The Over-Rated Virtue of Transparency

Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. James 5:16.

Sometimes we are greatly encouraged by the prayers of our faithful friends, and it is of great use to us to share our sins and temptations with one another. James points out that when a godly person prays for us, much is accomplished. If we act as though we don’t sin or we don’t need prayer, I John 1:8-10 says, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgiven us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

It is clear that we all need forgiveness, and we need to extend forgiveness to one another. These verses do not mean that we need someone (a priest) to forgive us. Christ forgives us. And in church when we confess our sins and the minister declares the absolution, it is not that he is forgiving us; he is declaring that Christ has forgiven us. So we do not need to go to weekly confession and tell our sins to a priest. But we need to confess our sins to God, who forgives us; and we need to confess our sins to one another.  So far so good.

It is good to confess your sins to someone who is part of the problem (to seek their forgiveness) or part of the solution (who will counsel or pray for you). But what about just sharing your sins as a means of being “transparent” with your brothers or sisters in Christ? Is that what this verse is talking about? Are we to share our sins like we talk about the weather? I don’t think so.

First of all, it is good to consider if what you are sharing is actually profitable for the hearers. Are they going to be edified by what you are sharing with them? If not, then maybe you should keep quiet. Though confessing your sins and temptations may seem like it makes you feel better, it can also be a snare. Sometimes women over-share and make everyone else uncomfortable. They may do this because they are insecure and need reassurance that they really are forgiven. In this case they may need to quit confessing to their girlfriends and go visit their father, mother, husband, or pastor.

Once we heard of a group of young high-school aged men who would regularly meet together for accountability regarding internet porn. They would confess their sins to one another, and the group would pray together, and then they would go sin again the next week. My husband had a great idea for these guys  if they really wanted accountability: they should tell their moms and see what their moms would do to help them with accountability! That introduces a whole new level of accountability, and it is doubtful any of them wanted that kind of accountability at all. They were far more comfortable sharing their failures, i.e. being transparent, with their peers who were failing right along with them.

If we are eager to confess our sins with those who can’t really help us or do anything about it, then we might consider whether we are motivated by something other than repentance. On the other hand, if we are not confessing our sins to the appropriate people, we may be prideful, muddled, or too disconnected and independent.

Some people like to confess their sins to show off. “Let me tell you the really awful thing I did!!!!”  Others are needy and insecure and want to feel forgiven. These people need to be taught to confess their sins rightly and to confess the right sins. For example, they may need to confess the sin of unbelief, the sin of looking to people for forgiveness instead of looking to Christ. Others confess their sins willy-nilly as conversation starters. They need to consider whether they are simply looking for attention or are trying to look like they are super-spiritual.

In all these things, we are to take Scripture as our guide. We are to confess our sins and pray for one another. And the fervent prayer of a righteous man will get the deed done. Then we should move on to converse about other things, like the good things God has set before us to do.

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33 thoughts on “The Over-Rated Virtue of Transparency

  1. Thank you for this post. I am reminded of Luther’s comments that our repentance is so far off the mark that we need to repent of our repentance. I’m glad we serve a gracious, forgiving God!

  2. As always, I appreciate the clear, thinking-through process that you present. This is so helpful to my thinking. God bless.

  3. This is great. I would add the the “confessor” ought to think of the shame she might bring on her family as she confesses how poorly she reacts to their many flaws. On Facebook.
    : )

  4. I really appreciated this, as I’ve been thinking about it this week. I’ve been reading Beth Moore’s “Praying God’s Word”, and in it she differentiates between the Greek words translated “trespasses” and “sins” in the two verses you mentioned. I haven’t researched it myself, but she noted the word “trespasses” in “confess your trespasses one to another” has a shallower meaning of “faults, lapse, error, wrongdoing”; whereas “sins” in 1 John 1:9 means any small way in which we miss the mark– the traditional definition of sin. She notes the need to be detailed with God about all sin, and the need to be discreet with men, even while calling upon them to pray for us in our struggles.

  5. As I read this wonderful post I was reminded of a situation where another woman from my church “confessed” to me her sin of harboring ill feelings towards me. She had seen an interaction between myself and my husband and (not being in the slightest aware of all of the background of the situation) had deemed me to be in sin. Apparently she held these feelings and let them grow within her for quite some time. I was completely unaware that she felt as she did…. until she confessed. In a room full of other women. The whole thing was excruciatingly embarrassing. One the one hand I wanted to explain the interaction and why I responded to my husband as I did, but on the other hand the last thing that I wanted to do was so share some very private hurts with this large group of women… and especially with this particular woman who had judged me so.

