James 5:16-18: Make Confession Normal
Jerry Seinfeld, on his Netflix stand-up special, has this comedic bit about his fear of touching the thermostat. Half-joking, he says something to the effect of: “I didn’t touch a thermostat until I was 28 years old because I was so afraid of it. In fact, I was in a hotel room when I finally mustered the guts to turn the thermostat up a little bit. But I couldn’t sleep the whole night. I thought my dad was going to show up and say, ‘Who touched the thermostat in here? You know I set it there for a reason!”
You’re probably not afraid of changing the temperature of your living room. But maybe you’re afraid to change the temperature of your relationships.
When you connect with a church member, the two of you go through the motions of small talk and when there is finally enough of a pause, somewhere between three and four seconds, in a voice two octaves lower you squeeze out this response: “I need to confess some sin to you.” Your neck muscles tighten up, your heart flutters, your toes curl up in your shoes because the temperature of the room just changed. It just got serious. But instead of following through with confession, sometimes you say “nevermind.”
But, what if confession was the room temperature of your relationships?
This is James, expanding on his instructions for prayer: “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. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:16-18).
Prayers have power.
Prayers gain no power from eloquence, zero power from grammar. Prayer has power only because God is the founder and the finisher of our prayers: he initiates them in our gut. He grants us words to string them together. He gives us confidence to offer them up to him. He then gifts his very own ear to listen to the very prayer that he chose to initiate in you. And he answers it.
God is the power of prayer.
History itself is a sequence of events that mostly exists to testify to the power of prayer. For starters, William Tyndale in the 1500’s passionately believed that everybody should have access to the Bible, even though it was illegal in his lifetime to translate the Scriptures into the native tongue of the people. Tyndale still did it. As a result, he was burned alive at the stake and, in his last conscious moments, he offered up a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Three years later, King Henry required (not just permitted- required) every church in England to have English translated copies of the Bible available to its members.
The Bible also testifies to the power of prayers. James, in our text, references the prophet, Elijah. In Elijah’s lifetime, the Lord was horrified by the Israelites’ worship of a false god named Baal. They desperately needed a prompting to confess sins. So God, in his mercy, ordained the rain to cease through the prayers of Elijah and for three years, the rivers and lakes dried up. The drinking water dried up. The earth’s soil dried up. And finally, after the slaughtering of Israel’s idols and a turning back of worship to the God of the Bible, Elijah prays once more, this time for rain. And it comes back.
Prayer is amazing. These God-ordained urges that transform into God-shaped words that flourish into God-attended requests simply stun the human mind. We should want no barrier between us and prayer, no priority higher than prayer, no desire stronger than prayer. They change lives, they alter history, they boss around climates and, as powerful as they are, they can be hindered.
Oh readers, I know of very few sentences more sorrowful than that last: prayers can be hindered.
Look closely, very closely, at one sentence from the text: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16). The healing, and the prayer that precedes it, is dependent upon the confession of sins. In other words, no confession, no healing. No confession of sins, no power in prayer.
Naturally, these questions follow those conclusions: am I not experiencing healing because of unconfessed sin? Is God not listening to my prayers because of unconfessed sin?
Admittedly, this is complex and the need for clarity is great. I would answer the above questions by discouraging you from a mathematical, scientific, impersonal formula, like: if my father/friends/child doesn’t heal from the disease, it is because I have unconfessed sin. That thinking is robotic and slavish and might introduce a level of sorrow into your life that is ungodly. Stay away from preachers, teachers, and thinkers who draw clean and precise lines between sickness and sin.
But also stay away from teachers who erase even the possibility that sickness and sin might have a defined relationship. I do think James wants us to exit this text with a poetic, deeply human, personal openness to this possibility: it is God’s will for my life to confess sin and if God brings physical sickness into my life, I will be open to the possibility that it’s a spiritual problem. Be open to the probability that most events in life, including physical illness from time to time, have the potential to be promptings from God for us to confess our sins. After all, do we not need all the help we can get to spur us towards confession and repentance?
The benefits of a transparent lifestyle are well-documented. For instance, companies with transparent cultures 1) solve problems faster 2) build teams easier, and 3) achieve a higher level of performance. In fact, one survey that was conducted among 300 companies discovered that transparency was the top-ranked factor in employee happiness (ranking above even factors like relationships with co-workers, quality of feedback, and salary).
But as Christians, we have an even more glorious motivation for confessing our sins: we don’t want our prayers to be hindered- or powerless- or stale. What have we to lose? For the Christian, those unconfessed sins are atoned for, paid for, powerless sins. For the Christian, we have the cross, which is both the power to take away our sins and the power to confess our sins. Jump in!
This is the image that comes to heart when thinking of the Christian who confessed sin to a friend: a child with a smile stretched across her face sitting by the side of the pool after jumping off the diving board for the first time. Maybe you know the feeling: for five or fifteen minutes before, her toes dangled over the edge of the plank as she stood on the diving board afraid to jump in, unaware of the joys denied to her by playing it safe. The deep end of the pool promised death, not life. And then, this is what changed: she heard her father’s voice, treading water before her, promising to catch her once she lept.
By God’s grace, you can have the joy of confession and forgiveness.
You can make this the room temperature of your life.
You can live a life marked by holy transparency.
Live, move, and breathe in texts like James 5:15-16, listening closely to the Father’s voice as he pleads with you: I’m right here! Jump in! “If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15). Don’t spend your whole life in indwelling sin, with your toes dangling over the edge of the diving board, afraid to jump in. Fix your eyes on your Father, treading water in the deep end, ready to catch you: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
You can make confession normal.
Watch the sermon Cole preached on this text here: