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Confession in Counseling

Truth In Love 392

Without confession, which is the beginning of true repentance, there can be no biblical change. So, how do we think about confession in counseling?

Dec 5, 2022

Dale Johnson: Today, I am so thrilled to have with us, Joel Wood. He’s the Senior Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church of La Mesa, California. He holds a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from RPTS in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he’s an ACBC fellow. He’s married to Emily for 20 years. They have a daughter and son-in-law in Maryland, and he has a son attending Kansas City University in Manhattan, Kansas, and he has three kids at home. Joel operates He’s an adjunct professor at City Seminary in Sacramento, California; Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, and he also teaches with OIC (Overseas Instruction in Counseling), and they trained pastors, lay people, and seminarians in biblical counseling around the world. He’s also 1/4 of the Jerusalem Chamber podcast for anyone interested in dabbling in the Theology of the Westminster Confessions theology.

Joel, I’m sure we’re going to talk about Westminster Confession at least at some point in this podcast. But our task today is to talk about confession in counseling. So, brother, welcome to the podcast. So grateful you’re willing to help us tackle this topic.

Joel Wood: Thanks. Great to be here. 

Dale Johnson: Now, let’s jump right into it. I want to talk specifically about this issue of confession. We sometimes, I think, struggle with the idea of confession, what it means, and how we help people and lead people toward or in the direction of confession. That certainly is wrapped into this idea of repentance, calling people to repentance. Those are things that we shouldn’t shy away from primarily because the Bible emphasizes the uses as important in the process of our change in recognizing and agreeing with God. So, let’s talk specifically about the role that confession plays in the counseling room.

Joel Wood: Right. As we think about Christian history, we think about even what we see in our contemporary church culture. You have the two extremes of this is my Jesus, my religion, you stay out of it, and then you have the other extreme, which is your sins cannot be absolved until you tell them to a priest, and then he is the one who absolves, somewhere in between there you have the Lutheran dynamic of confession with the pastor, you have some groups who really emphasize accountability and just letting her life hang out there with others, etc. And so, I think it’s really challenging for people, when they think of the issue of confession, am I confessing strictly to the Lord? Am I confessing to my spouse? Am I confessing to the pastor? To my small group? Who am I confessing to? And how far does that take me etc. So, I think it is really an important issue for us to consider and wrap our hearts and minds around so that we’re really helping counselees effectively.

It starts with understanding what is the sin that we’re talking about and dealing with. We typically, as we work with counselees, that are dealing with sin in, at, and around them, the sin that’s coming from their own heart, the sin that others are committing against them, and then some I just really struggle with the sinful soup of the world that’s around them, living in a fallen world, they struggle with that and confession allows us to start really dealing in a pointed way with each of those categories of sin. So, thinking biblically, all right, confession to say with, to agree with, and that’s it’s easy to see in the English. It’s easy to see in the Greek as well. And so, the first encouragement I would have for our counselors is to remember that confession can be a process. If we are only thinking of confession as that, what can often be a tense moment in the counseling office where someone lays out before the counselor, the counselor and their spouse, counselor, spouse, pastor, whatever the complex is there, I have done X. If that is only confession and seen as the only real aspect of confession, the counselor is going to miss a lot of opportunities to shepherd their counselee along the way.

Confession really starts with that person reaching out for help; they’re understanding that there is a problem. They may not understand their contribution to the problem; they may not understand whether that problem is coming from sin in them or coming from sin at them. But they are saying there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, and I need help in addressing it. Then there’s the aspect of the PDI, the personal data inventory that we give, our forms that people love to see, love to fill out. It’s always the most exciting part of their day, and they have numerous in your typical PDI situation; they have numerous opportunities to start to say, this is what I’ve done, this is what I’m understanding about what’s going on and what’s happening, and that also can be part of confession. And as I work as a Fellow, as I counsel, some people are wondering how do I use the PDI. And I think it’s tempting for some. Okay, I’ve got this data. Let me just set this aside and let me get into it.

