I have had this post brewing in my head for almost a week now. I have been putting it off. I am avoiding delving into my own problems and hypocrisy. I am also avoiding making you have to deal with yours. I like my readers, I don’t want you to run away! Regardless, it is on my heart, and now it is time to throw it out there into internet land.
This all started with a Facebook group. It is a group for alumni from my college to share old stories and things like that. My school is a Christian college (now university), and there were a lot of people that were turned off by the legalism that can sometimes be inherent at a private Christian school. A lot of us fall into two extremes now after being away that environment, either still immersed in some of the same mindsets we had or completely on the other side of them. I do like to think God has brought me closer to the middle of the legalism vs. grace struggle myself, though.
In the group someone posted something about an obvious sin (I am not going to name the sin because I do not want this post to be about that…though I may post about it another day). The comments said something to the effect of, “People realized that doing [pick one of the big sins that we all like to focus on as Christians] is not going to send them to hell.” Shortly after this post hit the FB group, all “hell” broke loose (pun intended). Most people were nice about it and tried to be open to discussion, but a few came in swinging with their Bibles aimed and firing…condemning verses as the ammo. This eventually turned into arguments between the two extremes on the issue with a handful of people in the middle trying to mediate.
I was one of the “middle people” trying to make peace, but something bothered me. It wasn’t the person saying that this sin would not send people to hell. It was the fact that there were Christians coming at this person from the perspective of condemnation. This really made me upset. I wasn’t sure why. Something just didn’t sit right with me about it, and I couldn’t quite put it into words.
Those who have read been reading my blog know that I am a huge proponent of the Bible. I talk about it a lot. I believe it. I believe it is true. I believe it is relevant. I believe is must be central to my life, and it is all connected. I also believe there is a “morality” that comes from living in relationship to Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father. If the Spirit living inside of you, you will not be okay with sinning. Conviction will make you miserable. I do believe that Christians should strive for holiness. Still, I was having problems accepting that jumping into Scripture with someone without anything else is okay to do, especially people that do not know at all on a personal level.
As I have been on my quest to read through the Bible since March, I have found that there are two overwhelming themes throughout Scripture. God’s expectation for us is to love and trust him with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love others as we love ourselves (especially those who are down-and-out in life’s circumstances). The more I read the Old Testament, the more I see these themes there as well as in the New Testament. It has become obvious why Jesus boiled down the Ten Commandments to these two commands.
So, what does this mean for how we approach others in their sin? Do we let Christians, or people who claim to be, who are openly sinning without remorse go on doing so without addressing it? Where is the line of love?
I will defer to Jesus as the example of how we can approach people in love. John 8 tells the story of the woman caught in adultery. John 8:1-11 (NLT):
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
11“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
I have heard sermons (yes, plural…more than one) that focused more what Jesus was writing in the dust than the heart of this passage. The heart, I think, of this passage is that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. We are sinners caught in sin. We can be condemned for this sin. But there is mercy from God if we turn to him in trust, accept that he has not condemned us, and turn away from our sin. Jesus, of cource, was able to not condemn her for the sin because he knew that he would soon be dying and paying the penalty for her. He would be taking her condemnation. God’s desire is for us to trust him for forgiveness and salvation and not our works. Once we do accept this freedom from condemnation, we need to, in trust, stop the sins that we know he has just forgiven.
Now to use this as an example of how to address the sins of others out of love. Jesus did not start at, “Go and sin no more.” This was not the openning arguement for his case. First, he alieviated her guilt imposed by the other people present by pointing out that they are just as guilty of sin as she is. Then he acted out of kindness and relieved her guilt from him. Then, and only then, he told her to stop sinning (referring to this obvious sin).
I think what we can learn from this has several levels when dealing with others.
- We can not be self-righteous. If we are addressing the sins of others, we need to be aware of our own sins. Jesus said that we need to take the plank/log out of our own eyes in order to help others with the specks in theirs. I believe this means that we have to be honest with ourselves, God, and others about our shortcomings. This will help build a bridge to the one you are trying to help. Admit to them that you are guilty of sins yourself. You are trusting in God for grace and mercy and working on the ongoing sin in your life.
- We have to avoid coming at someone from a place of condemnation. You have to choose your words carefully, especially if you do not have a standing with them. You have to have a relationship of some level with someone as you are pointing out things that he or she may need to work on. If you are going to use Scripture, you can’t start with the ones that condemn them for the specific sin. That is not love. Jesus did not do that. He offered forgiveness. We cannot offer forgiveness ourselves, but we can point to the forgiveness offered by Jesus through his sacrafice and resurrection. We can point to the cross and remind them that if they are truly trusting in the ransom Jesus paid, then there is no condemnation.
- We can then dive into whatever issue the person may need to work on. We can show them where they may be wrong, biblically and spiritually speaking. We can help them work through it. We can hold them accountable. We can work on the “sinning no more”. We just can’t start here, especially without a standing with them to do so.
Remember, I am talking about this from the perspective of dealing with someone that is a passing acquaintance. If the person is within your sphere of close personal influence, you can start with the hard stuff. They are already aware of your life and stuggles. As long as you are walking in the Spirit, I think you can start with calling them out for what is wrong. That is love. You cannot let someone go on living in sin and misunderstanding of Scripture if you want to love them and if they are a friend or family member that you have a standing with. You just have to be more careful with people outside of your sphere of influence.
Life-change is heart surgery, and our tool is a broadsword (the Bible…Hebrews 4:12). We have to be very careful how we swing the sword around. We need the help of the Spirit to know how use Scripture to cut at our hearts and change our lives.
What do you think? Am I off-base here? What is the line of loving others when dealing with their sins?