When Confession Becomes Sin

confessions_mon_fillThe prophet Jeremiah wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (17:9a). The human heart, tainted with sin as it is, can take even the most god-honoring things and distort them. I have seen time and again in my own life how spiritual disciplines can be manipulated and twisted into fulfilling sinful desires. I have seen it in counselees too. Take confession as an example. Here is a discipline that we are commanded to participate in (James 5:16), and which is ultimately good for us (1 John 1:9), but if the heart motivation behind it is not right we can use it to fulfill sinful desires. Confession can be sinful when it is done to garner sympathy, boast about failures, or manipulate situations.

Confession is an important part of our spiritual growth. We often think of it in association with sin, and there’s a proper place for confession of sin, but we may speak of it even more broadly than that. Sometimes confession is about confessing struggles with temptation. Pre-sin struggles should be shared so that we can get help fighting against temptation. It might also be viewed as an honest expression of need, as someone confesses their own struggle with physical illness or debilitating limitations. We can speak of all of these things as confession, and all of them are good. All of them might, however, be done with sinful motivations, so we must be careful.

There’s a fine line between looking for support and encouragement and seeking out unhealthy sympathy. On the one hand we all need help and encouragement. We need to know that there is someone in our corner. But sometimes we don’t really want help, we just want people to feel sorry for us. I confess my needs, my aches, my struggles in such a way that are merely about getting people to feel sorry for me. I just want that concerned look, that empathetic voice, that response of “Oh, poor you.” This is often an issue when we tell dozens of people what is going on in our life. In those cases I am not seeking out a few wise advisors, prayer warriors, or dear friends, instead I am seeking to tell everyone everything. It becomes the defining feature of my conversation, indeed of my personhood, in those moments. It’s the key thing this person needs to know about me, it’s the thing that I tell even complete strangers. Confession becomes sin when its primary goal is just to get one more person to sympathize with me.

Confession can become sin too when it’s a means of bragging. You’ve heard those testimonies, I am sure, where the person seems to take a seemingly sick delight in telling all the bad things they’ve done. It sound more like a moment of bragging than a genuine sorrow over sin. Confession can sometimes manifest as a veiled attempt to impress other people with how wicked you have been. Even confession of sin as a believer can be an attempt to point to yourself and not to your need. I have watched men sit across from me in counseling and smile while they divulged their struggles, laugh about their failures, and attempt to shock me. I have witnessed men who “confessed” their most serious immorality and wait with the long pause for my reaction. In such cases the sickness of their sin goes much deeper than the action, it goes right to their heart and is still present at the moment of exposure. Such confessions are sinful, not earnest heart-felt pleas for help.

Finally, we might point to the ways in which confession can be used to manipulate situations. There are scenarios where confession of sin, confession of a struggle, confession of a need is used as a means to manipulate circumstances and particularly people. So, when a spouse confesses a particular struggle in order to avoid conflict or escape judgment this is not genuine confession it is manipulation. One couple I counseled demonstrated this well. After every big blow-up one spouse would confess their sin in order to “resolve” the conflict and move on. The other spouse never felt like things were properly dealt with and addressed, and no changes to the individual were made. Repentance was used as an attempt to control the situation and force the other party to “let it go.” Often the “repentant” spouse would say, “I have already confessed that and asked for forgiveness, so you can’t bring it up again.” That’s not earnest confession. Sometimes too confession can be used to try to create desirable situations. For example, when a man confesses to another woman that he struggles with lustful thoughts towards her it can often be an attempt to gauge her response. How will the woman respond to this confession? Will she be flattered, will she respond in a pleasing way? Such confessions may be attempts to try to manipulate a woman into responding to veiled advances. When confession is used to avoid change, avoid conflict, avoid punishment it is used in manipulation and is sinful.

The heart is deceitful, isn’t it? We can use something even like confession as a means to satiate our own sinful appetites. The heart is sick. It’s important that we consider, then, how we can avoid these pitfalls and temptations with our confessions. Confession is a vital part of our growth and support so we dare not ignore it, but we must evaluate carefully our confessions and think about what godly confession looks like. It’s helpful, then, to ask ourselves a few guiding questions before we confess.

1. Why do I want to share this information? The question of motivation is an important one. What is it that I am seeking? Am I looking for support, encouragement, or accountability? Am I just trying to manipulate people, or get some desired outcome? These are questions to ask ourselves. Of course we can’t always plumb the depths of our motivations and its best to err on the side of confession if you’re not sure, but it never hurts to gauge our hearts. So, ask yourself, what is the purpose and goal of my confession.

2. Why am I sharing with this person? Who we confess to is just as important as what we confess. Is this a godly person who will use this information wisely to help me? Does this person need to know? Not everyone needs to know everything. Some things can and should be shared with the whole church, but some things need to be addressed with specific individuals. It’s not that “need” is the determining factor. That is to say my friends don’t technically need to know my struggles, but sometimes I need for them to know (that drives me back to question #1). Think carefully about why you are sharing this information with this person or these people.

3. What value will come from sharing this information? Again, we should remind ourselves that not everyone needs to know everything. So seek to think discerningly about the value of sharing some information. Confession of a particular sin may be very important, but some people may not be able to handle specific news. If you share undiscerningly you may overwhelm others, tempt them to sin, or create unnecessary conflict in a relationship. No one should ever struggle, suffer, or be tempted in isolation. We all need help, hope, encouragement, and accountability. But we must think carefully about what benefit will be derived from sharing this news with this person. Will they be able to help me? Will this information harm them? Will this news be important for them to know? There are times where we should not share specific things with specific people. Think carefully.

4. Will this confession be honoring to God? This is the ultimate question and one of the vital reasons we confess and share burdens, sins, and struggles. We want to honor God in all we do, even and especially in confession. So ask yourself this question and pray for the Spirit’s help in discerning the truth. This is the question that will drive us, carefully, to each of the other three. We ought to strive to honor God in all we do (1 cor. 10:31), especially in confession.


  1. Stephanie says:

    I appreciate this post deeply. Thank you for sharing the wisdom God has blessed you with.

  2. Jeremy Henderson says:

    Should I confess my adultery temptations to my separated wife to gain trust.


  1. […] We don’t need to announce all our struggles to the whole church (see, my previous post on confession), but we do need to include someone in it. We need help. We need encouragement. We need somebody to […]

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