Q: After reading through passages such as John 3:16-22, 1 John 1:7-10, Ephesians 5:11-13, and James 5:16, and also hearing what has been happening lately with the Duggar family, I'm coming to think about my own sin that may not be known to all of my friends and people I serve with. Should I do so? Is it really necessary? It seems rather unnecessary and impossible to confess every single sin to every single person I know.
The first three passages you cited (John 3:16-22, 1 John 1:7-10, Ephesians 5:11-13) all speak of coming into the light and walking in the light. You have obviously interpreted those references to mean "coming clean" or confessing your sins. But really those passages speak of agreeing with God about our sinful condition. In fact, the word "confess" literally mean to agree. Since God has declared all mankind to be sinful, by personally confessing our sin, we are essentially agreeing with Him. The person who does so is said to come into the light or walk in the light.
Furthermore, whatever confessing of sins these passages do speak of, they are referring to confessing our sins to God. So there's nothing here about spilling all your past mistakes to everyone you know.
The last passage you cited (James 5:16) appears on the surface to be telling us to do what you're asking about. James writes:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)
If you read the verses around 5:16 you discover that James was addressing the subject of healing for those who suffering physical infirmities.
Is anyone among you sick? (James 5:14 ESV)
So his recommendation is that believers should call for the elders of the local church, and have them pray the prayer of faith over the sick person, anointing them with oil. So within the context of physical healing that he goes on to speak of confessing sin. The point of confessing sins to one another isn't just to get something off your shoulders. It's to encourage the healing process.
But this is one of those passages where we need to apply wisdom. And wisdom would say: be careful! Quite honestly, randomly confessing your sins to just anyone is reckless and dangerous. Why? Because there are some in the Body of Christ who just aren't ready for that kind of information.
When I was fairly new in the Lord someone came to me in what I believe was a sincere desire to be honest and transparent, and confessed to having very negative feelings toward me. They recognized that it was wrong to feel that way and apologized, but, I have to tell you, I was left with a very bad feeling. My faith wasn't strong and I allowed their honest confession to really haunt me for quite some time. Before that conversation I was completely oblivious to this person's feelings, but now that I knew, I allowed that knowledge to ruin any chance for a healthy relationship.
In Paul's letter to the Romans and his first letter to the Corinthians he spoke often of the brother whose faith is weak, and how mature believers have a responsibility not to injure them or create an occasion for stumbling. And there are other passages that specifically tell us to be mindful that our speech toward others is always edifying.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29 ESV)
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:14 ESV)
So, who should you confess your sins to?
I believe wisdom would tell you to do that sort of thing with people who are mature in their faith and who can pray with and for you. Pastors, elders and ministry leaders are a good bet, especially if you know them to be faithful in their walk with Christ and full of wisdom and discretion.
Remember, opening up to just anyone about your sinful past could be a recipe for disaster. But if you feel you're being directed by the Lord to confess your sins in the presence of another believer, ask the Lord who He would have you connect with, and make sure the Lord is opening the door before you walk through it.
One last thought: each and every one of us has skeletons in our closet in the sense that we've done things in the past we're not proud of. But do I feel compelled to confess all my past sins? Heavens, no! It would be neither helpful nor encouraging to do so. My Bible tells me that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus. The old is gone. The new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17) I have confessed my sins to God and I am completely confident that His forgiveness is mine by virtue of the cross. That's not to say I've never confessed my sins to a brother in Christ because on occasion I have. But whenever I do, I know that brother can handle my confession and will stand with me in prayer for healing and restoration.