Tim Alford discovers that a dodgy kettle is a perfect metaphor for a crucial truth
Like all good youth workers, I like to consider myself as something of a coffee connoisseur (read, ‘snob’). As such, my home coffee making set up features an electric grinder and a V60 pour over, including a speciality kettle with a long, thin snout, enabling me to carefully control the rate and volume of my pour-over, thus extracting the very best flavour out of those freshly ground beans. Delicious.
Well, it did, until one sad day, the handle fell off my speciality kettle, rendering it unusable.
Now whilst this admittedly falls squarely into the category of ‘first world problems’, at first I felt like I’d lost an arm. (If you think this is over-dramatic then clearly you’ve never tasted a pour-over). I, of course, intended to resolve this problem with great urgency, but then, y’know, life happened, and inconvenient obstacles such as a job, and children, got in the way, causing my kettle replacement needs to fall somewhat down the priority list.
In the meantime I started using a (shock, horror) electric kettle to make my pour-overs. As the weeks went by I kind of got used to life without my speciality kettle, until, slowly, but inevitably, what once felt like losing an arm now just felt, well… normal.
It strikes me that what can be said of my speciality kettle can be said, somewhat more significantly, of many of the ancient spiritual practices in the Way of Jesus, which have guided Christians into Christlikeness for millennia. This is a tragic loss that has, for many, led to a shallow and fragile Christianity that is barely sustained by Sunday morning services and the occasional prayer when something goes wrong.
Which brings us to this series on leadership disciplines. My hope in this series has been to remind us of, and encourage us to return to, the disciplines of the spiritual life that help us become increasingly awake to and aware God’s presence with us and his work in and through us.
At the top of the list of practices that were once central and common to Jesus-followers, but have now been (to our great detriment) all but forgotten, is Confession and Repentance…
Confession and Repentance
Repentance is an inseparable part of restoring right relationship with Jesus. Indeed, we can’t come to Jesus without it, as per the apostle Peter’s invitation:
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
(Acts 2:38 ESV).
The word repent, (from the Greek ‘metanoeó’), means much more than to apologise, it actually means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” To repent, then, is to turn around, to go in a different direction, to change. That’s why Jesus said, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8); we can say sorry as much as we want, but unless that is reflected in a change of behaviour, it is not true repentance, as the prophet Isaiah articulates:
Turn to the LORD and pray to him, now that he is near. Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the LORD, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive (
Isaiah 55:6-7 GNBUK, emphasis mine).
Repentance then, is to turn from one direction to another, as in, turning from death to life.
Yet we cannot turn from sin until we have first confessed it.
Confession is to acknowledge or admit fault without reservation. Biblically speaking, we are to practice this in two ways. First, we confess to God, as the Psalmist indicates:
When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin
(Psalms 32:3-5 CSB, emphasis mine).
Dallas Willard notes that, ‘unconfessed sin is a special kind of burden or obstruction in the psychological as well as the physical realities of the believer’s life. The discipline of confession and absolution removes that burden.’
With this type of confession we remain familiar. We are used to private confession, coming before the Lord to seek forgiveness. We understand too that this is not a one-and-done situation, but a continual bringing of our fallenness before God.
Tyler Staton notes: ‘Spiritual maturity means more confession, not less. Maturity is discovering the depths of my personal brand of fallenness and the depths to which God’s grace has really penetrated, even without me knowing it.’
Confession before the Lord, then, is a continually necessary element of this practice, but, I’m afraid, is also the easy part! Because, as James instructs, we are also to confess our sins to one another:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed
(James 5:16 ESV, emphasis mine).
Which brings us back to our speciality kettle; that which once felt so necessary but has been all but forgotten.
When was the last time you confessed your sins to another believer? Can you recall an occasion where confession was practiced in community? If you’re anything like me, those occasions will be few and far between, if at all. Yet this must not be, because the Christian practice of confession is, as Willard notes, inherently communal: ‘Confession is a discipline that functions within the fellowship. In it we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in Gods provision for our needs through his people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before brothers and sisters.’
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Me too! The idea of revealing our weaknesses and opening up to others about sinful behaviours, thoughts and motivations fills me with dread rather than delight! But here’s the thing; that very emotional response reveals just how far my understanding of what it means to be the church has migrated from that which we were always intended to be. Richard Foster expresses this so well, saying: “Confession is a difficult discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners.”
Brilliant. The truth is, we are a community of sinners, continually being transformed by the work of grace. As we confess our sins to one another the reality of our brokenness is laid bare, and the surface level superficiality of attending church services in our ‘Sunday best’ is stripped away. Here’s Willard again: ‘Confession alone makes deep fellowship possible, and the lack of it explains much of the superficial quality so commonly found in our church associations. What, though, makes confession bearable? Fellowship. There is an essential reciprocity between these two disciplines.’
And herein lies one of the core reasons why individual confession alone is not sufficient; because it does nothing for the community of believers. But confession in community creates vulnerability, which is a prerequisite for authentic relationship.
Moreover, our sin does not only affect us, but impacts the church. Thus, when we confess in community we move towards mending the relational wounds that our sin has created, and step toward true restoration and healing.
Finally, we confess in community because when something is hidden it cannot be changed. Only when we bring our sin into the light can we begin the journey of inner-transformation. Brandon Cook argues that, ‘When we look at the ideas of confession and repentance in a biblical context, it’s clear that, together, they constitute the first, indispensable step in the process of transformation.’
God can’t meet who we pretend to be. Reality, even when it is painful or embarrassing, is the only place in which transformation can begin and true freedom can be enjoyed.
The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums all this up, saying, ‘A man who confesses his sin in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.’
So what would it look like for you to find a few trusted confidants with whom you could lay bare the inner-motivations of your heart, not only for our own healing, but so you can join with Jesus in declaring the complete absolution of the sin of others as they bring their true selves into the light before you?
And how might you create a community of young people who break through the cultural paradigm of Western individualism, which has led to a hyper-individualised spirituality, and learn to be the church in this most powerful and authentic of ways.
After all, the coffee definitely tastes better with a speciality kettle…