“It’s our confession, Lord, that we are weak, so very weak, but You are strong…”
“Sweet Mercies” David Ruis
Prayers of Confession
Prayers of confession take two different forms: confession of sin and confession of faith. Confessions of faith, or confessions of the Word as they’re sometimes called, are statements of beliefs. Here, we’ll be focusing on confession of sin.
Unfortunately, sin is not something most people are comfortable discussing. It’s often downplayed, as in ‘My sins have been forgiven—past, present, and future—so I’m good to go; besides, I have a good heart and have never done anything really, seriously wrong, like murdering someone.’ Or sin is elevated in importance: ‘We are sinful creatures, with sinful minds, sinful hearts, and sinful bodies, living in sin, unable to escape sin on our own, and Jesus was sent to satisfy a wrathful God so our continuing sins could be forgiven.’ We believe a more accurate picture of sin lies somewhere between those two extremes.
The Greek word for sin used in the New Testament translates as “missing the mark” or “missing the target.” The Aramaic expression, from which the Greek was probably translated, means more than just missing the mark. As usual with Aramaic, meanings are layered on. In this case, “sin” can also mean “falling into error” or “failure.” And its root word points to “frustrated hopes” and “tangled threads.” So those listening to Jesus and later, Paul, had all these meanings in mind when they heard the word “sin.”
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, three words were used for the three levels of sin. There was intentional, deliberate defiance of God. There was sin done knowingly, but as a result of lust or other ‘uncontrollable’ emotion, not out of defiance. And finally, there were unintentional acts of sin.
But sin is more than the things we do…or don’t do. It’s also a mindset. Our sinful tendencies result from our separation from God—a state we inherited from Adam and Eve. We’re not called sinners because of the sinful things we do; we do sinful things because we are, truly, “sinners.” Our rebirth after salvation may remove the name “sinner,” but it doesn’t immediately remove and end our sinful tendencies. Our acts of sin are evidence of those sinful tendencies—breadcrumbs, if you will—that we leave behind as we walk through life. Confessing our sins is like following that breadcrumb trail, picking up the pieces and throwing them away, on our way back to the Father.
Repentance, an important part of confession, is our promise that we’ll leave no more bread crumbs. More than saying we’re sorry, true repentance implies a change of mind, and heart. We are not to enter into an endless series of sin, confess, sin, confess, sin, confess… Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
As God well knows, we each have plenty of sin to deal with, more than enough to keep us occupied without having to repeat sins again and again. But it does happen, doesn’t it. The alcoholic falls off the wagon and has yet another drink. The smoker who “quit for good” lights another cigarette. The porn addict goes online and clicks on a site he knows he shouldn’t. Again. The prideful person seemingly can’t stop looking for affirmation from another. Someone who has been hurt continues to be unforgiving. But just because we may sincerely and with the best intentions repent and then backslide is no excuse to stop confessing and give in to that sin that has us in bondage. It doesn’t mean we’re hypocrites; it means we’re human. It’s one more example of how we need to lean on Jesus. We just can’t do it on our own. Any hope we have is in Him. And true, permanent repentance, like grace, is a gift, not something we can achieve by working or praying a little smarter or harder or longer.
That’s why, when we confess our sins in prayer, we need to go beyond the sins themselves and address our separation from God. Becoming contrite and remorseful flows naturally out of our love for God, not out of our fear of punishment. Very often, the tears that follow are a clear sign that the core of our heart has been touched by the grace of God, softening that hard-crusted heart. Let the tears flow and wash over you.
"He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”
There is also a part of confession that has more to do with us than with our relationship with God. The old expression ‘Confession is good for the soul’ has less to do with forgiveness and God and more to do with what goes on within our own minds and hearts.
Proclaiming something out loud, to others, carries incredible power, whether it’s marriage vows, declarations of faith, or confessions. There’s something about exposing hidden things to the light. This is particularly true when it comes to confession. There’s a cathartic release that actually helps us feel better physically, not just emotionally. It is such a need that there are even web sites—this isn’t one of them—where you can confess your sins anonymously. We’ve often heard people say how much better they feel just to get whatever it is “off their chest.”
