When You’re Afraid to Take Communion

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.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

27 thoughts on “When You’re Afraid to Take Communion

    • Agreed. I like to borrow David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” When I sincerely ask Him in faith to show me my sin, I can trust His answer, both because He wants to answer His children’s prayer and He wants us to confess our sin to Him. If I ask and no answer comes, I can trust that the way is clear.

  1. A very thought-provoking post. I’ve always paused, reflected, reached out to God, and then took communion. i remember as a young woman attending church with a friend from a different denomination. I was chastised by a communion server because I wasn’t a member of their church. This made me very wary about communion practices for many years, although I eventually overcame my fears.

      • That was an unfortunate experience. I know some churches only serve communion to its members–maybe they think they can be more sure of whether the person is actually a Christian right with God or not? But the Scriptures tell us to examine ourselves at that time, not each other. I’m glad you overcame your fears.

  2. This was so interesting to read. I’ve had pastors caution prior to communion about not taking it in an unworthy manner, etc. It has always kind of surprised me that, at least as far as I can see, nobody ever seems to pass it by. I agree that I think you have a very sensitive conscience — a good thing! But yes, maybe a hindrance here. And related to another commenter, I always feel a bit chastised at my in-laws’ church where a big deal was made of not being allowed communion if you weren’t their denomination (you even had to be their particular branch of the denomination). The girls were discussing this recently, how unworthy it made them feel 😦 It seems people have come up with several ways to mess up God’s intentions.

  3. Good post. I attended a church as young adult that held communion every Sunday. It was a part of the service. We did have time to reflect on our sins beforehand, as part of the liturgy. My church now has it once a month and there is time to pray beforehand. I really appreciate your explanation of “unworthily” as opposed to “unworthy.”

  4. Barbara, you did a great job explaining this subject! I also loved how you explained “My pastor there compared confession of sin to opening a series of boxes.” I’m listening nightly to the Lectio 365 which teaches you to ask the Lord to forgive any sin I might have committed that day. By then I’m wondering if I have forgotten something. I will use this exercise to help me.

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  6. I appreciate the way you think out loud in your posts, showing us how you begin in error and end in truth. I have to continually come back to the truth that we practice self-examination and repentance with JOY, not a mournful hopelessness, because in Christ we ARE worthy!

  7. I appreciate your vulnerability here, Barbara. The church of my youth kind of went the opposite direction with communion: even though that verse was often quoted, you better be at church every Sunday to take communion if you wanted to make it to heaven. So people would schedule vacations and work and travel so they could at least make it to church to take communion before they would leave for a trip on Sunday morning. Some churches would often a 6am service for those who needed to be done earlier. It became such a legalistic thing. So the first time I saw someone voluntarily decline communion because she was dealing with some personal sin was a shock to me.

    The church we later attended only served communion once a month. Our previous church friends would think that’s a major sin.

    So it’s interesting how our consciences can be trained to either extreme, and in these cases, neither was in line with the grace of God and the blood of Christ’s forgiveness (as I understand it anyway).

  8. Thank you, Barbara, for years I was afraid to take communion too. Much poor teaching on the topic resigned me to just stay away. But then our pastor at our current church did a teaching on the difference between unworthy and an unworthy manner as you did here, I finally understood and no longer felt afraid.
    Great summary and good points here, thank you for such an encouraging post!

  9. I think this is something that many Christians do struggle with, and hearing that admonition to examine yourself can feel intimidating. Thank you for discussing the context of Paul’s letter and giving practical and personal answers. What a privilege we have in being invited to the Lord’s table!

  10. This was a refreshing post which I picked up from reading Challies.com. Thank you.

    You may find a new short book our ministry has published helpful on the very thing you discussed. We offer it free and have provided a free pdf if you care to read it. The word “unworthily” is explained there in the context of the chapter. I think in some ways you may find this confirming and expanding your thoughts. The short book is called THE LORD’S SUPPER IS A MEAL. Here is the order page. Scroll down for the pdf of the book. I hope you find it encouraging. https://www.ccwtoday.org/product/the-lords-supper-is-a-meal/

  11. This is such an encouraging post, Barbara. The church denomination I grew up in didn’t have communion…or at least to my memory, there wasn’t any done. My experience in the denomination I was saved in was varied. I sat under three different pastors during that time and they each did it differently. One pastor very seldom did communion at all and his explanation was that he was afraid that someone would take communion without truly understanding the meaning behind it. Our current church serves communion the first Sunday of each month and there is always time given to pray beforehand. We are also given time each Sunday in the Call to Worship to pray and confess our sin.

  12. This post resonates with me in so many ways, Barbara! First, I’m struck by the seriousness that your leadership takes in regards to communion. I have found this to be lacking in some churches and it concerns me. Also, I identify so strongly with you as far as having an oversensitive conscience goes. I think the thing that’s helped me most with this in regards to communion is frequent confession throughout the week. Thank you for this thoughtful post on such an important subject!

  13. This is so good! I also used to struggle with an oversensitive conscience, and be afraid to take the communion.
    Your explanation of ‘unworthily’ – and your points will be very liberating for many believers. Well done.

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  15. Barbara, I appreciate that you shared this in part to encourage others who may have had the same experience with communion. Our church does communion every week, but just recently have we started back up with the pre-Covid practice of doing it in small groups around the sanctuary. My takeaway from your words is to be more focused, while I’m waiting for our turn, on examining my heart. It’s so easy for me simply to “go through the motions” with something we do so regularly.

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