    I’ve never been quite sure why she felt the need to confess her feelings as she did… was she truly feeling badly? or did she just want to air her feelings and my “sin” in front of all of the church ladies? I’m not sure. In any case I ended up having to hug her as she tearfully prayed.. like I said, it was excruciatingly embarrassing.

    My father once said to me, “Just because you feel a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to let everyone know it.” Sounds simple, but it was a revelation to me at the time, that complete complete honesty is not always the best policy. Sometimes its best to keep things between ourselves and the Lord.

  6. Diane,

    I dealt with a similar situation, twice having young women “confess” their jealousy and resentment toward me for being better at a particular activity than they, and for being closer friends with certain people. As you described, it was excruciating and also ruined any possible future closeness. In both cases it was after years of what I thought was friendly comraderie but apparently wasn’t really. Someone I know once said: “it’s none of my business what you think of me.” So true.

    Oh, and hugs to you :)

  7. Diane,

    I would like to interact with what you posted. God’s Word commands that we make things right, that we confess, that we not hold grudges, and that we cannot continue coming to the Table and partaking of the Lord’s Supper week after week while we are holding sins, hurts, offenses, grudges, etc. in our hearts against our brethren. It could be that this woman just got to the point where she can no longer keep her hurt/grudge against you bottled up inside any longer. HOWEVER, it is too bad that she didn’t show discernment with regard to how she confessed to you. What she was holding in her heart was something she saw in private and it should have been confessed in private, NOT in front of a room full of women. Unless you are a few minutes away from taking the Lord’s Supper and the Lord is pressing on you heavily to get up and go confess, and even then, get up as quietly and dignified as you can and ask to see that person alone in the back, in the bathroom, outside very quickly; confess, get your heart clean and rush back in to take communion.

    I am so sorry that you were put in that position. But don’t let the hurt and embarrassment that she caused you to take root and cause bitterness and resentment in your heart.

  8. Amanda, you wrote: “it’s none of my business what you think of me.” I love that! ((hugs)) to you too dear?

    Luma.. thanks so much for taking the time to comment to my comment? I do agree with you that perhaps this woman “just got to the point where she could no longer keep her hurt/grudge against me bottled up inside any longer.” I agree with you that her grudge was something that she needed to deal with at any rate. But the more I think about it, the more I think that confessing it to me was not the right action for her to take. I think she should have kept it between her and the Lord.

    As far as communion goes, our liturgy says if you are approaching the communion table and remember that your brother has aught against you then you must go and make amends. It doesn’t say if you have aught against any brother. I had no problem with this gal… she was the one who had the problem with me. I think if she had confessed her ill will to the Lord, He would have been faithful to help her overcome any sin on her part without having to even brought me into the situation.

    I think you are right to caution against allowing any hurt to fester and cause bitterness. I think for a time I did feel hurt, embarrassed and maybe even a bit bitter. This all happened many years ago however, and the years (and the Lord?) have a way of healing such things. And the Lord has even used it for good… it certainly taught me how not to react if I ever were to find myself in that gal’s situation?

    Once again, it was so kind of you to take time to respond to me. I really appreciated your thoughts?

  9. oops, I keep forgetting that my little hearts show up as question marks on WordPress. So all of those odd little questions in my post above are really statements which were supposed to be ended with a cute little heart. *blush*

  10. Thank you, Diane. Yes, I see what you mean that there are things that are best to be confessed just to the Lord, and I agree completely.

    Frankly, there are times when I’m not sure if I should confess privately to the Lord or to the individual. I’ve learned to just ask my husband. He’s very wise and temperate, and he’s very good at telling me when I need to do which. :-) I’m grateful to have that, because I’m sure I would have made even bigger blunders than I had, especially when I was younger. My husband has taught be a lot about forgiveness. Not only is he a VERY forgiving man but he has also taught me how to ask for forgiveness. I didn’t grow up with the best example of that. It was my husband through the grace of God that taught me how to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness.

    Thanks for pointing out the specific verses, I’ll go look them over. One of the points of our sermon yesterday was this.

    And Diane, thank you for discussing all this with such graciousness. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

  11. Thank you for speaking on this issue. Transparency is big in many young evangelical churches I have contact with. My gut is often twisted when I hear people over sharing about a fight they had with their wife last night or a wife speak of her husband’s weaknesses as if it is public business.

