When I was in college as a newly minted believer, I took part in a parachurch campus ministry and attended their conferences. As is typical with conferences, there was an exhibit room packed with vendors, including many Christian publishers. I loved books, and of course, still do. I was also very introverted and didn’t really know anyone at the conference, so browsing the book tables gave me a pleasant way to kill some time.
Being young and very green (I started college at the ripe old age of 16!), I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life. But in the exhibit room, I stumbled across a book on counseling. Curious, I leafed through it, and eventually bought it. I started reading in my hotel room, and could barely put it down. Was counseling to be my vocation?
The book laid out in practical and concrete terms the essence of counseling: biblically speaking, problems (as long as they’re not biological in origin) came from unconfessed sin; counseling meant helping people find where that sin lurked so they could get it out in the open in prayer and be cured.
Simple. Elegant. I was electrified; I was sold. A few years later, I enrolled in seminary to study counseling. I thought I already knew what therapy was supposed to be about.
And then I started working with people.
Simple and elegant didn’t work the way I thought it would.
To be fair, I may have misread or oversimplified what the author was wanting to say. But it points to a problem that is rooted deep in our collective modern consciousness: we want straightforward solutions to our problems. We want to fix things. We don’t want to endure, we want to heal.
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When James speaks of prayer at the end of his letter, he includes prayer for the sick. But as I suggested in the previous post, he’s not giving his readers a spiritual technique for accomplishing practical goals. He is painting a portrait of a believing community that is in constant conversation with God, as opposed to one where words are used to hurt, disrespect, or deceive one another.
Let’s take the mutual confession of sin as an example. As we’ve seen, James writes that we should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, so that we may be healed (5:16a, NRSVUE). But I know people who have been members of communities in which such mutual confession was practiced, and the experience was deeply hurtful. One person may take the practice seriously and engage it humbly. But another may use this as an opportunity to bolster their own sense of superiority, directly or indirectly shaming the one who confesses honestly.
It’s easy to imagine this happening in the church, given what James has said about their prideful and arrogant status-seeking. Was James naive or wrong to suggest this? Do we ignore what he says? Do we do it anyway and suffer the consequences?
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First, it may be helpful to consider the Jewish and Mediterranean world that stands in the background of James’ letter. People lived in much smaller and more tightly-knit communities than most Americans; their society was much more collectivist in their values and practices. Put differently, everyone was in everyone else’s business; gossip and rumors got around quickly. Most of the things people might confess were already circulating on the grapevine.
That’s different from an individualistic society in which my business is mine, and I work hard at cultivating a public persona in which you see only what I want you to see (ironically, even or especially on “social” media). But such collectivist values also had to contend with the larger reality of the Roman Empire. Again, congregations were being rocked from within by the way believers were chasing after social status. In this, they were behaving more like Romans than Christians.
Thus, believers lived in communities where it was difficult to keep secrets from one another. In that regard, “confessing” sin was probably less a matter of telling people something they didn’t know, and more about admitting responsibility or weakness. This, of course, ran counter to the cultural values of the Empire, but was wholly appropriate to a people who followed a crucified Savior and the “royal law” of neighbor love (James 2:8).
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What James wants to see, in other words, is not a group of people who blindly follow a behavioral rule of mutual confession, but a community of prayer that depends upon God in all things — with one expression of that mutuality being the willingness to be vulnerable with each other in admitting their faults and seeking forgiveness. James, I think, envisions this as a norm, connected to everything else he’s said about love, wisdom, and the right use of words.
Confession of sin, in other words, isn’t just a practice we plop down on top of our existing values and behaviors. Nor is it a technique to accomplish healing. The healing James envisions is not just physical but spiritual, not just individual but communal. It is the move toward unity through the willingness to let God’s strength be revealed through our weakness, each forgiving the other in love and compassion.
This doesn’t require going on stage with a microphone. It’s not about adding a seemingly spiritual behavior that has no context. It’s about moving the community in the direction of honesty and grace. And in an individualistic and privatized society, that may mean one conversation, one relationship at a time.
With whom could we have such a compassionate and mutual relationship of confession and prayer?