I am embarrassed to admit this, but for many years I was hesitant and sometimes outright afraid to take communion. But I thought sharing my experience might help some who have wrestled with the same thing. If you’ve never had troubles with this issue yourself, you might know someone who does.
I became a Christian as a teenager, and most of the churches I’ve attended since then have taken a serious view of communion. We had communion about once a month. Usually the whole church service was built around celebrating communion rather than just tacking it on at the end. By contrast, one church we visited had communion every Sunday, and it was just another part of the service, like passing the offering plates. I much preferred the special emphasis placed on it.
Often, the second half of 1 Corinthians 11 is read before communion (or the Lord’s Table or the Lord’s Supper, as it has also been called). In that passage, Paul recounts how Jesus instituted communion with the disciples the night before He was betrayed. Then Paul issues this solemn warning:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (verses 27-32).
The pastor preparing for communion would echo the same warning. Anyone who was saved was welcome to join in, but we were encouraged to examine ourselves beforehand. It would be incongruous to partake of the symbols representing Christ’s body broken and blood shed for us while harboring known sin in our hearts.
In the church we attended after we were married, time was provided during the communion service for self-examination. That was the largest church we attended, and it took time to pass the elements to everyone. Piano music would be playing softly while we waited, and there was plenty of time to pray.
My pastor there compared confession of sin to opening a series of boxes. You open a box only to find another box within. You open that box and find another one, and keep going til there are no more boxes.
As you pray and ask the Lord to search your heart, you confess to Him whatever sin comes to mind. Then you wait and see if anything else comes to mind, and confess that. And so on until nothing else comes to mind. This particular church allowed time for this.
At subsequent churches we attended, there was not much quiet time to pray. Some pastors would have people stand up and share a testimony or a passage of Scripture while we waited for the elements to be passed. Nothing wrong with that, but without that time to pray, I often felt unready to participate unless I went through this self-examination process at home beforehand.
Even with time to pray, though, I often felt unready. What if I missed confessing something? The part of the passage about eating and drinking judgment on ourselves to the point of becoming sick or dying scared me. Ending up in the ER a few days after one communion service fed that fear.
So, often I would refrain from taking the elements as they were passed, just to be safe.
Then our pastor began to address those who refrained from communion. (Had an usher told on me? Was I the only one?) I don’t remember what the pastor said except to encourage people to participate.
Over the years, God graciously helped me overcome this fear. I thought I’d share what helped in case I’m not the only one who has dealt with this.
Unworthily, not unworthy
The KJV that I grew up with translates 1 Corinthians 11:27 as “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Unworthily is an adverb describing how we partake. Newer translations are clearer in saying “in an unworthy manner.” But for years I struggled with this. Of course, none of us is worthy in ourselves. We’re only made worthy to commune with God because Jesus died for us and has saved and cleansed us—the very thing communion portrays.
The paragraph above this text in 1 Corinthians 11 (verses 17-22) addresses the way the Corinthians partook unworthily. They were making a feast out of communion in a way that showed up who had more vs. who had little. The remembrance of the Lord’s table was dividing people instead of unifying them. Plus some were drinking to the point of getting drunk while others went hungry. The rest of the passage was instruction and reminders of what communion represented and how it was to be partaken of, with reverence and remembrance of the Lord’s death.
So that’s what Paul meant by partaking in an unworthy manner–flippantly, self-indulgently, forgetfully. He didn’t mean that no one who was unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness could partake, because that would include all of us.
I’m not off the hook even if I don’t partake.
If I am examining my heart, asking God to search me, and confessing my sin to Him, and I come across something I am not willing to give up, I’m not off the hook by just not partaking of communion that day. God still wants me to deal with whatever it is and will eventually chastise me if I refuse to submit to Him.
I couldn”t remember every sin anyway.
I’ve always been thankful for the way 1 John 1:9 is phrased: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When we confess our sins, we’re not likely to remember every little sin. And as we grow in the Lord, we become aware of thoughts and actions that are sinful that we didn’t realize before. But when we confess our sins, God cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
Self-examination doesn’t need to be a long process.
Self-examination is a good thing. But we don’t need to save everything up until communion time. We need to confess sin to God as soon as we’re aware of it and convicted by it. I have become more and more aware that we all have blind spots. Jesus warned people about looking for specks in other people’s eyes when they had big logs in their own. God told people in Malachi what they were doing wrong, but they denied there was a problem. He told the church in Laodicea, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). I’ve been regularly asking the Lord to show me my own blinds spots. When we’re seeking to walk closely with Him every day, asking Him to show us where we fall short, confessing sin to Him as we become aware of it, we won’t need extremely long periods of self-examination before we’re right with God.
Consciences need training.
I’ve discovered about myself that I have an oversensitive conscience. It would make a long post even longer to go into why I say this. The solution to that isn’t to ignore my conscience: conscience is a tool in the hands of God. Ignoring it can lead to the opposite problem of not being sensitive enough. The more I read God’s Word, the more my conscience is trained according to His will so I don’t lapse into legalism on one side or license on the other. (A good book on this subject is Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley.)
Now, instead of dreading communion, I appreciate the time to remember what Jesus did for me. We get so caught up in the daily cares of life, and we’re such forgetful people, it’s good to get back to basics. I’m thankful that most of the churches I have been in have taken communion seriously. I’m thankful for God’s tender patience as I worked through some of these issues. And I am thankful that most times of communion end with joy and renewed appreciation for God’s grace.
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