    I once heard a great saying, “Everyone has dirty laundry, but we don’t clean it on the front lawn.”

    I am becoming convinced that people often confess sin publically, to the wrong people, in an attempted to ease their guilt. Instead of dealing with the person with whom they sinned against, they confess to others and never make it right with those they ought to. It is a sad state and damaging to our congregations’ at that. : (

    Thank you for the reminder to exercise decrement, and caution in this area.

  12. A friend just pointed me to your blog and I thank you for writing this!

    In our tell-all, blogging, Facebook-ing, reality tv soaked society we can get so easily sucked into bearing it all.

    Thank you for the reminder and challenge to not air my dirty laundry when it does not firstmost glorify God as well as encourage other believers. :)

  13. Mrs. Wilson,

    In skimming through some of these comments, there seems to be an implied question as to whether it is ever appropriate to confess to another person that you have been having “sinful thoughts” about her (or him). In other words, if the person is utterly unaware of your anger, envy, bitterness, etc., and you have not acted upon your sinful thoughts, have you, in fact, sinned against that person at all, or is the sin entirely against God?

    It’s hard to imagine a time when confessing sinful thoughts or feelings to the blissfully ignorant object of those thoughts and feelings would bring peace and reconciliation. The opposite seems to be the more likely outcome in all situations that come to mind.

    Would anything be made right if your good friend “confessed” to your husband that she’s been secretly lusting after him in her heart for many years? I don’t think so.

  14. The rule of thumb I’ve often heard is that the sin ought to be confessed as publicly as it was committed. If it’s something in my head and heart alone, then God alone has seen it, and He’s the only one I need to confess it to. The exception would be if it’s something that’s a persistent problem and I need counsel with it. That’s where Nancy’s principle comes in — take it to someone who can actually be part of the solution.

    This is a modesty issue. Just as there are times and places for our bodies to be revealed or concealed, so there are times and places for our hearts to be revealed or concealed. Our culture, even our church culture, could use more discernment in both areas.

    The Internet is especially fraught with temptations to cross the line. I recently went through a bunch of old blog posts and took down some things that should never have been written in a public place. I too often have to go back and delete Facebook status updates that I shouldn’t have posted. Oops…am I being too transparent about my lapses into hypertransparency?

  15. Valerie, I love how you put it: “Just as there are times and places for our bodies to be revealed or concealed, so there are times and places for our hearts to be revealed or concealed.”

    When I was young I thought that if people were not transparent then they weren’t “authentic,” “genuine,” or “being real.” Now at 40 I look back and see how I bought that kind of thinking from the worldly culture. There are of course still remnants of that, but praise be to God for renewing our minds.

  16. Yes! And Valerie, your comment is very apt. The women at church, wonderful as they are, don’t need to hear every struggle I have with being a good wife. On the other hand, there are a very few women whom Allen trusts to help and counsel me and whom he has encouraged me to go to if I need some womanly advice. What might be appropriate (and even edifying) to share with one woman might turn into to Allen-bashing if it was shared with a large group. And that would be something to repent of come Sunday!

  17. I definitely err on the side of too-transparent and need to think about this post and the comments. I am wondering about a couple of things.

    One is that sometimes we put a person on a pedestal and think they are “so together,” and can feel really down about our temptations and failures. And the accuser can see to that. There have been times when I have been a little relieved to find that Mrs. Perfect struggles like I do, that the things I experience really are common to man. And other times, I have been surprised to find myself on the pedestal in someone else’s eyes and am eager to say, wait a minute, I am flesh like you are.

    Here’s a different sort of scenario: Recently, I was talking with another mother about the inclination toward a particular sin in one of our children and recognized that she learned it from me, and said so. Would this be over-transparency? Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut from the start and not discussed my child with another mother?

    I have been a mother for a long time and over the years have often discussed problems we are having with our children with other mothers. Usually my motives are seeking wisdom. (No doubt sometimes I am just complaining and I recognize the wrong of that.)

    Mrs. Wilson and others, any thoughts?

  18. “Unless you are a few minutes away from taking the Lord’s Supper….”

    Just a thought about this. I’ve often heard this concept of pausing to make amends applied to the Lord’s Supper, but that’s not what Jesus said: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” So don’t put your offering in the plate if you’ve got unfinished broken relationship business to deal with. But don’t refrain from the Supper or delay participation — recognize the body around you, including the brother or sister with whom you need to reconcile (try to catch his or her eye and give a big, loving smile!), and eat with Jesus, being strengthened by His grace to sort out whatever offense is on your mind.

