by Dale and Juanita Ryan
The thing to do with sin is to do what Nicodemus did: go and search out someone with whom we can talk privately and frankly. Tell them of these things and, with them as witness, give these sins and our old selves with them, to God. You say that you can do this alone with God; and I ask you, Have you succeeded in doing so? I said I was going to do that for years, but it never happened until I let a human witness come in on my decision.
–Samuel Shoemaker, National Awakening
All of A.A.’s Twelve Steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires…they all deflate our egos. When it comes to ego deflation, few steps are harder to take than Five. But scarcely any step is more necessary to longtime sobriety and peace of mind than this one.
–Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
In Step Four we made our inventory. As a result, we have a more realistic view of our lives. Now it is time to start doing something about it. So what do we do after we have taken a realistic look at our lives? Our inclinations may be to try to forget some of our painful discoveries. But that is the opposite of what Step Five suggests. In Step Five we admit our wrongs:
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another
human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Admitting our wrongs is a form of confession. In Step Five, confession is a three-part process. First, we admit our wrongs to God. Then we admit them to ourselves. Lastly, we share our wrongs with another human being.
This process can be a powerful, life-changing experience. The spiritual discipline of admitting our wrongs is a process that can free us from the pain and remorse we feel about our past behavior. It is a difficult path, but it leads to the grace-full way of living that we all desire.
Step Five: A Closer Look
Both the Bible and Christian tradition emphasize the importance of confession–of admitting our wrongs. Unfortunately, there are many people who have minimal experience with confession. There are also many people whose experience with confession has been shaming and hurtful. Step Five provides an opportunity for us to practice this spiritual discipline in a way that is respectful and healing rather than shaming and hurtful.
To admit that we have done something wrong is not easy. Many of us have concealed the truth and have been afraid to admit our wrongs to ourselves or to anyone else. We are experts at blame, evasion, deception, and denial. It will be a challenge to reverse these patterns. But learning to admit our wrongdoing can lead us to a richer and more satisfying life.
Many of us are reluctant to tell God the truth. We may want to pretend that God doesn’t know about our faults. We may not want to confess our sins to God because we don’t know how God could love someone who behaves as we do. We may think that silence is the best course of action. But there is no real freedom without confession. Silence about our wrongdoing only makes the pain worse. The psalmist describes the depression, insomnia, and stress that can come when we keep silent about our wrongs:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
When we admit our wrongs to God, a great weight is lifted. Remember that there is nothing you can do or confess that would cause God to stop loving you. The Bible is clear and explicit about this; nothing can separate us from the love of God. If fear and shame get in the way during this part of Step Five, you might read Romans 8:38 several times to remind you of this fundamental truth.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)
We are the principal victims of our lack of honesty, and eventually we pay a high price for our self-deceit. We may try to convince ourselves that we can bury our wrongs and never have to admit them. But eventually we will have to face the fact that dishonesty does not work to our advantage. The Bible says it like this: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
In Step One we started to see the truth. We admitted our powerlessness and the unmanageability of our lives. In Step Four we made an inventory and accepted the truth about our past behaviors. In Step Five we take full ownership of our Step Four inventory and accept the painful realities we identified. This may take some time. It is painful to allow the truth about our wrongs to “sink in” to the point where we can say that we have “admitted” them.
An important element of this part of Step Five is to respond to our own admission of wrong. Many of us have learned to respond to our own failures, shortcomings, and wrongs with judgmentalism and shame. Now we have an opportunity to show mercy to ourselves. We can face our failures with compassion–the same compassion that God extended to us in the first part of Step Five. This is one reason why confession to God comes before confession to ourselves; we can learn something about how to respond to ourselves by experiencing God’s grace-full, compassionate response to us.
To Another Human Being
It is possible to work through the first four Steps in isolation from other people. It is not a good idea, but it is possible. However, Step Five requires us to talk to another person. Scripture is clear about this: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The idea of sharing our faults with another person can be threatening, because we may anticipate experiencing guilt, shame, and rejection. Sharing with another person makes it real in a new way. When we confess to another person it prevents our inventory from becoming a private little secret between God and ourselves. Experience has shown that we can manage to hold on to much of our denial if our confession is only to God and to ourselves. Making a full confession to someone who understands, who is compassionate, and who shares experiences similar to our own helps keep us honest and on track.
The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs
One way that we protect ourselves from the full impact of Step Five is to fall back on generalities. That is why in Step Five we admit the “exact nature” of our wrongs. If we say, “I have a problem with time management,” that is a general statement. It is more useful to say “I missed my son’s soccer game last week because I lost track of time. I placed more importance on my work than I did on my promise to attend his game.” The specifics are what connect us with the full emotional reality of what we have done–with the pain that our actions created for ourselves and for others. Acknowledging the specifics opens our hearts to what Scripture calls “godly sorrow,” which is a form of grief that causes us to take seriously the impact of our actions:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)