It’s not a long drive — just thirty minutes — but it’s an intense one. I’m always a strange mixture of anxious and excited. It’s normally a Monday afternoon, and my destination is a place the three of us call “The Wardrobe.”
The three of us are Ray Ortlund, T. J. Tims, and myself. And “The Wardrobe” is what we call Ray’s new study, not because it’s in any way cramped, but because for the three of us it represents a gateway into a better world. Monday afternoon is when the three of us typically get together to pray and catch up, and specifically to confess our sins.
The New Testament repeatedly shows us the need to be transparent with one another. John urges us to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7), James to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16). The former charge appeals to us: we all like the idea of living in transparency. It’s what excites me as I drive to Ray’s house. But the former comes as a result of the latter — in other words, walking in the light comes as we confess our sins. That’s the part I always feel a little anxious about. Transparency can’t happen without confession. We need to practice James 5:16 in order to enjoy 1 John 1:7.
Doorway to the Light
Being honest about our sins requires being honest not just with God, but with one another. We might think this latter dimension would be the easier of the two: if we’ve already come clean to God, surely it’s no big deal to come clean to each other? But I find the opposite to be the case. God already knows the worst about me. I’m never admitting something he doesn’t already know about — more fully than I do. But with Ray and T. J., that’s not the case. I can really lose face by confessing my sins to them.
There are other reasons we can find confession to another person difficult. Being open makes us vulnerable. At times in the past, I’ve risked some openness with someone and been met with a blank stare, or a really insensitive response. Sometimes it’s hard to know if we want to risk transparency. But we’re actually missing out if we don’t. Both John and James show us the benefits:
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)
Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
Real, deep fellowship is birthed through this kind of honesty. James even says there is healing that takes place. The very act of confessing our sins, and entrusting them to the knowledge of believing friends, is already doing something in us. It pours health and light into the broken and darkened places of our hearts.
How to Hear Another’s Sins
I’ve found this fellowship, healing, and light in my times with Ray and T. J. All three of us are in some form of full-time pastoral ministry, which I know can be isolating for many pastors. But I’ve never felt so deeply known by others before. It’s embarrassing to confess what I must confess, for sure. But it is also liberating. I don’t have to pretend. I’m not sitting on something, wondering if it’s going to be discovered. They truly know the worst about me (and I about them!), and it makes our continued affection for each other all the more precious.
I’ve been trying to think through how we got here — what marks of these two men have helped me be so open with them.
Neither Ray nor T. J. has collapsed in shock when I’ve confessed something to them. I think it’s because they know their own hearts well enough. When we know our own depravity, it’s hard to be surprised at someone else’s.
“When we know our own depravity, it’s hard to be surprised at someone else’s.”
I think this is why Paul describes himself as “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). I doubt he’s suggesting that, out of all people, he has the greatest capacity or worst track record when it comes to sin. When someone is aware of just how messed up his own heart is, it can be hard to imagine there’s someone else out there who is more messed up.
If we’re unshockable — because we know how sinful and depraved we are — we make it much easier for others to confess. If I share a particularly distressing sin, and you respond in surprised disgust, I’ll think twice about admitting anything like that to you (or perhaps anyone) ever again. But if you respond with a measure of understanding, knowing your own heart to be prone to sin (even if in different ways), I find it much easier for me to be honest with you next time.
It is hard to be transparent with someone if they’re never really transparent with us. Between Christian friends, building trust requires sufficient mutuality. It’s hard to keep bearing our souls if the other person remains closed. We do have different personalities and experiences, so we won’t all naturally open up with one another to the same extent. But all the same, honesty begets honesty. Someone else’s transparency makes it easier for us to be transparent, and vice versa.
“Honesty begets honesty.”
Ray and T. J. have always been open with me. They’ve never hesitated to entrust me with their struggles. Their example makes it so much easier for me to do the same.
Be a Good Listener
Once, I shared with Ray about a particularly distressing sin of mine. He carefully listened before asking one or two searching questions, making sure he had as full a picture of the situation as he could, and making sure I was giving him the whole story and not holding back important details. And his loving listening made the counsel he gave me all the more deep and insightful.
If you want to invite another’s honesty, learn to listen well. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).
Listening well also means remembering well. We don’t serve each other well if, after someone has disclosed something significant, we quickly forget what it was and how it had affected him. Remembering his struggles is part of how we bear his burdens. Only then can we care well for him by following up and doing all we can to encourage him to repent well and keep fighting.
Be a Friend
Lastly, it takes time to cultivate the trusted, confidential, deep fellowship that fosters this kind of mutual transparency — this walking in the light together. Occasionally, we might find ourselves experiencing a moment of glorious, transparent light-walking with a believer we hardly know. But those moments tend to be rare. What we all really need are committed brothers or sisters walking alongside us for the long haul — not just a drive-by confession here and there.
What we’re really talking about here is true friendship. Paul tells us to “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Honesty, encouragement, faithfulness, and loving rebuke when necessary — these are traits we find in our friendship with Christ. The greatest way to foster transparency with one another is to cultivate in us Christ’s heart for one another.
This is what I have experienced with my true friends, Ray and T. J. It is what makes our Monday meetings in “The Wardrobe” a gateway into a better world — a world where we walk openly in the light of the Light.