AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
We all sin. We all have issues—serious, deep-rooted issues. We all have our dark secrets that we’re not about to share with anybody else. Before we begin a discussion about how to respond to sinners, we need to get real about the extent of our own depravity. A “sinner” isn’t just that dude over there who is so obviously wallowing in carnality. A sinner is also you—the judgmental soul who’s sitting one pew over feeling all smug and superior because you’re better than that crud ball. Whenever we start laying down rules about how to deal with sinners, we’re not just talking about how you should deal with the lowlifes all around you. We’re also talking about how those lowlifes should deal with you.
Once you know the rules are going to apply to yourself, it’s amazing how differently you start to think. A popular question among Christians is “How many times does God expect me to forgive someone who sins against me?” Well, how many times do you want to be forgiven in life? Do you want us to all write you off the first time you stumble? Do you want us to all start shunning you and slapping you with the “unforgivable” label the moment we see you do something wrong? Do you know how many times the people around you have seen you act less than Christlike? If they got together and shared their stories, they’d have enough material to write a book about what a carnal little twerp you can be. It doesn’t matter how polished you look at church on Sunday morning—we don’t live our whole lives at church, do we?
You sin. We all sin. We’re all sitting in the same busted boat and the thing is taking on water fast. Mercy, grace, and compassion are the things that keep pumping water out of the boat so that we can all stay afloat. If we all just sit around knifing each other, we’ll all go down that much faster. Now of course your flesh wants to sit around gossiping about what a lust ball your neighbor is, or what a loudmouth that one woman in your home group is. But when we sit around making a big deal out of someone else’s issues, we’re just dragging everyone around us down, including ourselves.
We all sin. We sin so often and in so many ways that it really is ridiculous how often we act like the sins of others are such a shocking surprise. Okay, so Deacon Bob is hitting on the ladies because the man has a problem with lust. But to hear you tell it, this is some incredibly shocking situation, hence your hushed voice and big eyes as you share Bob’s latest antics with the ladies by the coffee table. Are you really trying to sell us on this idea that you don’t know what lust is? Do you really expect us to believe that you haven’t done the same thing as Bob in the privacy of your own mind? We are all guilty of lust. We are all guilty of thinking inappropriate thoughts about others. Bob hits on the ladies, but you drool over some hunk in a romance movie—what’s the difference? Maybe you’ve just received some juicy dirt about Brother Dave’s wife catching him looking at porn on the internet. Well, what do you call it when you sit around reading those trashy romance novels and fantasizing about you and some dream lover rolling around in the sack together? You don’t need to be looking at a physical screen to be guilty of looking at porn. You can undress anyone you want to any time on that big screen inside your mind. Just because you haven’t been caught in the act doesn’t make your lust fest any less loathsome.
Sin is sin, and we’re all guilty. You say you’re better than Mike the molester because at least you’re not hurting kids. Well, whoopee. If we took an inventory of all the sin in your life, we’d find that you’re up to plenty of shenanigans that Mike’s not presently guilty of. No one has room to pull rank on anyone else. For every sin that you’re not doing, there are plenty of others that you are doing, so you’re totally unqualified to judge.
God doesn’t politely ask us play nice together, He commands us to treat others the way that we would want to be treated. How you want to be treated is a no-brainer: you want countless chances and fresh starts. You want us all to quickly forget about your failures and forever remember your triumphs. You want an endless supply of compassion, mercy, and grace. So when it comes to how you should respond to other sinners, there’s your answer: treat them the way you want to be treated. It’s not a suggestion, it’s a command from God.
By now you’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with how miserable it is to have your flesh get the best of you. Part of us knows how ugly we look when we’re standing around slandering others. We don’t want to act like such flaming hypocrites—it’s just so darn fun in the moment that we can’t control ourselves. Who really wants to have his friends see him stumbling around talking like an idiot in some totally wasted state? No one, so why do we keep getting drunk? Because our flesh craves the stuff, and so often we just can’t win the fight. The molester doesn’t look in the mirror and think, “Love what a pervert I am.” The adulteress doesn’t say, “I’m so proud of how I’m breaking my marriage vows and shacking with some ape who takes my sex for free.” Sinning turns us into people that we don’t want to be. Sinning brings out the worst in us and then we veer off into denial because we don’t want to face the ugly truth. Sin messes us up, sometimes in really big ways. What can we do to help each other in these moments? How does God want you to treat the people in your life who keep sinning in really obvious, chronic ways?
There are two key principles to responding to sinners in ways that please God. First, we need to keep souls separated from their actions in our minds. Souls are a human creatures who God dearly loves—they are not just a list of wrong behaviors. When we sit around calling people liars, gossips, and murderers, we’re equating souls with behaviors. This is not right or fair. Do you want to be defined by your worst moments in life? Should we call you “the grump” from now on because you woke up on the wrong side of the bed yesterday and bit people’s heads off? Should we call you “the addict” because you can’t make it through the day without your caffeine fix? Should we call you “the sleaze” because of that one time you laughed at a joke that was less than righteous? These nasty labels we love to slap on people are very damaging and they only encourage us to be merciless hypocrites. The next time you hear someone being defined by a behavior—“She is a such a gossip” or “He is such a cheat”—think to yourself, “Actually, that person is a soul who God dearly loves, just like me.” When God looks at you, He doesn’t just see a list of mistakes. He sees a soul with great potential. Ask God to help you see others through His gracious eyes.
