All five of my regular readers have, I’m sure, picked up from these writings that I have had some serious stuff happen in my life. I have deliberately not detailed those things here because I decided early on that I wouldn’t use my blog to air or work through my problems. I’ve written a bit about getting back on my feet after my divorce, storm damage, and breathtakingly expensive car repairs. Beyond that I don’t share here most of the difficulties I face, including times when my behavior falls very short of what God wants for me. Blabbing too much about my problems just doesn’t seem wise. But on too many Sunday mornings I walk into church carrying the weight of these troubles and sins. I put on my smile, greet people, and say that all is well – and really, taking the long view of my life, all really is well and I hope not to forget that. But I still carry quite a weight into church some Sundays and pretend it’s not there.
We fall into a trap where we think we have to put on our best face for church. We feel we have to pretend that we are more pure and upright than we really are, because that’s what all of our apparently pure and upright brothers and sisters in Christ expect to see. And so we feel we have to deny our brokenness for at least these few hours.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:23-25, NASB
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve heard sermons preached from this passage, it’s always been about why we shouldn’t miss church on Sunday. I want to look at some other things this passage says to us instead. It tells us to think about how to spur each another to love and do good deeds and about how to encourage each other all in the same breath as saying that we should keep coming together as Christians. It does not specifically mention Sunday morning. We meet on Sunday perhaps because of tradition or because of Scripture or because the first-century church did. But that does not limit us to Sunday; we can come together at any other time. The point of this passage is that no matter when Christians come together, we should build each other up.
If you go to church hiding your troubles, shortcomings, and sins, how will anybody know how to build you up? If I don’t know what you need today, I’m limited to offering general encouragement like “keep praying” or “may the Lord bless you.” Moreover, if you need to be built up because of the troubles and shortcomings you are carrying around, it will hinder your worship.
Let me say this in another way. It is important to learn to share our spiritual struggles with one another. This is being genuine among Christians. It is a useful and powerful part of accessing Jesus’s forgiveness, which lets us worship in full joy.
Clearly, Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. On that act our forgiveness and acceptance are predicated, and we receive that forgiveness and acceptance only through Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5 says that there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. But he will use us in passing along his forgiveness if we let him.
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. – James 5:14-16, NASB
I’ve heard “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” quoted King James style, dozens of times; these are comforting and powerful words. But let’s look at them in this wider context. These verses start by saying, “Is anyone among you sick?” The Greek word translated here as sick, astheneo, also means:
1. to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless
2. to be weak in means, needy, poor
3. to be feeble, sick
Look at all the ways you can be sick – poor, weak, powerless, needy – and be included in this scripture! Many of our troubles, shortcomings, and sins are about being sick in just these ways. And then these verses say that one remedy for these kinds of sickness is to confess your sins to other Christians! But why is this remedy available?
So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” – John 20:19-23, NASB
Here the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then tells them that he has given them the authority to forgive sins in his name. I believe that this authority is extended to us, as well. 1 Peter 2:9 calls us a chosen race and a royal priesthood; one of the functions of the Hebrew priest was to facilitate the forgiveness of sins by accepting sacrifices presented to God. He was just God’s agent, and so can we be. This does not mean that we have the power to forgive sins, but that we can pass along Jesus’s forgiveness.
Have you ever felt such guilt or shame over something you’ve done that even though you’ve prayed, maybe even begged God, for forgiveness, you still carry the sin’s weight? In other words, have you ever doubted that God has forgiven you?
There was a time in my life where I felt the crushing weight of my own lifetime of sin. So I bought one of those marble composition notebooks and began to take an inventory of all the times I fell short. I went all the way back to age 5 and wrote the story of every sin and shortcoming I could remember. I filled the notebook with my stories. When I was done, I prayed to God for forgiveness for them all, hoping finally to put them behind me. It helped, but the weight did not entirely lift. So I called upon a brother whom I trusted, whom had been on his own serious spiritual journey, and asked him to meet with me privately so I could confess my sins to him. Let me tell you, I felt like I had some real whoppers in there, things I did not want to admit freely, things I certainly will not admit here. But I knew my friend had been down a similar path in his life, and would at least understand my journey. I was not prepared for what actually happened, though. He sat quietly and listened as I read. The more I confessed, the more I could see in his body language and hear in his vocal reactions that he was deeply moved, that he felt great empathy for the pain I was carrying, and that he genuinely wanted me to feel and be freed from my shame and pain. And when I was done, he said, “Jim, you have done some very serious work here, reaching deep into yourself to call yourself into account. And I want you to know that now you never, ever have to worry about any of those things you’ve done anymore. They are forgotten. You are no longer bound to them.”
That day, Jesus was there in my friend, personally feeling my pain and telling me that I was forgiven. It was the turning point in my spiritual life. I went from being a man defined by his sins to being a man defined by having been forgiven. I stand on that foundation and it has enabled powerful spiritual growth since.
I’m not saying that each of us needs to buy a marble composition book and start writing. I am saying that we can keep our slates clean today by confessing our current pack of troubles, shortcomings, and sins to other Christians whom we trust. We don’t have to confess to another Christian anything we’ve confessed to and successfully left with God if we don’t want to. But we do profit from confessing to one another when we don’t feel relieved of the guilt and shame or when we can’t stop repeating a mistake.
But don’t just walk up to a random Christian and start blabbing. It takes time and effort to build the trust relationships in which it is appropriate to be genuine like this. We tried to facilitate those kinds of relationships at my church when we started small groups a few years ago. We hoped they would become communities that allowed us to be genuine with and minister to each other so we could powerfully experience God’s love and forgiveness. But it was too easy for those to just become Bible studies, and so they did, and that’s pretty much all they are now. We didn’t discipline ourselves to become real with one another.
Building those trust relationships takes work, and it starts with making friends with other Christians and letting those relationships build. Over time, we become more free to be genuine with each other, letting each other see our real selves, including all those troubles, shortcomings and, yes, the sins. Our trusted friends in Christ will bear these burdens, empathizing with us and reminding us in poignant ways that God knows, forgives, and loves us anyway. As you build this discipline, as much as your friends become Jesus’s agent of forgiveness and love in your life, you become Jesus’s agent of forgiveness and love in theirs. We become a conduit for Jesus’s love. What wonderful service that is to the Lord! This is how you really live Hebrews 10:25, not forsaking our assembling together, but encouraging each other. This encouragement keeps us fully in touch with God’s expression of love for us – his complete acceptance of us because of Jesus’s sacrifice. When we receive God’s love so fully, we naturally respond with joyous worship; it’s how God wired us. Wouldn’t it be great to be part of a group of Christians who can worship and live with such abandon? It all starts with you being real.