July 9 | Our Secrets Keep Us Sick

Scripture and sermon






Our Secrets Make Us Sick: The Healing Power of Confession 

by Julie Hart

My understanding of Christianity as a spiritual journey expanded when I began attending 12 Step meetings in 1987.  My stepdad had just admitted he was an alcoholic and entered a Residential Treatment Program.  His admission gave me permission, at age 34, to enter an Adult Children of Alcoholics 12 Step Program and I have been using the 12 Steps ever since. The 12 Steps take core Christian concepts I had grown up with like sin, salvation, confession, repentance, forgiveness, prayer and grace and applied them in a systematic way that made sense to me.  Following my journey through the first 3 steps: admitting my life was unmanageable, believing God could heal me (instead of all my self-help efforts) and surrendering my will and my life to God over a period of years, I waded into the steps that I call confession of sins.  These 4 steps involve writing out a searching moral inventory of not our sins but our fears and resentments, admitting to God, ourselves and another person the exact nature of these defects of character, preparing to let God heal these wounds and then inviting God to remove all of them. It was hard.

I grew up in a progressive Community church and so was only exposed to the idea of sin and individual confession from my Catholic friends. Many mainline churches like mine tossed out personal confession with the Christian Reformation 500 years ago while keeping a generic corporate version. So, I gave confession, sin and salvation or healing little thought and wrote them off as antiquated Christian concepts, out of touch with the new enlightenment of my progressive church that revolved around self-help concepts.  That is, I wrote them off until I reached Steps 4, 5, 6, & 7 of the 12 Steps and was asked to not only write out a moral inventory of my fears and resentments but to admit them to God and another person, to prepare myself to have God to remove these defects of character (some of which had served me well) and then to ask God to remove all of them.  This process has taken me years and is ongoing now 34 years later. 

Part of the problem is that I was taught that sins were things like murder, stealing, adultery, and idolatry.  I was sure that I hadn’t done any of those things so I must be OK. But, in the 12 step process, by starting in Step 4 with a moral inventory, not of sins, but of my fears and resentments from childhood on, I understood their causes and consequences for the first time.  I came to believe that these sins or character defects damaged my heart & mind and impaired my ability to think clearly, grow spiritually, flourish emotionally, and to love myself and others I came to see these sins stunted my heart & mind much like damage to a tree trunk stunts a tree’s ability to grow and produce fruit.

So, I followed the instructions in my 12 Step book, attended meetings and listened to those who had been working the steps longer than me.  The steps were clearly grounded in scripture.  For example Step 4 comes from 1John 1:8-9, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness and

Step 5, from James 5:16 advises, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” My revelation was that admitting my sin was not only humbling but was an opportunity for my own healing.  I discovered that I had lived in denial and rationalized and minimized my self-centeredness, my grandiosity or pride and my judgmentalness for decades because of my fears about money and rejection by others. My denial of my harms and arrogance were so deep that they required not only modeling from others in 12 Step Meetings to even identify, but I needed help from a sponsor and finally God’s invisible grace, for healing of my heart and mind.

I have come to believe that God cannot heal what I do not acknowledge out loud. What I do not acknowledge remains in control of me, festering and harming me spiritually because it requires energy to keep secrets hidden, to live in denial and blindness.  Put in 12 Step terms, our secrets keep us sick.  I found that admitting the exact nature of my wrongs freed me from the guilt, shame, and inadequacy that I carried deep inside.  As Richard Rohr explains it, we don’t confess our sins to win God’s love or to achieve moral purity but to liberate ourselves to grow spiritually, to be an instrument of peace in the world.  These defects can also become a drawbridge of empathy to share with others who struggle.

Each time I wade into a new round of steps 4-7, I feel freer, lighter and clearer. But overcoming denial and blindness to our own shortcomings requires a disciplined process of naming the sin, claiming it as harmful, admitting it to another person and in Steps 6 & 7, giving it to God for healing.  As I continue to attend meetings, I uncover new harms I have committed from earlier periods of my life that I was unable to see before.  It’s as if I can only uncover my sins in layers like an onion.  With each layer admitted, confessed, and turned over to God for healing, I become aware of deeper more hidden harms that I have denied or minimized and forgotten from my past.

To admit our fears and resentments to another person in the 12 Steps, we choose a sponsor, someone who has waded through the steps themselves, and/or someone who has good listening skills, practices confidentiality and is non-judgmental. Prior to my first out-loud confession to my sponsor, I had experienced the power of honesty and authenticity in my 12 Step Group because that’s the norm for sharing. Because I grew up in an alcoholic family that was frequently dishonest and kept lots of secrets, I needed continued modeling and practice to be really honest. A 12 Step group is a safe place to practice the honesty required in these steps as one of our ground rules is confidentiality. 

Finally in Step 7, we turn these sins over to God to be removed.  This letting go and letting God heal us, presents another challenge though. Many of us enjoy some of our resentful fantasies of harm to others who have hurt us. Or, I have benefitted from my fear of failure as it has motivated me to work long and hard to get a good education and a job I love. In addition, in Step 7, how does one trust in an invisible God for healing? How do we let go and let God do the work rather than keep trying on our own? All these challenges to letting go are the reason that addicts and sinners need to hit rock bottom prior to giving up control. Step 7 also requires real humility. Rather than praying, God GIVE ME the power to overcome my workaholism or my controlling of others, we learn to pray, God, give me the will to turn my fear of failure and resultant workaholism over to you.  It’s the difference between having God in my back pocket to pull out when I am in trouble and giving my whole will and life to God to hold in God’s pocket to use for God’s will.

As Richard Rohr claims, I believe that only those who are unbound by their sins can help others unbind because they have practiced and learned something about honesty and being human that makes it safe for others to admit their wrongs.  Once admitting my many resentments of my parents and siblings, my fears about money, my dishonesty about my feelings, and even my passive-aggressive cruelty, it has become harder for me to judge others for their shortcomings. With more empathy and less judgement, I can be a small piece of God’s grace and forgiveness in God’s kin-dom of love.

So in steps 4-7 of this spiritual journey, we name and confess our sins to ourselves, then to God, then to another trusted person and we open ourselves to God’s healing.  This healing prepares us to be healers to others. So now, rather than keeping my alcoholic and dysfunctional family of origin a secret, I have great empathy for those who have experienced broken dysfunctional families and rejection by an addicted parent because that is my experience and through getting in touch with my own wounds and resulting harms, I have experienced tremendous healing that has blessed me with a sense of peace and serenity and freed me to add a little more healing and hope to our world.