Ryan, my 15 month old son, was trying to eat his favourite addiction (Cheerios) on the front step the other day. His left hand held a spare set of keys that he’s decided to take everywhere. His right hand was clutching a bright blue ‘nail’ from his Little Tike’s Work Bench. He was squatting down in front of a Tupperware lid full of Cheerios, trying desperately to grab them with his already-full hands.
“Put the keys down so you can eat, bud,” I admonish him. No response.
“Here Ryan, let me hold your nail for you.” Still nothing.
I think he finally won by using a few spare fingers to shovel up the treats.
That little event perfectly illustrates the point John is trying to convey to his readers. The false-teachers were telling the church members that they were without sin. John brought the correction quickly: any claim to sinlessness is mere self-deception. But if we open up and let go of our sins . . .
. . .
If we say that we have no sin (v. 8a, NRSV)
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (v. 8b, NRSV)
We humans are gullible. Given a strong enough motivation and a long enough time frame, we can justify almost any action or belief. Sure, it sounds cynical, but take a serious look at humanity—both externally and internally—and I’m pretty sure you’ll begin to see the same thing. If you don’t believe me, try asking a psychologist who is trained in personality disorders!
The prophet Jeremiah wrote about our inclination towards self-deception:
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, NRSV)
Devious. What an apt word.
The false-teachers convinced themselves and their audiences that they were without sin. We don’t know if they thought they surpassed it, overcame it, or plan old transcended the good-evil dialectic. We only know their claim. It was quite an attractive belief.
John reminded his followers of the words of the prophet: the heart is devious. Sinlessness is self-deception. More sinisterly, any claim of sinlessness prevents God from healing our broken human nature.
. . .
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (v. 9, NRSV)
This is the flip-side of the deception. If we would only learn to confess sin instead of hiding (like Adam and Eve in the trees), we would be forgiven.
The confession of sin is often emphasized today, but rarely written about in the New Testament. According to Kruse, there are only four other passage that deal with the personal confession of sin:
- Matthew 3:6
- Mark 1:15
- James 5:16
- Acts 19:18
From this comprehensive list, Kruse makes the observation that confession of personal sin is a public matter. The evangelical world has turned this verse into a bed-time liturgy, when it was intended to be a way to heal communities! Understanding the corporate nature of this confession makes the act far more difficult—but just look at the two results:
- God will forgive us.
God will remove the offense that blocked the divine-human relationship. Confession of our sin to each other allows us to be restored to God.
- God will cleanse us.
God will even remove the stain that resulted from the sin!
Think of it this way. An authority tells you not to eat ice-cream in the living room. However, the television’s in the living room and your favourite show is starting. The inevitable happens, and you spill a big glob of ice-cream on the shag rug. As it starts to melt into the 2 inch long fibers you’re caught. What happens?
- You can claim that you didn’t do it and introduce a layer of deception into your relationship with the authority (who knows exactly what you did).
- You confess what you did and the authority forgives you for your disobedience, and then steam-cleans the rug to remove all evidence of the offense.
I think the right course of action is clear.
. . .
Like a toddler clutching his precious items, we hold our shameful sins close to our heart. Maybe we even deceive ourselves into believing we are without sin. But when we hold on to our sins, we prevent God from healing us.
It’s time to confess quickly, and receive freely.