“The urge to confess . . . it’s a cop’s best friend.” That line from Monk, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, made me pause, asking myself, Is it, though?
I’m not talking about the “cop’s best friend” part—there are probably elementary schoolers out there with more knowledge of police work than I have. I’m wondering about the quote’s underlying assumption, that humans instinctively feel the need to confess their wrongdoing. Is that really how God made us?
For a long time, that urge, that need to bring my sin before Jesus wasn’t something I regularly experienced. Confession just wasn’t on my mind. Unless I’d done something really, really bad, it was usually limited to brief quiet times set aside during church services.
Looking back on that now, I realize that, by limiting confession to something done just for a couple minutes a week, I was missing out on something crucial in my walk with God. (Confessing my sin to God, in of itself, didn’t save me. Jesus did, as described in John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and Acts 16:31.)
Confession in the Bible
Before we go any further, it’s important to explain what I mean by “confession.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the act of admitting that you have done something wrong.” For the sake of this post, I will be focusing on the general concept of confession, not necessarily on its function within different kinds of churches.
The author of 1 John really doesn’t mince words about the centrality of confession in our relationship with God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In other words, if we want to be forgiven of our sins and cleansed from them, confession is a crucial first step.
James also stresses the importance of confession when he writes, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). While people debate over the word “healed”—whether James is talking about physical healing or spiritual healing or both—it’s clear that confession is a freeing experience that we should regularly engage in.
The whole idea of repentance, turning from the world’s way of thinking and instead living for Jesus, hinges upon confession. It’s hard to repent when you haven’t first admitted that you’ve done something wrong. Otherwise, why would you need to repent in the first place?
The Effects of Not Confessing
The verses above clearly outline the significance of confession. I could stop the post right here, and that would be enough to convince us that we need to be regularly confessing our sins to God.
But it’s fascinating seeing how people across different times and areas of expertise—whether Christian or not—all recognize the value of confession and the harmful repercussions when we don’t do it, when we let our guilt over unconfessed sin fester.
One licensed counselor shared “a list of physical illnesses possibly connected to the guilt of unconfessed sin—hypertension, ulcers, heart disease, and depression.” MindPath Care Centers adds that guilt can also cause “insomnia, a loss of appetite, and an overall dreary feeling.”
Psychology Today delves into some of the psychological effects. They compare guilt to having a “snooze alarm in your head . . . your attention would be constantly hogged by bursts of guilty feelings.” It also makes us struggle to truly enjoy life. It can even make us feel physically heavier!
Confession isn’t just something psychologists are thinking about. I’ll never forget reading (and being creeped out) by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” as an eighth grader. Even after getting away with murder, the narrator finally confesses to the crime because he can still hear his victim’s beating heart.
Is it just me, or is all this an echo from Psalm 32:3–4?
When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Once again, we see that God’s Word has been right the whole time, emphasizing confession’s relevance. Humanity, in all our wisdom, can only echo the truth found in Scripture.
The Effects of Confessing
So what happens when we do confess? Well, look over all those symptoms I just mentioned and let out a big sigh of relief. These are all the things you won’t have to struggle with (at least not because of not confessing.)
That said, confession isn’t easy. It’s not comfortable. It’s coming before God in all his holiness and power and saying, “I didn’t do what you asked me to. I disobeyed . . . again.” Confessing your sins to a close friend or accountability partner isn’t much better. It’s exposing how vulnerable you are to another person, showing that you don’t have everything figured out.
But I’ve found that the idea of confessing my sin is much more intimidating, much scarier than actually doing it. It’s like a kid terrified of the monster in the closet. But when we muster up the courage, when we open the closet and turn on the light, we expose the monster for what it is: a pile of dirty laundry. Bringing sin out into the open before God and others robs it of its power.
It’s like what Jesus says: “Light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed’” (John 3:19–20). Exposing our sins—although uncomfortable—is exactly what we need. It’s the first step in being cleansed of them and reminds us that no matter how great our sin, Jesus is greater!
Making Confession a Regular Practice
Confession is important, right? But with all the other things going on, with all the ways we’re striving to grow in our walk with Jesus, how do we make sure confession doesn’t get overlooked?
Tim Keller’s book, Prayer, outlines the ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) prayer structure. Take time to walk through each of these steps, and you’ll make confession a regular rhythm in your prayer life.
I’ve also found that sometimes when I come before God and begin to pray, I can sense something’s off, like there’s a barrier separating us. It might be tempting to just think, God feels far away or Jesus isn’t listening. But more often than not, the Spirit’s using that feeling of distance to call to mind some unconfessed sin. In confronting and repenting from it, the barrier’s removed, and I can experience the Lord’s presence once more.
So back to my original question: is the urge to confess something that God’s hardwired into us? Given the physiological, cultural evidence I highlighted, I think yes, it’d be safe to say humans naturally do have this tendency. But more specifically, for anyone indwelt by the Spirit, the answer is an emphatic yes. We should have that urge to confess our sins to God. Even though it can be painful, it’s a crucial step in our healing and sanctification.
Nathan Peterson is a writer on InterVarsity's Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. He formerly was the Urbana 18 writer. When he’s not at work, you can find him working on his book, at the gym, or watching movies at home.