I will often spend the first two, sometimes three sessions, just walking through the PDI with people because people are accustomed to hiding. And if it really is a problem, and it really is a problem that’s been hanging on for a long time. They’re probably not being totally upfront and forthright about it, not out of the sense of lying, but they just don’t know. They felt shame perhaps in what they’ve done, and we’re self-protective as beings. And so, walking through them conversationally with these questions can help them begin to open up and address what’s been going on. And then, as we do start cracking open the case, there’s the presenting problem. And then there’s the heart problem. And if anyone has ever had those be the exact identical issue, I would love to hear from you because it’s rarely the case that the real heart issue for the person is what they walk in the door for. It can be connected. It can be similar, maybe, but they have not typically thought through completely how their own heart attitudes and desires are playing into the problem that they have. And this is why I think in the categories of sin of in, at, and around. Because, as biblical counselors, we get ourselves in trouble when we say the problem is sin. And many people in the church and definitely in the world hear that, well, you’re just telling people that, you know, what they’ve done is the problem. No, we’re not. We’re not saying that. We’re saying the whole atmosphere that we live in starting from the fall is part of the problem. We’re saying that the sin that comes at us can be part of the problem, and we’re saying that we can contribute to the problem, and so, definitely, we can say if Adam and Eve never fell, you probably wouldn’t be sitting in my office right now having this conversation. You’d be out joyfully being holy, but we’re not there. So, it helps us to think in those categories to help people process what we mean when we talk about sin in the counseling office.

I would also encourage our counselors to take time; you might sense early on this is an issue, and this is where they are sinning and contributing, and it can take time to unwrap that in the counseling office and for them to see it. I think the temptation can be counselor sees the issue, confronts, people recoil, and then counseling is cut off because I’m confronting you on your sin. It’s so clear and obvious. And yet, you won’t admit it. And I think we need patience in our personal walk with the Lord. And I think we need to exhibit that patience with others as well.

So, don’t be afraid to take time, especially in this generation. We are no longer dealing with any kind of monolithic culture. Even within the church, definitions of what sin even is, what sin does to you, what sin does to others, when we commit it, how you handle it, how you process it, we are in a season where we’re looking at building people’s worldviews for them, helping them build a biblical worldview because they’re not coming in the office. Hey, in six or eight sessions, I can have you work through this problem you can be on your way. They have no idea where they are or where they stand in relation to biblical truth. And so, we’re looking at; I think, longer seasons of interacting with people, so walking them through all this then can help lead them to that point of confession.

And there’s the vertical aspect of confession. This is what we see from David in Psalm 51, a challenging text for some people. “Against you, and you only have I sinned,” and think, wait a minute, he literally broke all ten commandments in this whole scenario with Bathsheba, right? And you obviously sinned against Bathsheba, you sinned against your own family, you sinned against your men, you sinned against Uriah, you sinned against you know, all this. And how can you say against you and you only? He’s simply acknowledging that primary vertical component of sin, that all sin is ultimately against God because he is utterly holy, and so that sin is offensive in that relationship. And 1 John 1:9, if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, that’s written to Christians. That’s not a conversion verse. That’s a discipleship, sanctification verse, and confession connects us to the very means by which our sins will be dealt with vertically—God’s faithfulness and God’s justice. And that is obviously exhibited in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for us. So, there’s that vertical aspect.

Then there’s the horizontal aspect as well, James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. And that honesty horizontally in our relationships brings about healing and helps connect us again to those vertical aspects. But we’re reaching outward to deal with the sin as it’s hurt others, and then together, we’re lifted up to the Lord to be strengthened and encouraged. And I think some wonder, you know, what’s this healing that comes about as we confess our sins to each other? And you know, going back to King David, he speaks of great physical anguish that happens when he is trying to deal with his sin on his own, trying to cover it, trying to hide it, acting like nothing happened. You know, the great offense he feigned as the prophet comes and confronts him, and in Psalm 32, we have him acknowledging that “for when I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long, for day and night, your hand was heavy upon me. My strength is dried up as by the heat of summer.” And so, there’s this great physical pain that can come with sinful situations and whether that’s sin in us that we are hiding and trying to not deal with or sin that’s at us from others. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of great physical problems that they are having because of relational problems that they’re having with other people and acknowledging that, and as we confess our sin, that pain is alleviated. There’s great joy, and the joy of our salvation returns, as David speaks of in Psalm 51.