Which is really appropriate since it’s our heart that is most affected by sin. Sin, especially repeated sin, without the cleansing of confession and forgiveness builds a “spiritual crust” around the heart. All true feelings become more difficult and we are further separated from God. Which is why the Bible warns us to protect our hearts.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
One more thing we need to mention is the sinister piece of sin that is a result of spiritual warfare. It is important for confession to address that directly. We’ll discuss this in more detail in the section on spiritual warfare. For now let’s just say that the “devil made me do it” is never accurate so it can’t be used as an excuse. However, the enemy plays a larger role in sin than many would like to believe or admit. And our confession must take him into account.
So, how do we confess?
While a simple statement of confession would seem sufficient, we recommend you confess in prayer, whether you’re alone, with another, or in a group. By praying, you can invite the necessary presence of the Holy Spirit.
You can confess in prayer in a formal style, in devotions, while prayer walking, or even spontaneously. The most effective style, however, seems to be conversational for one simple reason. Confessing “generic” sins or sin as a whole doesn’t appear to be as helpful or meaningful as confessing your own specific sins. “Forgive me, Father for I have sinned” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” are good starting points. But confessing your particular sin in your own words adds real power to the process.
There are five steps:
- recognize and put the sin into words
- grieve the sin and resultant loss
- repent and turn away from that sin
- renounce any level of demonization that has occurred as a result of the sin (see Spiritual Warfare)
- ask to be forgiven
Putting the specific sin into words is necessary because of the power words carry. On the scale of power, we begin with thoughts. The act of writing down those words adds more power. When those words are spoken aloud, even more power and reality is added to the original thought. When confessing, we want the sin to be as real and recognized as possible.
Grief is a key part of the process that shouldn’t be skipped under any circumstances. Grieving the loss that the sin has caused can begin with our own pain. Then, if others are involved, we need to grieve their pain as a result of our sin. Finally, and most importantly, we must grieve God’s pain. The Father grieves both the pain of the sin and the pain of separation from him that the sin is evidence of. Don’t cut this step short or try to minimize your feelings because they’re uncomfortable. Grieving plays an important role in reducing the burden of the sin. As we said earlier, don’t be surprised if tears flow.
Repent and turn away from the sin with sincerity. Even if it’s not the first time you’re confessing this particular sin. You gain strength not by the falling down, but by the getting up. Time after time after time. While not an excuse to continue to sin, some sins have such a grip on us that we may need to address it repeatedly.
Sin gives ground to Satan. Meaning we allow him into our lives, our minds, our hearts. Once he has that foothold, he can do his work. Demonization can range from harassment through oppression and affliction all the way to bondage. And bondage doesn’t have to be total “possession.” It is more often bondage in one particular aspect of our life—I can be in sinful bondage to alcohol, for instance. Or pride. Be sure to read the section on spiritual warfare so that you can renounce any ground Satan has gained in you through your sin when you confess.
The last step is to ask for forgiveness. God has promised forgiveness, but ask anyway. Jesus died for our sins, but ask anyway. And if your sin is against another person, and you have confessed your sin to that person (see below), ask to be forgiven. It helps complete the circle for both you and that person and is the final step of removing the burden of sin from your mind and your heart.
With these steps, we’ve found there are three levels of confession. You always use the first level; the second is highly recommended; and the third is sometimes called for.
The first level is confessing to God. Go into prayer and complete all five steps.
The second level includes at least one other person as a witness to your confession to God and as a fellow believer you’re also confessing to. That person can be your accountability partner, spiritual director, pastor, etc. It can even be a small group you’re a member of. Early Christians confessed their sins to each other. For a reason: it goes back to our discussion about exposing hidden things to the light. In many cases, our sin has power over us. Getting it out in the open removes that power and helps us to attain freedom. Just make sure you have trust, confidentiality, and non-judgment as part of the process.
On the third level, if your sin is against a particular person or people, you need to confess your sin directly to them. Can you always? No. Should you always? There are situations where it would be ill advised. But if you can and if the only thing holding you back is your own discomfort, make every effort to confess in person. Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance on this.
Finally, after you’ve been through all the steps at all the levels, thank God for the grace of forgiveness. Know deep in your heart that you are forgiven. And don’t contradict God: make sure you forgive yourself.
The burden of sin is a heavy one that grows heavier over time and weighs us down in all aspects of our life. Allow prayers of confession to help lighten your burden and the burden of others.
Go to Prayers of Supplication