The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
What does it mean to confess something? We commonly think of confession as an act of acknowledging or admitting guilt or responsibility for something we have done. This is how we normally think of confession in the legal context, for example. In a Church setting, that legal definition would equate to the act of confessing some sin to an ecclesiastical leader. As important and necessary as this sometimes is, I believe that “confession” in the gospel context has a much deeper meaning than it does legally—a meaning that expands the idea of confession far beyond the kinds of confessions one might make to an ecclesiastical leader such as a bishop.
In our modern legal system, there is a presumption of innocence, and it is said that a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty.” However, this is not the case in the gospel. As we have learned, all of us who have reached the age of accountability are guilty—guilty of all, in fact. This is not merely a presumption, but a fact. With respect to God, we are guilty. Always. No matter what.
To confess in the gospel sense, then, is not merely to admit to some wrong one has committed. Rather, it is to give up the charade of one’s innocence—not just with respect to a particular sin but with respect to one’s status before God generally. I am not at all innocent, and it is unbecoming of one who is guilty to ignore or deny or hide that fact. Unlike in the legal system, confession in the gospel is not what makes us guilty. Rather, it is what makes us honest.
Since all of us have faults and fall short of the glory of God, the scriptures teach us that we should live in what we might think of as a confessing kind of way. “Confess your faults one to another,” James counsels us. The phrase “one to another” implies that James is not speaking here primarily of formal ecclesiastical confessions but of a way of living openly and honestly with each other that is inherently confessional—freely apologizing, for example, or readily taking responsibility, or humbly sharing our own shortcomings and challenges when it seems appropriate and helpful to do so.
This does not mean that we should go about indiscriminately speaking of our darkest sins, or standing up in testimony meetings in front of people both old and very young and revealing our most troubling thoughts. That would rarely be helpful to others. But we are ready and willing, in our interactions one with another, to admit our imperfections and struggles.
We realize that innocence is not in us but in the Lord. With this understanding, we don’t feel the need to hide our sins, challenges, or struggles. We similarly have no interest in, or need for, managing others’ impressions of us, as our concern is not for ourselves. Like the Lord, we are content to be “of no reputation.” With pride neither wiring our mouths shut with respect to our sins nor compelling us to brag about our strengths and accomplishments, we are willing to speak honestly and helpfully one to another.
A sister in my stake recently told me of a comment a friend of hers made about the Church. “I could never be a Mormon,” her friend told her. “You guys are all too perfect.” What a tragedy it is that anyone would think this! It makes me wonder how we perhaps perpetuate this myth—the charade of our innocence—and therefore provoke disinterest or discomfort in others.
The preamble to section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants certainly gives a different view of the Church than this woman had. “The Twelve met in council,” we are told, “confessing their individual weaknesses and shortcomings, expressing repentance, and seeking further guidance from the Lord.” The Lord’s guidance follows confession and repentance, even for his leaders on earth. If the Lord’s apostles find it needful and helpful to speak of their weaknesses and shortcomings, how blind or hardened or seized by pride must I be if I don’t feel the need to do so?
Describing the Sabbath, the Lord said: “But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.” I wonder how our Sabbath experiences at Church might be different if we really applied this counsel. How would our teaching be different, for example, if we taught in a confessing way?
I remember a talk given by Elder Marlin K. Jensen in General Conference years ago, when he confessed to how he found himself growing inwardly impatient for a couple of visits from old friends to end so that he could get back to writing his conference talk about friendship! I’ll never forget that comment. Its humble honesty cut me to the quick and invited me to see the many times that I have done exactly the same kind of thing—sinning in the name of piety. He easily could have just told us to be more friendly, but his words had far greater power unto repentance precisely because they were expressions of his own discoveries and repentance regarding friendship.
It seems to me that teaching in a confessing way means that we would be willing to share what we have learned in our own repentant journeys. If I have been asked to speak about reverence, for example, then my text, including the scriptures, might be my own struggles and challenges regarding reverence, and how I am trying, with the Lord’s help, to overcome them. That would be a talk on reverence that no one would forget, precisely because my own honest repentance would be inviting the same in those who heard it. The same goes for a lesson on food storage or a talk on forgiveness—in most cases, the most helpful way to preach “naught but repentance” is to speak of my own repentance relative to the topic I am addressing.
There is a brother in my ward from whom I relearn this point every time he speaks. He doesn’t stand up as the expert whose job it is to take the rest of us to task. Rather, he stands meekly before the congregation and confesses that he is the weakest of us all and can therefore speak only in faith about what he has been asked to address. I hang on his every word because his words resonate with honesty. His confessions give voice to my own.
Likewise, how might our comments in our classes be different if we participated in a confessing way? Another brother in our ward has been my example on this topic. Discussions in our class, as I’m sure they do in all classes, sometimes turn to the sins of “others.” A well-intentioned member, let’s call him Brother Jones, may say something like this: “You know, I can’t believe how some people just completely ignore the word of God and brush it off like it doesn’t really matter.”
Let’s suppose that someone in that classroom falls into that category—a person who doesn’t take the scriptures or General Conference very seriously, for example. Is such a comment likely to invite them to change? Doubtful. But compare that to the comment a good friend in my neighborhood would likely make in response to such a remark. I can imagine his words with confidence because I have heard him make the following kind of statement countless times: “You know, I hear what Brother Jones is saying, and I have to say that, as I reflect upon my own life, I am definitely one of those people who too frequently undervalue or ignore the word of God. For example, I’ve been told for as long as I can remember that we should be reading scriptures every day as a family. But you know what, we still struggle with that—most of all because of me. If I, as the father, just stepped up more, I could be of much more help to my family. And the Church magazines—don’t even get me started on that. I’m afraid I ignore the word of God as much as anybody. I need to step it up.”
Now, compare those two comments. Which one invites more introspection and repentance? Which one carries the Spirit? Which one encourages us to stretch and progress? Isn’t it interesting how repentant confessions of sin have much more power to invite others to repentance than do accusations of sinfulness? And think of these two brothers. Which one do you already respond to the best? Which one do you find inspiring? Which brother do you most want to emulate? Once again, isn’t it the openly repentant one—the one who has given up the charade of his own innocence—whom we feel endeared to, and from whom we are likely to learn the most?
This good brother and all others like him manifest the Lord’s power in their lives and keep us in remembrance of the humble truth that each of us is fallen and unclean before the Lord. If that is true, and it is, then I have all the examples of uncleanliness that I need simply by pondering my own life. I needn’t point at others to find examples of a sin that I want to decry.
To teach and comment and support and live in a confessing way is to openly put myself forward as the one, perhaps most of all, who is struggling and needs to improve. It is to be meek and lowly in heart. If the Apostle Paul could characterize himself as the “least of all saints” and the “chief of all sinners,” then the description surely fits me as well. As I embrace this view and begin to live more meekly and confessionally, I will find, to my surprise, that others will respond to me and to what I say much more favorably than they ever have. There is something irresistible about an unflinchingly self-honest soul—one who, like Nephi, walks “in the path of the low valley” and is content in the “plain road.”
Two practices describe what might be considered the secret of the meek—that is, the secret of those who “inherit the earth.” That secret is to simultaneously live James 5:16 and Philippians 4:8. James tells us to confess our sins one to another. As we discussed earlier, in Philippians Paul tells us to focus on anything that is virtuous or praiseworthy in others, rather than upon their sins or imperfections. This is the magic combination: Focus on our own sins and upon others’ virtues. Do this, and our teaching, our thinking, our befriending, and our parenting will all be transformed for the better.
And no one will worry that our congregations are collections of people too impressive either to listen to or to join.