It’s always right to confess sin, right?
When God pricks our consciences and brings us to the point where we can see our sin, hate our sin, confess our sin, and turn from our sin and turn to Christ, it is one of the surest signs of the work of the Holy Spirit.
But not all confession is created equal. Confessing faults we don’t really see, just to get people off our backs, is duplicitous. Confessing sins that aren’t really sins is the sign of a conscience gone awry. And confessing the mistakes and moral blindness of others usually amounts to tendentious manipulation. It may be from the best of intentions (or it may not), but it is a dangerous thing to loudly confess a host of sins we have not committed and for which we are not individually, or even corporately, responsible.
In 1940, C.S. Lewis penned a striking article for The Guardian entitled “Dangers of National Repentance.” His basic point: we should be exceedingly careful when apologizing for something we disdain in someone else. Some solidarity with your nation or your tribe (to use a word Lewis didn’t) can be a good thing, but it can also easily turn into the sin of pride where we “confess” all the stupid things our benighted forefathers weren’t smart enough to avoid and all contemporary crimes our fellow citizens and colleagues are not enlightened enough to denounce. “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others” (in God in the Dock, 190).
More recently, physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple has labeled this phenomenon the “False Apology Syndrome.” The syndrome is dangerous because it allows us to feel good without having to be good. We get all of the moral high ground that comes with confession and none of the personal pain. “The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment. The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people. The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.” We get to feel grandiose for “our” guilt without the burden of having to change or the shame of having people see our actual faults. What could be more satisfying and more ingratiating than saying we are sorry for other people’s sins?
A Sorry Bunch of Christians
It would be no sign of guts for me to get my fellow conservative evangelicals to make a statement confessing the sins of American sins like divorce, abortion, or Hollywood decadence. If we want to oppose those things or even denounce them, so be it. But that’s different than saying we are sorry for them. Likewise, it would be little more than thinly veiled censoriousness for me to preach a series of sermons apologizing for wicked popes and the prosperity gospel. Even a message saying I’m sorry for the execution of Servetus would properly seem to most people like a cheap homiletical trick. There is little humility, and even less courage, in apologizing for sins we haven’t committed and sins that everyone around us already rejects.
Now, if at one time I had championed these things, or had a key role in a body with direct responsibility for the sins in question, that would be different. Corporate repentance can be appropriate, even noble at times, but that depends on what such a confession costs us. “When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies,” writes Lewis, “he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an education man who is not in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasm of his less-education fellow countrymen” (190).
Many in the church face the same danger as these young Englishmen. In confessing the sins of the church—for the Crusades and witch trials of the past or for the faults we see in our fellow Christians of the present—the danger is we have everything to gain with these remonstrations and nothing to mortify. We would do well to listen to Lewis from seven decades ago: “The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue” (191).
Much of today’s apologizing is dangerously cheap, more manipulation that contrition, more of a clearing the throat than an actual pricked conscience. It’s all too easy for me to say “I’m sorry for all manner of obvious and heinous sins.” But is it real repentance if I don’t go out and do something differently after my confession? If half of the things some people apologize for were their actual sins, they should be disqualified from any kind of Christian ministry. But before we loudly protest all our general failings, we would do well to remember that repentance entails a change of direction and not merely a public declaration that “I abhor these sins where they exist and have existed.” We shouldn’t say we’re sorry because it sounds good or makes us look good before others, but because we personally feel regret for some wrongdoing on our part and are intent on living more like Christ in the future.
Saying “sorry” for the church’s sins, if it must be done, should only be done with great heartache and a genuine sense of shame for our part in them. The office of communal repentance, says Lewis, “can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance.” A son rebuking his mother may be necessary and even edifying, “but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her—that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard” (191). In other words, it’s a pretty good test of the appropriateness of our repentance to consider where our confession is costly to us, or rather, aims to be costly to someone else.