Using Genesis 3 as a Guide to Confession

Routine confession can be a surprisingly life-giving part of your personal devotions. And we can learn from the way God led the first people through the process.

For most of my life, confession was something I did as-needed: when I perceived I'd done something to offend God or another person, I would stop and admit what I'd done in order to seek forgiveness. But several months months ago, I made thoughtful, specific confession part of my daily devotional practice. And I've discovered that when confession is a daily routine, it produces some really good fruit.[1]

Along with the one-off sins and momentary "lapses," daily confession brings to the surface entrenched patterns of unholy decision-making and behavior. It has forced me to ask where these patterns come from, to root out the fears they are attached to, and to regret the grace I have turned down in exchange for sorrow. Talking to God about sin this way is heart-breaking and life-giving. And it gives me courage and tools to do the same with the people I routinely hurt.

I've also come to see that confession is a skill—something we can practice and develop ability in. As with many spiritual disciplines, scripture is full of guides and examples.

On Sunday, I preached from Genesis 3, and I explored the three questions God asked the man and woman when they were in hiding. The man and woman did not feel safe while they replied—they seem to have remained in hiding while they answered God, they were not completely honest, and they shielded themselves by blaming others. I suggested that Jesus makes it safe for us to "step out from the trees" and answer those three questions fully and honestly.

I ran out of time to dig into that more deeply. And I wasn't surprised when someone e-mailed me the next day asking, "what did I miss?" I sketched out the gist of what I would have said with more time:

A Guide to Confession

We can use the three questions as a simple guide to confession—a helpful way to let light shine on our sin: what I did, why I felt free to do it, how it offended God and debased me.

Question 1. Where are you?

Justice implication: "rightness" (standard of truth and moral correctness) has been broken

Alienation from God was the first change that God noticed after they ate the fruit. Whenever human beings are distant from God, it's a red flag that “rightness” has been broken. So this first question is a call to acknowledge the separation we’ve created between ourselves and God, to account for the damage we have done, to uncover ourselves, and to accept the reconciliation and salvation God’s offering.

Related questions might be:

  • where do I go to hide from God?

  • what tactics do I use to ignore or escape God’s presence?

  • what would it look like to "step out from the trees?"

  • what offense and sorrow does my/our alienation cause the God who loves me/us so much?

  • what opportunities are lost when I/we will not or cannot be close to God, as I/we were made to be?

  • what was possible when I/we was close to God, that is no longer possible now that I/we have put myself/ourselves at a distance from God?”

Question 2. Who told you?

Justice implication: authority (freedom to wield power) has been distorted

This was a rhetorical question: God knew no one told Adam and Eve they were naked—they discovered it through disobedience. Coupled with the follow-up, “did you eat what I told you not to eat,” this is a call to confess the ways we have presumed to have the same or greater authority than God to declare what is or isn’t right. We see this happen in Genesis 3:6—the woman judges God’s command to be false, and her basis for that judgment is her estimation of the fruit’s beauty, nutritiousness, and desirability for gaining wisdom.

Other ways to get at this question might be:

  • whose words have I allowed to influence me?

  • what have I called good that God has called evil?

  • what have I called evil that God has called good?

  • what have I discovered that I was never intended to learn?

  • what knowledge do I wish I could ‘unknow?’

Question 3. What is this you have done?

Justice implication: power (ability to effect change) has been abused

This is probably the most straightforward of the three questions. It’s a confession of sinful action. When it follows question 2, the implication is that the action was taken under authority that I/we wrongly took upon myself/ourselves.

A more detailed version of this question might be:

  • once I convinced myself I knew better than God, what did I do that otherwise I would not have done?

This is Confession, Not Repentance

As a guide to confession, Genesis 3 has a couple of important limitations to be aware of:

1. Adam and Eve do not answer God's questions well; they are not examples to imitate. They do not fully confess (he blames her and God; she blames the serpent).

2. Adam and Eve do not truly repent. They admit to wrongdoing, and they will have to face the consequences of their actions, but they do not express sorrow or commit themselves to return to righteous living.

Jesus explicitly calls his followers not just to confess but to repent; so do the law and the prophets. So if we use God’s questions in the garden as a guide to confession, we should treat them as just the first step in a larger act of repentance.

[1] My confession practice is relatively simple. It's just between God and me. And it isn't lengthy. It is not an unhealthy exercise in self-loathing. And it does not relieve me of the need to confess at other times when I have offended God or others. It is a life-giving exercise in humility and grace.