If you lift a stone in the garden you find all sorts of creepy crawlies underneath. Sin is a little like that.
What are secret sins?
Psalm 19:12 – Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. It is not entirely clear what these hidden faults or secret sins are. Secret sins are the subject of the first part of a book by Obadiah Sedgwick (c1600-1658), an exposition of verses in Psalm 19, first published in 1660. He says that such sins are
1. Not hidden from God
There is no such thing as a sin hidden from God. It is impossible to hide anything from him. Remember Adam and Eve vainly trying to hide from God and Cain failing to realise that the blood of Abel was crying from the ground. Many verses show this:
Isaiah 29:15 – Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, Who sees us? Who will know?
Proverbs 5:21 – your ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all your paths.
Hebrews 4:13 – Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
A children’s catechism asks: Can you see God? Answer: I cannot see God but he always sees me
2. But may be hidden from you
David may have in mind sins in his life he is not even aware of. It is possible to sin and not realise. In some situations you hear people use God’s name thoughtlessly. You point it out but they often do not realise they have spoken God’s name. An extreme example was Saul of Tarsus persecuting Christians thinking it pleased God. There are professing Christians who think they are serving God by pursuing a certain policy or lifestyle yet there is reason to think it is the opposite of what God wants. We need to recognise in all humility that we may sin at some point and not even realise. These sins also need to be forgiven.
3. Hidden from others
Some are hidden because of how they are described. One way people try to hide sins is by disguises. People are pro-choice if they favour abortion on demand. They speak not of abortion but termination of a pregnancy. It is adult entertainment not pornography, having an affair not committing adultery, sexual liberation not unfettered lust. The word fornication has almost disappeared being covered by myriad euphemisms. Even for your prayers can in fact be gossip.
Some are secret in the sense of being private. They are kept to a small circle of friends. You read of some politicians after the event and gain quite a different impression of their character. Sometimes people are outed when their private life becomes public knowledge. Gordon Brown was famously caught out when he commented adversely on a woman without realising his microphone was still active. Are you one person in public and another in private?
Others are kept from all other human knowledge. Some sins are pretty much hidden from human view. People who sin may know in their conscience they are sinning but pretend at least for that moment that they are not sinning or are unseen. Some sins are outward but occur when no-one else is around; others occur only in the mind and remain undetected for that reason. All sin, of course, begins there. Left to itself it will erupt like a boil and become visible. A child can be conceived but not born. So many sins die in the womb, as it were. Some deny that a foetus under 14 days is human, but it is. Sins that remain only in the heart are still sins. Sins that I hide, as best I can, from every other person, sins that remain only in my heart, are still sins.
Why should I want to be forgiven for secret sins?
We do not know what sins David may have been guilty of but he wanted to be forgiven them all. We should also want to be forgiven our secret sins. Sedgwick suggests why.
1. They may become public sins otherwise
When you weed the garden you know the rule that you need to pull them up by their roots. Sometimes a serious fire starts with only a small spark. Unless the spark is extinguished there will be a great fire. James 1:15 describes how after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. The instinct of a baby in the womb is to be born; sin too wants to break out and act. If you indulge sin in your heart, do not be surprised if the next thing that happens is that it breaks out in your life. If you have thought about a sin, when an opportunity to commit it arises you are more ready to act. Spurgeon makes the same observation. One sin easily leads to another. When we sin a sin the first time it may be hard but the second time is easier and so on until we are used to it. Secret sin is especially dangerous in that way. We need to be done with secret sin before it becomes open sin. Sincerely seek forgiveness for that and you will not fall into the other.
2. They are the most likely to deceive us
All sin deceives us to some extent but secret sin the most! They are most likely to prevail because
- We do not judge secret sins as strictly and spiritually as open sins. We are often tempted to think of them as not being sins at all or small sins at most. We tend to think something like this. To stab someone dead or cause a wound is a great sin. It is not so bad but still a sin to speak in a nasty and unpleasant way so that someone is upset. As for thinking horrible thoughts about someone and raging against them in our minds, that is not really sin – or is it? Adultery is obviously sin as is looking at pornography. It is also a sin to fantasise in your mind about someone. Sin is always trying to excuse itself. Secret sin is the most likely to succeed. It should not.
- Many people are at least outwardly reputable. The truth is that most people learn by a certain age not to commit too many outward sins. We commit few in public, and perhaps not many in private. However, on our own and in our hearts we may commit many sins. Now we need in one sense to be most careful over the sins that deceive us most easily. We ought to be very concerned therefore not just to be forgiven our known sins but our secret ones too. Are we?
3. Sin’s strength is inward
You are familiar with the fact that when you are ill the problem is often within, and so you need to get a drug into your system to be well again. In many cases simply rubbing on ointment will solve nothing. In a similar way, we need forgiveness for secret sins first and foremost.
4. God looks mainly on what is within
Psalm 66:18-19 – If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer.
Psalm 51:6 – Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
In other religions you will find outward conformity is all that is required. The concept of hypocrisy is particularly Christian. This is because God looks at the heart. We sing a song about this with the children at our church. It begins
Girl so pretty, boy so smart,
Man looks on the outside
but God looks on the heart.
Charming manners, friendly grin.
Man looks on the outside
but God can see within
Sedgwick: ‘The man is to God what his inside is. If you work wickedness in your heart, God will destroy you. Plaster your visible part with all sorts of pious expressions: if yet you can set up a form of sinning within, you are notable hypocrites. The Lord sees you to be false and rotten, and He will discharge Himself of you . . .’
Three horrible sins wrapped up in one
• The sin itself. Often the worst sins are committed in secret. Murderers usually murder when they think no-one will see. Adultery is usually secret. Some say the only sin that matters is getting found out. That is heresy. Spurgeon says ‘A sin is a sin, whether done in private or before the wide world . . . Do not measure sin by what other people say of it. Measure sin by what God says of it and [by] what your own conscience says of it . . .’
• Hypocrisy. The hypocrite can get little pleasure from secret sins. Spurgeon says ‘Hypocrisy is a hard game to play at: it is one deceiver against many observers; [certainly] it is a miserable trade that will earn at last, as its certain climax, a tremendous bankruptcy. Ah! Ye who have sinned without discovery, Be sure your sin will find you out (Num. 32:23); and bethink you, it may find you out ere long.’
• Atheism. We seldom think of it like this but secret sin is a form of atheism. It is pretending God cannot see or that he is not there. Psalm 94:7-9 – They say, The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice. Take notice, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise? Does he who fashioned the ear not hear? Does he who formed the eye not see? Spurgeon warns ‘There is no hiding it from God! Thy sin is photographed in high heaven. The deed, when it was done, was photographed upon the sky; and there it shall remain . . . thy vices are all known, written in God’s book. He keepeth a diary of all thine acts.’
We close with words from Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, ‘Take heed of secret sins. They will undo thee if loved and maintained: one moth may spoil the garment; one leak drown the ship; a penknife stab can kill a man as well as a sword. So one sin may damn the soul’.
Gary Brady is pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church, London.
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