Last week, David Letterman of CBS’s Late Show admitted to having had sex at undisclosed points in time with women who work for him. His admission was a response to a blackmail threat he received from a CBS employee who allegedly threatened to go public with this unless Mr. Letterman gave him $2 million. By publicly admitting this, Mr. Letterman is attempting to diffuse a scandal: Now that the secret is out, the blackmail letter is useless. The whole business has received publicity across American and Canadian networks (e.g. CBC’s pieces with their ensuing online discussions are here and here) and the video of the admission has been uploaded numerous times to YouTube…
I’m intrigued by the language David Letterman uses in this clip. He quotes the blackmail letter writer as telling him: “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things.” Accompanying the letter was a package, and “contained in the package,” says David Letterman, “was stuff to prove that I do terrible things.”
Although he expresses guilt, never in the clip does David Letterman admit that he himself recognizes that what he did was indeed terrible. The closest he gets is saying that what he did was “embarrassing” to himself and the women involved.
At first I thought of David Letterman’s words as a confession. But I don’t think that accurately describes it. It’s more like he gives an admission to doing something, and I’m starting to see that admission and confession are not the same thing. When you admit something, you’re not necessarily disclosing something bad that you’ve done. On the other hand, when you confess something, you own up to the fact that what you did was indeed bad. I will confess to my wife if I polished off the last of the ice cream. I do not confess to my wife that I went and bought a bucket of ice cream. (Well, uh, maybe I do need to confess how much ice cream I buy… For another example: I do not confess to my wife that I’ve washed and put away the dishes.)
Admission is the easier thing to do: It’s just stating a fact. You let people know that you did something, but assign no moral value to that action. It’s rather politically correct. After all, what you did is your own business and no one has the right to suggest that your moral compass is wrong.
Confession is the harder thing to do: It indeed reveals that the morality of what you did is questionable at best and just plain wicked at worst. That, in turn, prompts you to further action such as seeking forgiveness and repenting. And when you repent, you declare that you are turning 180° away from what you did and towards something different. When disciples of Jesus repent of their sins, they turn away from those sins and instead – by the grace of Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit – turn towards God and His will. In one of his sermons, Matt Chandler from The Village Church in Highland Village TX defines repentance as “making war against your sin.” This is politically incorrect, even offensive in a culture where everyone is entitled to their own sense of morality and where suggesting that what someone does is sinful could label you narrow-minded or a bigot.
Yet it is through repentance that we receive hope. In her book, Speaking of Sin, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “the recognition that something is wrong is the first step towards setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help … [and] no repair for those who insist that nothing is broken.” After quoting Rev. Taylor, Peter Schuurman, a father of two and a professor at Redeemer University College, writes in Christian Courier: “‘Sin’ may be a four-letter word for many, but without it there can be no redemption.”
David Letterman may have minimized a scandal and perhaps even assuaged his guilt through his admission a few nights ago, but I wonder whether he is experiencing the marvellous, redemptive freedom gained by true confession.