic of confession.  Even people who make no claim to believe in Jesus or God are probably familiar with (and may even concur with the ideas behind) common phrases such as "confession is good for the soul" and "the need to come clean."

It's no coincidence, either, that admissions of guilt and fault are referred to as coming clean; according the Bible, confession is a prerequisite for forgiveness.  In Psalm 51, David confessed his sin and prayed that God would "create in (him) a clean heart."  But there can be frightening implications to this concept:  to whom do we need to confess?  Is it to God only (as implied by Psalm 32:5); or need we add carefully selected confidants (as stated in James 5:16); or must we confess before the world at large (which might be assumed from reading the Gospel accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist)?

As I've sought answers to this question, I have been repeatedly brought back to a theory:  that whether or not a systematic public confession is mandatory for each and every lamentable foray into sin, the sinner must at least be open to that possibility.  He must be willing to go through such a humbling process if that is in fact what's required.  To be unwilling is to call the genuineness of repentance into question, and if the repentance isn't real, then the sense of peace that comes from experiencing God's forgiveness will continue to elude the guilty party.

In Biblical accounts
of physical healing, as well in as cases involving obvious sin, those who sought wholeness were prepared to be exposed - even humiliated - if that was an unavoidable condition of the deal.  Whether it was a woman with chronic bleeding who "came down and fell before him, and told him all the truth" (Mark 5:25-34), or a blind man who cried for mercy "all the more" when bystanders told him to be quiet (Mark 10:46-52), or a tax collector who got Jesus' attention by climbing a tree, and then repented openly of his greed (Luke 19:1-10), the people who found rest from their troubles were those who risked total exposure and general embarrassment for the sake of getting his help.

On the other hand, when one tries to gain the benefits of mercy and grace while maintaining the pride of public reputation, those benefits remain beyond reach.  I can say this with confidence based both on Scripture and on personal experience.  I believe that this is one of the flaws that ultimately render groups like Alcoholics Anonymous ineffective.  The very name of the organization conveys the idea that one can get relief from a very serious problem - a life-threatening sin - while still clinging to a misguided notion of personal dignity.  Is it any wonder that many drinkers continue to struggle so desperately from day to day, unable to attain true liberation from their condition?  Living a double life produces pressure that is ultimately impossible to handle, but God offers true and lasting freedom to those suffering sinners who are prepared to let go of their pride (and yes, their anonymity) in order to be fully healed... and forgiven.

Luke's Gospel gives an account of a woman who came to Jesus and "washed his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment" (7:36-50).  The text indicates that she had a bad reputation, stating that she was a "sinner." There is no mention made of any overt verbal confession, but one gathers that she made a confession nonetheless.  She wasn't hiding anything, or trying to maintain a certain level of worldly respectability.  Most likely she had lost any claim to widespread respect long before this event took place.  But she humbled herself, which can be difficult even when a good reputation is already beyond reach.  In fact, it might be more difficult.  It's a strange thing that we humans can be totally and undeniably shamed, losing all of our imagined honor, and then go right back to trying to regain it.  When you feel something important slipping away, that can be a natural tendency:  to try to hang on even more tightly.  I can personally attest to this phenomenon as well.  The woman in this story took the chance of letting that temptation go.  Can I?

In thinking about this, I was reminded of the liner notes that accompany a song from the album Bring on the Night by Sting  Describing his thought process behind When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around, he wrote of his naïve "post-apocalyptic vision", stating, "Such vanity to imagine oneself as the sole survivor of a holocaust with all of one's favourite things still intact... I was young."  Granted, he seemed to be referring to a desire to maintain material possessions through the trial of some external cataclysmic event, rather than to an attempt to preserve spiritual vanity through the crucible of an internal one.  Nonetheless, I believe there is a valid analogy there, because the confronting of one's own sinful depravity - along with the prospect of its real and justifiable penalty - constitutes a frightening personal apocalypse.  It is totally unrealistic to imagine surviving such a tempest while managing to keep personal pride; it's a childish fantasy to even try.  A wise person will shed the ballast.

Jesus said "everyone that exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:14).  Attempts to remain anonymous are likewise pointless, for he also said, "there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known" (Matthew 10:26).  One may as well get the humbling and the exposure over and done with in the here and now, while he still has a choice.  One may as well "come clean."  After all, being clean feels good, doesn't it?  Isn't the end result worth the difficulty of going through the washing process? 

I am a wretch, just as John Newton said of himself in his hymn Amazing Grace.  Over and over again I've committed sins of which I'm terribly ashamed, and over and over again I've compounded the issue by trying to cover my tracks and maintain a façade of temporal respectability.  Moreover, I've been afraid to confess the name of Jesus, who provides the only hope of relief that I both want and need.  And this is confession's flipside, if you will:  it's not only a matter of the admittance of guilt, but also the open acknowledgement of the person who absolves sinners from guilt.  In Romans 10:9-11, the apostle Paul wrote, "...if you will confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and will believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.  For with the heart man believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.  For the scripture says, 'Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.'" 

I cannot continue to attempt to hide my sins and to refuse to speak about the Lord Jesus, and still expect to thrive (or even survive).  I must confess.  I must become onymous.