Okay, suppose you're doing a good job leading a small group. You're building relationships among group members, people seem to be growing closer to God, and everything seems to be going swimmingly, when suddenly, Whammo!—one of your group members (or even your co-leader) confesses that they are struggling with a secret sin. Now what do you do?
Well, for starters, the title of this article is not the suggested response. :)
It's important to recognize that confession of sin is a good thing. You shouldn't assume your group is under some sort of spiritual attack. One of the aims of our small groups is (or should be) to create a safe environment where people can grow closer to God. Well, growing closer to God often involves the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the need to repent of sin. If someone's confessing, it means you've done a good job leading your group and you should give yourself a pat on the back. (Okay, you can actually give God the credit, but you get the point.)
So, what sort of sins am I talking about? Not the "Oops! I messed up and said a bad word today" kinds of sin. I'm referring to serious sin patterns in people's lives that they've been convicted of and that they need to deal with. This can also include secret sins that people have been silently struggling with for years.
- "I'm addicted to pornography."
- "I'm anorexic."
- "I'm sleeping with my boyfriend."
- "I struggle with homosexuality."
- "I demean and belittle others to make myself feel better."
The Spirit has decided it's time for them to bring their sins into the light and deal with them, and you are the lucky person who's been chosen to help them in that process. So what do you do?
Respond with Authenticity
Well, to begin with, you can't simply pass the buck to God and tell them to go off and pray and leave you alone. I may be getting into dubious theological territory here, but the Bible seems to suggest that we are forgiven when we confess to God, but we can be healed when we confess to another person.
- 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
- James 5:16: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Regardless of whether we draw a distinction between how forgiveness and healing occur, the Bible is clear that we are called to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. That means that, at times, we will be called to be on the receiving end of a confession.
Praying for and with the person confessing is of primary importance. You need to encourage them to bring their confession to God in prayer. You should then speak God's forgiveness over them. Hearing their forgiveness actually verbally expressed by another person can often help a person to receive it.
Also, don't try to offer any pat, easy answers—that is assuredly not what a confessing person is looking for. If there was an easy answer, they wouldn't be coming to you. Their confession is a cry for help. The response they are seeking is, "Yes, I will help you," not, "All you need to do is … ."
Several years ago, I confessed an area of sin I was struggling with to Eric, an associate pastor at our church. His response was, "I'm not sure what to tell you. Is it okay if I talk to some others to get advice?" That was exactly what I needed to hear. If he had professed to have it all figured out, I probably would have felt even worse at my own inability to figure it out.
Authenticity and transparency are key. So is empathy.
What you need to do is express a willingness to come alongside them and help them get the support they need to deal with their sin. If the sin is beyond something you feel capable of dealing with, connect them with a pastor. Often, though, you can be part of their healing journey.
When I confessed to Eric, he not only sought advice and steered me toward other helpful resources, but he and two other guys he recruited came alongside me to walk with me through a season of very intentional accountability. His affirmation and encouragement was exactly what I needed at that time.
Always remember that your coach and/or pastors are there as a resource for you. Feel free to seek assistance or simply prayer support as you walk someone through their healing process. Ultimately, you'll find the experience to be transformational in your own walk with God, as well.
—Ryan Zempel; adapted from The Zone Gathering blog from National Community Church, © 2007. Used with permission.