“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16a
As a young adult, I questioned the word picture this verse created. As Protestants, why would we need to confess our sins to one another? Wasn’t the whole idea of confessing sin to another human being unbiblical? Didn’t we have access directly to God, through Jesus? And then there was the question of confidentiality. In my faith community, messing up seemed to be fodder for gossip rather than prayer.
It wasn’t for many years that I experienced a faith community in which this verse was lived out in a very real way. Our young family moved to a small town and the Adventist church in our town had no young families with children. Feeling isolated, I reached out to a church around the corner from our home and was invited to a mid-week women’s group. For almost three years, each Wednesday morning I would strap my babies into a double stroller and walk around the corner to meet with a small group of women from various denominations who came together to talk about their lives and to pray.
It was in this group that I first saw Christians being honest about the challenge of living as disciples of Jesus–of learning to follow Jesus and be more like Him. They were honest about things I’d never heard Christians speak about–the mean-spiritedness of their thought lives; their anger, self-righteousness and pride; their struggles to live out the fruit of the Spirit in their families and workplaces. It was sitting in their midst, listening to their sharing and praying, week after week, that I first began to reflect on my very impoverished understanding of sin.
In my own faith community, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that sin was the breaking of God’s law, as outlined in the Ten Commandments. As a child, I’d tried very hard to be good. In fact, since there didn’t seem to be anything so terrible that I did, I struggled to understand why Jesus would have to die for me. While my experience of sin became more real as I grew, I still tended to think of sin in terms of the wilful behaviour I was meant to avoid and the good behaviour I was meant to exemplify, rather than what I was meant to be growing toward.
As I reflected on the honesty of the women in that small group, I began what has become a lifelong journey toward a much deeper understanding of who God is and who He wants me to be. I’m still learning that God is the source of all hope and love and goodness, and that His desire is for me to spend time in His presence, learning to behold His beauty (Psalm 27:4), particularly as exemplified in the life of Jesus. And as I do so, I’m learning to love Him with all my heart, soul and mind, which in turn will help me learn to love others as I love myself (Matthew 22:36-40).
When I inevitably fail to love God and people as Jesus did, it is the honesty of the women in that group that helps me remember that this process is “not the work of a moment, an hour, or a day, but of a lifetime“ (Ellen White, AA, 560,61), because life keeps changing and creating new circumstances that remind me of the many ways in which I’m not like Jesus. What’s more, the goal of Christlikeness is one that “cannot be completed in this life but will be continued in the life to come“ (Ellen White, Education, p18,19). And in those times when I wish I was less flawed, that the process of my formation (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29; Galatians 4:19) could be hurried along, it is the honesty of those women that helps me remember that being formed in the image of Jesus is an ongoing journey.
When we truly understand that Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey, our masks can come off and we can be honest about our negative thoughts and emotions, as well as our failures to live out the ideals of love articulated by Jesus. Our Adventist roots are in Methodism, a movement that emphasised gathering in small groups. Weekly, they’d come together and ask one another, “How is it with your soul?” Somehow over the decades since that time, this practice has been neglected and almost forgotten in most of our faith communities. But imagine if we could bring this practice back. Imagine if we could create safe spaces to come together and confess our sins to one another, to bring the dark corners of our hearts and minds into the Light (John 8:12), and to pray for one another, so that we might be healed of our shame.
Dr Edyta Jankiewicz is SPD associate ministerial secretary and women in ministry.