  19. Dear Helen,
    If a mother is seeking wisdom and help from an older/wiser woman, then she should share her questions with discretion, being careful not to wrong her children in the process. And to be on the safe side, perhaps she should run it by her husband first: “What would you think of me talking to Mrs. Smith about Susie’s problem?” A husband may think that’s a great idea, or he might not.
    A mother ought to be very loyal to her kids and husband. Would the kid in question appreciate Mrs. Smith knowing about her bed-wetting problem or his crush on Susie or their poor grades? Sometimes mothers wrong their kids by exposing their weaknesses, struggles, and failures. And sometimes a mom can wrong her husband and kids by exposing her own weaknesses, struggles, and failures. It all depends. So, I would urge moms to err on the conservative side. You can always decide later to go ahead and share something after giving it some prayer and thought; it’s much more difficult to deal with the damage of careless words. We should do all we can to protect our children’s reputation and our husband’s reputation. Needless sharing can be disloyal and will only breed disloyalty in the kids.

  20. Yes, Valerie. I’m in complete agreement. We do not have authority to refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper. We do not get to keep ourselves away from the table. We don’t fence ourselves.

    As I heard it preached just this past Sunday, we are however, to deal with the particular issue/circumstance, in the appropriate way that particular situation calls for and then we are to eat with clean hearts.

    In my example above I used the situation of asking forgiveness right before the Lord’s Supper as one of those extreme (or maybe not so extreme) situations when the Holy Spirit’s conviction is so pressing that you know what you ought to do and you ought to do it immediately. I also wasn’t talking about just sin that you have in your own head, but sin you have committed against a brother. Not just some thing you happened to take offense to. I meant sins you know you committed and your brother knows you have committed.

    I’ll go back up and see what I wrote to make sure I was being clear. A lot of this stuff is fresh in my mind because of our sermon this past Sunday. I know the verse you quote above but I have always been taught that it does not just apply to gift giving but to the Supper also. That entire section in Mathew 5 is about love and peace with our brethren.

    Hope that helps clear things a bit. And it’s good to continue to be sharpened. :-)

  21. Really good discussion. It’s so easy for a group of women to start gossiping without really intending to, it’s just in our make-up to be interested in one another and talk about our children, etc. We need to know where to draw the lines in our communications so we don’t get caught up in crossing those gossip lines and feel rotten about it afterward.

  22. I linked to this post and two others about gossip/loose talk. The older posts though have some problems with the characters. I think this is from the html transferring? Not the end of the world, just giving a heads up about the older posts. :)

  23. I’ve been mulling this over as this thread has developed, and I think I’ve come up with an answer to something that has been bothering me. Someone else mentioned something related to it above.

    It has always been helpful to me to know that other women struggle with certain temptations — it’s “not just me.” And I’m not so much talking about big dramatic stuff, but about the weariness of raising young children, the difficulties of bearing with an imperfect husband, the sort of things that we think that Really Solid Christian Women Have Gotten Beyond. And yet, I also feel a strong pull toward what Nancy’s saying.

    So, here is perhaps a solution: rather than “airing the struggles” as they are going on, are still tender, and are still susceptible to be twisted into further occasion for sin on the part of the person airing them, what is helpful in this regard is for women who have been through these things in the past and have overcome, or even endured them in a godly way until “outliving” particular manifestations of them, to share that they, too, have had to deal with them. The temptation for younger women is to think that the older women appear to “have it all together” not because they faithfully endured struggle and temptation, but because they’re on such a higher plane of spirituality that they didn’t experience them. Sharing that those things have also been (and in more general terms, continue to be) a part of your life and how the Lord has helped you through them and used them allows you to set that fear at rest, while avoiding the snares that over-transparency carries. It doesn’t just have to be women who are chronologically older, or even older in faith, but those who have experienced something, but are no longer in the midst of it, and have learned from it.

    So I guess the apostles were onto something when they exhorted older women to teach the younger to love their husbands and children? 😉

  24. This post reminded me a verse we had our girls memorize, Eph. 4:29-32…Which says in a nutshell only say things that encourage the hearer & benefits those who listen. We should consider with does bit of information encourage the hearer and will it benefit those who listen. Mpst likely this would be a private focused conversation not a flippant remark which may damage our witness. These are applicaions I had not considered until now. Thanks for the great post.

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