There is nothing we can say to God that he does not already know. As one who “searches all hearts,” the Lord already knows what we need, before we even think to speak to him about it in prayer (1 Chron. 28.9; cf. Mt. 6.8; Heb. 4.13).
In that light, the Lord certainly knows all our sins. But if God already knows the sins we have committed, does that mean we are not obliged to confess them with specificity? Is it enough just to confess that we have done wrong, and expect God to know what we are talking about?
Specificity In Prayer
First of all, if we are not obliged to pray to God about things he already knows, then we are not obliged to pray to him at all! For he knows everything there is to know (1 Jn. 3.20; Ps. 139.1ff).
Yet, we are obliged to pray to him about “every thing” (Phil. 4.6). For example, he knows we need bread; yet, he instructs us to pray for our “daily bread” anyway (Mt. 6.11). Likewise, God knows that we are sinful creatures generally, but expects us to admit such in prayer to him.
Hence, God’s awareness of our needs does not exempt us from expressing those needs to him in prayer.
With regard to sins particularly, it is certainly good and proper to confess that we are sinful creatures in a generic sense.
In the Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Lord commends the tax collector’s prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18.13). The tax collector does not make mention of any specific sins he had committed. Rather, he was admitting to being an immoral man on the whole. And through this act of genuine humility, the man was “justified” (v. 14).
Of course, the Lord already knew that the tax collector was sinful; yet, he was still commended for confessing that fact in prayer — and we are likewise urged to follow the tax collector’s example.
However, confessing sinfulness is quite different from confessing our sins.
Specificity In Confession
Many Christians are perfectly comfortable admitting that they are sinful generally speaking. But encourage them to get specific about their particular sinful deeds, and they will clam up at once.
James put it like this:
“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jms. 5.16).
The inspired author does not instruct us merely to admit that we have sinned; rather, confessing sin involves an open, honest admission of actual wrongs we have committed.
When David murdered Uriah to take his wife Bathsheba for himself, he confessed his specific sin to God: “deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed” (Ps. 51.14). However, when he “kept silent” about his sins, refusing to identify them to his creator, it ate him up inside, and his soul suffered mightily (Ps. 32.1ff).
The disciples at Ephesus displayed hearts of true repentance when they “came confessing and telling their deeds” (Acts 19.18).
A critical component of Ezra’s efforts to restore the spiritual life of the Jewish people was furnished when the people came confessing that they had taken pagan wives, in violation of the will of God (Ezra 10.1ff). The specificity of their admission enabled them to hold themselves accountable for specific deeds from which they needed to repent, which, in turn, led to real-life changes.
The wise man said:
“He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov. 28.13).
If we are unwilling to specify our sins to the Father, have we really opened our souls to him entirely? Are we not hiding our guilt from him? Indeed, it is only when we can openly admit that specific actions we have taken or desires we have felt are wrong that we are able truly to renounce them in a full-throated way.
Conversely, pride may sometimes permit admission of generic wrong-doing, especially when thrusting others into the mix: “I am a sinner — but aren’t we all?” However, pride will never tolerate specific proof of one’s own moral failure or spiritual indignity, for which we alone are culpable.
Get genuinely specific in your confessions to God, and then you’ll truly become honest with yourself and humble before him.