I was part of a multi-ethnic campus fellowship in college. During one of our weekly Bible study meetings, our small group leader was configuring his laptop to show a short promotional video for an upcoming event.
During this process, with his laptop connected to a projector, a clip of something else began to play before he abruptly shut it off. It lasted seconds, time enough only for me to notice that something was playing but not discern what it was. He then got the correct video up and running. The evening continued.
A short while later we all gathered around for the study, but before we could start, this leader stopped us. He said he wanted to confess something—felt compelled to do so—to the entire group, a dozen or so of us. He explained that he was battling an addiction to pornography and the clip that had accidentally played earlier was a pornographic video. He expressed feeling ashamed, weak, and like a failure as a leader in our community. He asked for prayer and we obliged.
This evening was years ago, but I remember it with clarity because of his vulnerability, authenticity and humility. My respect for him grew tenfold in that moment, and it forever changed the way I think about spiritual leadership and overcoming shame with grace.
In particular, I found myself wondering, “Why is confession practiced so little in the Asian American church? Why do I, someone born and raised in the church, have no recollection of learning about its meaning or significance? Why did I not see deep, authentic confession modeled until I was 20 years old?”
This is not to say that the churches I’d attended up to that point skipped over confession completely. As kids, we were told to confess our sins to God. We shared prayer requests in youth group, though usually those consisted of “Pray for my upcoming test” or “Pray for my sick relative.”
Yes, confession as a concept was mentioned, and there was opportunity for it. But missing from my memory is any teaching about the power of confessing to others or any experience even remotely resembling the raw, honest confession that was part and parcel of my college fellowship.
While it’s certainly not the sole reason, I believe a significant part of the answers to the above questions lies in the honor-shame culture of the predominantly immigrant Chinese church in which I was raised—a social framework common in Asian cultures, and therefore Asian American churches, in general.
I recognize that the honor-shame undercurrent isn’t exclusive to Asians, nor does it affect every Asian American church equally or at all. But it was definitely part of my childhood churchgoing experience.
For those unfamiliar with honor-shame dynamics, they generally play out like this: You earn honor (and a burgeoning superiority complex) by, in short, appearing to have your shit together. Most often this means being, or at least giving the impression of being, proper and/or perfect according to the expectations of the community at issue, in control of oneself and circumstances as much as possible, and existing in harmonious fashion with the rest of society.
Threats to these ideals—e.g., failures to live up to social standards, unbridled displays of emotion, and interpersonal conflict—are brushed under the rug to save face and maintain appearances. When visible cracks are evident in this facade of honorableness, or heaven forbid, if it crumbles completely, you deplete not only your own stores of honor, but also those of your family. The result is great shame—and often, cutting feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness and self-hatred—that can leave deep, lasting scars.
If biblical confession entails an admission of wrongdoing, and therein, acknowledgment of one’s imperfection and weakness, it makes sense that people operating within an honor-shame system tend to shy (or sprint at top speed) away from confession. Confessing even small vices could mean opening yourself up to disapproval, criticism and rejection from your closest community.
This is obviously not the way God intended for us, the church, to respond to confession; it’s not how he responds when we confess. Yet in Asian American churches, people who stray too far from the church’s imperfect consensus about what a Christian “should” look like are commonly stripped of their honor, shamed and ostracized—even to the point of being effectively kicked out of the church.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge sin or encourage repentance. But when we move from recognizing sin to shaming one another for it to the benefit of our own egoism, we don’t just have logs in our eyes; we build entire forests.
When honor-shame culture pervades the body of Christ to the point that shame displaces grace in the way we respond to sin, that’s a problem. It’s not a loving response at all. And it creates a cycle wherein people wrestling with sin are too ashamed to confess it to others, and that isolation allows the sin to persist and perhaps intensify, which in turn makes them feel increasingly ashamed, and on and on ad infinitum.
So when others are battling sin, and especially if someone is courageous enough to confess it, let’s elect to be vessels of that grace instead of reacting by shaming and ostracizing them. And when we are in the thick of sin, let’s cultivate an environment of authentic confession by taking the initiative to share our struggles. A close friend and mentor of mine put it best: “Breaking silence breaks shame.” Confession, though sometimes incredibly difficult, can be a powerful avenue through which we find God’s healing grace.