So that’s been kind of a data dump there on some aspects to think. But remember, it can be a process that can take time walking people through that and remembering the vertical and horizontal aspects, and then even, you know, I think the tail end of this would be that confession and repentance are not the same thing. And that’s again in our day what you see, “Hey, I confessed, I repented.” No, you confessed two minutes ago. You haven’t had time to repent. You have not had time to walk out, “I’m changed on this, and I really do see this,” and we just last night, I saw another quick video from a famous person who said something offensive and “thank you all, I’m different now. I understand this. Thank you for speaking out. I want to be a better person”, all these things. Well, that’s great. We’ll see you in six months. What’s going on? You know, so it takes time.

Dale Johnson: That’s a huge distinction, and I’m glad you made that distinction between confession and repentance. Those are two different things. Now, you could probably just pause right now, rewind, and listen to all of that again. Joel, you said so many things that are so important. Wonderful distinctions in categories of our personal sin, the desires that we follow after that we’re lured, and enticed by, the sin of others, and then how we respond to those. Those things are so critical for us to understand that.

The second part that I thought was really interesting that I want to sort of rehash, and I don’t want to lose my next question. I want to ask you about the horizontal aspect here, but one of the other most important things that you said, I think, is being patient with people in this process of confession. Listen, part of the reason that they’ve come to you is they’re not seeing the things going on clearly, and yeah, they could be self-preserving; we all do that to some degree where we’re willing to confess, you know what we have to or what we’re pressed to and that sort of thing. But sometimes, they may not even see what’s going on, right? And as you mentioned, in this culture, one of the things that I’m recognizing is what makes people able to see sin as their understanding of the law and the conscience that we have within us, as Paul teaches in the New Testament. And sometimes there’s not a refined conscience, and so, as we work with them, we have to be patient to show them the Word that the Word calls us to this particular standard in the things they’ve done are against that standard. And so, we have to be patient as their conscience is built according to the Word, and then they see that they’ve sinned against the Lord or sinned against someone else. And I think that’s critical for us to be patient in to call them in that direction.

The final thing you did was you helped us to understand confession before God. And that’s sort of what we think of a lot is confession vertically, and we might be willing to do that because we can sort of do that in private. But then you also mention this issue of confession horizontally, and that sort of makes us nervous. It makes us tremble and makes us fearful to some degree, but it’s an equally important aspect, so I want to get into that a little bit. How should a person enact confession? So not just in a vertical sense, but also in a horizontal sense, and I want us to get to the place where we’re talking about it because I get this question a lot. You know, someone confesses that they did something and it was against someone else. How far do I go in my confession? Do I have to tell everything to everyone? How public do I make this confession? Whatever it is. So, talk about those things for just a minute. 

Joel Wood: Yeah, I think the first part of that is to not let lazy confession take place in the counseling office. You’re right. Westminster is going to seep in here at some. 

Dale Johnson: Here we go. Alright.

Joel Wood: Particular sins should be repented of particularly. Okay, ignoring that point is why there is so much failure in the counseling office, in the counseling office, and coming out of the counseling office, because we have someone acting in abusive ways toward their wife, abusing their wife, and we let “you know, I’ve been a bad guy, I’ve been angry, I’ve been this.” Well, you need to confess, “I hit you, and that was wrong. I have torn you down verbally and emotionally.” You know, not allowing for lazy confession, and that is what has gone on in the church a lot of times. I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have done.

So then that helps us ease into who do we say, or what do we say to whom about what has gone on? Not everybody needs to know everything. Anyone familiar with the history of congregationalism as a church movement knows that early on in England, there were movements where after worship, people would sit in a circle and critique each other’s spirituality, and those churches did not last very long because we cannot handle too much information. We can barely handle the information we have about ourselves, let alone what we have about others, as you work your way out; if you think in the idea of concentric circles, as you work your way out, less information needs to be known. So, there may be certain sins that nobody in the general congregation needs to know about that. It’s something that’s very personal, very relational, with another particular person. It’s not a public sin where others are at risk because of the sin that has been committed.

So, there may be certain sins that simply working it out with the counselor and the counselee. And they know what’s happened, and they’re walking, they’re repenting of those sins in particular ways. So, you think of this omnibus confession, I’ve done bad things about a particular sin, but we’re saying I’ve done bad things. Then how are you going to walk in repentance with that type of terminology in that type of category? Whereas I have stolen, you know, five dollars a day for my employer for the last 20 years. Okay? Well, now we know how to walk that out and how to repent of that in turn from that and how to make restitution, all of these types of things. So might be something that’s just the counselor in the counseling office.

