By Susan Klein
Sitting across from a dear friend at the coffee shop, my heart sank as she humbly poured out her story. Like so many people, she had been deeply immersed in a secret sin. My thoughts went back to a dark time in my own life when I, too, had succumbed to a secret sin. I was grateful for receiving much love and support at the time as I repented and worked through my issue. Sadly, even though this friend came forward on her own with a repentant heart, she didn’t receive the kind of support she needed from her local church body.
Secret sin is as prevalent today as it was in the time of King David. He was proof that leaders struggle just as much as anyone else. In fact, they are the ones who generally don’t seek the help they so desperately need for fear of job loss, removal from ministry, or public humiliation. Rather than coming forward with their sin issues, they try to resolve them on their own in hopes of never being discovered. Theirs is not the only response motivated by fear. When the church is ill-equipped to handle these types of issues, they fear damage to the reputation of the church and the possible loss of attendees. Thus, it might be “kept quiet,” or the person may be “put out” rather than dealt with in a biblically restorative way.
None of us are exempt. We are all sinners saved by grace. Chances are great that we will either walk through a secret sin cycle ourselves or encounter someone in our midst who is engaged in ongoing sin. Someone involved in ministry within the church should be treated the same as the stranger coming in off the street looking for help. We, as the body of Christ, need to be proactive in our preparation to deal with these situations so that we can employ the restorative process that Jesus calls us to imitate.
Biblically speaking, sin is sin. There is no hierarchy of sin deeming one more horrific than another. James 2:10 states: Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. Secret sin, however, carries with it a host of other symptoms that can be quite debilitating. Someone engaged in secret sin will likely experience more than one of the following:
- Hopelessness—a sense that this sin cycle will never end.
- Depression—feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.
- Anxiety—living in fear of being discovered.
- Powerlessness—feeling the sin has become the controlling factor in their life.
- Despair—often after failed attempts to stop the sin cycle on their own.
- Restlessness—difficulty concentrating on everyday tasks, inability to experience peace.
- Intense shame and guilt—which often persists long after the sin cycle has stopped.
- Inappropriate angry outbursts—displaced anger over their personal sin which is projected onto others.
- Isolation—from God and from peers as they remain alone in their struggle.
- Sleeplessness—the mind refuses to shut off, is in constant turmoil over the sin.
- Physical illness—stress on the body from keeping the sin secret and dealing with the inner turmoil which can cause a myriad of health problems.
Many people involved in secret sin start out feeling like they have it under control, that it’s not really a “problem.” They rationalize that no one else knows about it, so it isn’t hurting anyone. Eventually, their moral conscience (or the Holy Spirit) convicts them of their sin, and that they cannot continue in this manner. At this point, they may repent to God privately, and feel the problem is over. But, if they have no one to hold them accountable, they can easily slip back into the sin pattern. Soon, they realize it is a “problem,” and requires outside help. If the person is in a high-profile job, or a ministry position, they will be less likely to seek help within the church for fear of repercussions.
Once the person does decide to seek help, or if they are actually caught in the sin, the reaction from those within the church can either benefit them or add to the shame they already feel. If a person overtaken in secret sin comes to you for help, recognize the risk they took in coming to you. Be prepared with a right response that will aid in the restoration process. Scripture gives us some clear guidelines of what to do in this situation.
HOW TO OFFER HELP
- Rebuke. Jesus tells His disciples in Lk. 17:3, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them.” A private and gentle rebuke by ministry or church leaders is appropriate in pointing out the error of sin. If the person comes forward on their own, confessing their sin, rebuke is not necessary. (If the leaders deem it necessary to bring the sin to public attention of the congregation, it must be solely for the purpose of instruction and warning so other believers do not fall into the same temptation. It is in no way meant to shame or humiliate the offender. (1Tim. 5:17-21 deals with this issue, but in relation to an elder who sins.)
- Offer forgiveness/compassion. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph. 4:32). Thankfully, God’s compassions never fail and His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). When a secret-sinner voluntarily comes forward, they’ve already battled with their own guilt and shame. They now are in great need of support and assistance. Letting the person know they did the right thing by coming forward will help them to recognize God’s forgiveness and move on toward restoring a right relationship with Him. When a person experiences mercy in their darkest hour, hope is unleashed and the restoration process can begin.
- Restore. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1-2, NKJV). Paul does a wonderful job of exhorting the mature believers to come alongside the weaker ones. Offering biblical counsel and ongoing support will enable the one in sin to deal with the problem and move forward in a healthy, restorative way. This verse also carries a warning. When a person divulges a secret sin, you must be strong in your own faith so as not to fall into temptation along with that person.
- Pray. We are called to be praying on a regular basis for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Temptation is constantly knocking at the door, especially when we are in a weakened state. Jesus prayed to the Father on our behalf, as seen in the Gospels. The Apostle Paul modeled prayer in all of his letters to the churches, praying for their perseverance in the faith. In James chapter 5 we are told to share our sins with one another and pray for one another for “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (5:16). Offer to pray with the person, leading them to seek God’s forgiveness and healing.
- Do not put the sinner out. This is an action reserved specifically for the unrepentant and immoral person as described in 1Cor. 5. A repentant believer should be walked alongside of and guided through the restoration process. This is the responsibility of the church, to model the grace and mercy that we ourselves have received.
If you are currently struggling with a secret sin, know that you are not alone. Some statistics suggest that one in three people sitting in the pews is involved in some sort of secret sin. Also know that you most likely will not be able to completely free yourself from its power over you until you confess it openly and seek accountability.
Secret sin is debilitating. Unfortunately, if not dealt with it can even lead to suicide. We, as Christ-followers, must be intentional in creating an atmosphere of mercy and love in the church that encourages the sinner to seek help. We must discourage actions that suggest “Don’t ask, don’t tell!” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope, of forgiveness, and of restoring a right relationship between man and His Creator. It is in our brokenness that Jesus desires to meet us, to set us free, and to do His amazing work! Let’s glorify God by being prepared and engaging in the process.
HOW TO GET HELP
- End the sin. Make the conscious decision to stop right now. The longer it’s kept secret, the more the enemy feeds on your vulnerability.
- Don’t let the fear of going public consume you. Bring the secret to light so that it can truly end.
- Seek help. If you are not comfortable getting help from someone within your church, seek wise counsel from someone you trust and who has a strong faith-walk. Ongoing counsel and accountability is a necessity. While you walk through the restorative process, have someone you trust hold you in check. This will help keep you from falling back into the same sin pattern.
- Identify potential problem areas to avoid repeat sin patterns.
- Join a group like Celebrate Recovery. This is a place where you can share openly with others who are breaking free from sin. (celebraterecovery.com)