Then there might be; obviously, we think of marital sins where this is really deteriorating the marital relationship. It might be directly a relational sin against that spouse, or it might be a sin that the person’s participating in, you know, private drunkenness or something like that is impacting the marital relationship, and so, the spouse needs to be brought in on that conversation. If there are sins that are spoken against for church leaders and the person’s an office bearer or Sunday school teacher, or small group leader, then, most likely, the elders or whatever spiritual counsel is there for the church needs to be brought in. And so, this is where thinking clearly on particular repentance for that sin helps bring clarity. It’s not the same. There is nuanced. And there is diversity in how these things ought to be handled for the sake of the church. We could not handle it. A congregation could not handle it. If they knew all of each other’s sins every week, and that’s not a call to fakeness. That’s just a call to reality that we’re all to be pressing together toward Christ and not getting distracted with one another’s sins because we tend to take up offenses, which is, itself, a sin. But we tend to take up the banner or the hurt or whatever of another. And so, this helps keep that from happening, doesn’t always, but it helps.

Dale Johnson: Good. That definitely helps to provide clarity. Now you mentioned in the first section that we were discussing about the issue of healing, and you even used the example of David, and I think that’s an important thing for us to revisit. If we were to boil this down, if someone’s living under that conviction of sin, they’re feeling the pressure and the weight of their sin. Let’s bring that to a pointed close and say, what exactly should they do in a practical sense? 

Joel Wood: They should, first of all, confess to the Lord, but then also seek out someone to help them navigate that confession and repentance. Someone who’s trustworthy. Someone who can help them walk through it correctly, and that might be pastoral staff. That might be a friend. That might be a mentor. It might be another officer in the church, but reach out and get the help that they need to deal with that particular sin, particularly. Because they will suffer the physical effects of that sin. If they are actively experiencing conviction of that sin, that’s not a physically healthy place to be in, it will deteriorate them and destroy them eventually, and that’s simply part of the Spirit’s call on us to deal with that sin. It is the physical feelings that we have when we think about that sin or are confronted by that sin. 

Dale Johnson: But confession is not the end game, right? I mean, confession is a part of the process, and we have to be very clear. If all we do is confess, I mean, that’s great, that’s lending toward humility, but we’re apt to repeat if we don’t see change, so what are we looking at next as a part of confession, and that’s why we confess things specifically. What are we looking at next? 

Joel Wood: Right, and this has been the age-old question in the church and why we’ve ended up with some really developed practices and some Churches and attempts at it and others where if I’ve sinned in this way, what do I need to do? And I think if you look at church history, the whole idea of penance for sins started with this idea of how to walk in repentance. If you’ve sinned in this way, then you need to do this activity to help overcome that sin and eventually turned into paying for that sin, or think of Baxter’s directory and things like this where we want things codified; we want the equation, right? And so, really, what Scripture leaves us with is that nudge toward the equation, for that particular situation, with the people that need to be involved. So, confession is the precursor to repentance. If I’m in Chicago, and I am there when the gun goes off for the marathon, and then I drop out, you know, one block later. I have a lot of friends who have run that Marathon over the years to be really offended. If I told people, I ran the Chicago marathon. I didn’t, I ran across the start line, but that’s it. And that’s how, sadly, we handle confession and repentance sometimes.

So, helping someone work out a particular plan to confront that sin in their life or to confront that issue, whatever it might be. And again, this is thinking through sin in us, at us, around us. How do I work out a godly life in light of this sin in my life and what I’ve done? Confession begins it, but then we have to walk in repentance, and that’s where that plan comes in. Plans or accountability, you know, prescribing flip phones for young men who are struggling with pornography, and that constant access, prescribing locational software for spouses to be able to see where their spouses are and know where they are in cases of adultery. You know you can think of all the applications out from there. But this is where homework is very important for counselors. Be intentional about the homework. Follow up on the homework, get specific in the homework, and that will help people walk out that repentance that confession is the beginning of. You said I’ve done wrong; now I want to live right. How do we help them live right?

Dale Johnson: Really well done, Joel. This is really helpful, and I do hope that you guys who are listeners will go back and listen to some of the things that he’s described. I think it will enhance and increase your effectiveness as a counselor as you drive them to biblical confession and then biblical repentance. And that really is the goal where we see change happen, and this is a part of the process.

Joel, you’ve explained it to us very well today. Thank you, brother. I appreciate it.

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