A second useful principle that we need to put into practice is that of boundaries. This is especially useful in cases where you run into someone with a chronic sin problem. If you know that Brother Larry is a struggling alcoholic, don’t be the jerk who puts wine in his face at a dinner party. Have some class. When we are weak, we don’t need our brothers and sisters in the Lord setting up tripwires for us to stumble over. If you know that Brother Bill has a problem with lust, don’t be sticking your flesh in his face with your low cut shirt and painted on pants. If you know that Sister Sharon has a problem with gossip, help her out by steering the conversation in better directions once she starts losing it.
Well-placed boundaries are how we help each other martial whatever resources of self-control God is making available to us. If you’ve got a pedophile living next door to you, you shouldn’t be letting your kid be hanging out with him alone. Put yourself in the pedophile’s place: if you were dealing with some perverse desire, would you want someone dangling forbidden fruit in front of you 24/7? But while we’re helping each other by drawing boundaries, we shouldn’t be withholding mercy and grace. A registered sex offender just moved in across the street from you—does that give you license to treat him like pond scum and give him hard looks every time your paths cross? No, it doesn’t. God commands you to treat others the way that you want to be treated. Someone’s rap sheet doesn’t tell you anything about where they’re currently at with God. How motivated are you going to be to try and put the past behind you if someone’s always throwing your mistakes in your face? We need to give everyone we meet endless chances to succeed with us because that’s what we’d want them to do. We need to believe that every soul has the potential to change, improve, and be victorious. To say this isn’t true is to insult God, for He is the One who redeems us and turns our lives around.
Grace must have boundaries. If your son robs your house when you’re not home, you need to forgive him, but you also need to change the locks and not give him a key. If you know your friend’s a chronic liar, don’t take what she says at face value. Chronic sin patterns identify areas where someone is currently weak. Lower your expectations accordingly. Expecting the girl with no esteem and raging daddy issues to hold the same lines of sexual purity as the girl with buckets of self-confidence is hardly fair. We’re not all tempted in the same ways, but we’re all tempted in plenty of ways, so we can sympathize with the struggle. When someone already feels bad about the fact that they’re failing, they really don’t need you going on and on about it. When you’re hurting do you want someone to smack you in the face or to give you a supportive hug? God commands you to treat others the way you want to be treated. When someone is bragging about the way they’re sinning, they need you to help them limit the damage they do by erecting boundaries. If a brother is acting inappropriately towards your wife, you don’t have him over to your house for dinner. If a sister loves to spread slander, you don’t provide her with an audience. We’ve all been guilty of being unrepentant little brats who don’t want to own up to our sins. You can’t make someone repent, but you don’t have to help them do damage, either.
Because leaders in the church are supposed to be modeling the high road for everyone else, it is inappropriate for leaders to be allowed to keep on leading if they are openly struggling with certain kinds of issues. If the pastor admits he’s been doing it with his secretary, both of them need to step down until they get their lives in order. If Susan the Sunday School teacher starts dating a lesbian, she needs to be discharged. Being gay doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t hold a leadership position—publicly acting on homosexual desires does.
God demands more from His leaders, and we’re not all equipped to meet His standards. We’re not all supposed to lead—that’s a no-brainer which the Church is currently in denial about. Today we try to crank out mass amounts of leaders through manmade training programs instead of waiting for God to identify the individuals who He has equipped for the job. Because we’re in such a rush to boost our available workforce in the Church, we are totally undiscriminating about who we set up as leaders in our midst. The next thing we know, we’ve got shepherds who are wallowing in carnality in front of the flock and encouraging them to do the same. Today leaders are encouraged to “be real” to the point of being inappropriate. No, you really shouldn’t be telling the entire congregation about every jerky thing you’ve ever done and thought. Good leaders don’t pretend to be above sin, but they don’t go waving their sins in other people’s faces, either. We already know what depravity looks like—Christian leaders are supposed to be showing us something better. Leaders are supposed to model living life on a higher moral plane—they can’t get to that plane without God’s help, and they can’t stay there without His empowerment. But if they’re not there, or if they used to be there and now they’ve gone astray—then they need to stop leading until they are able to do the job right again. When we listen to God, our leaders inspire us. When we don’t listen to God, our leaders drag us down.
We all sin, and we’re all a billion miles from perfect. So when you meet that person with the glaring issues, you are meeting a fellow fallen human being. You’re not better than them, they’re just currently being ruled by their flesh in some area that you’re not. Want a taste of what it’s like to deal with their problems? Just keep up the judgmental attitude. One of God’s favorite ways of dealing with a lack of compassion is to make us a walk a few miles in the other fellow’s shoes. There’s no nasty behavior in this world that you’re not capable of—no temptation that God couldn’t suddenly make irresistible to you. Learning compassion only gets so easy, but if you’re going to be a little punk about it, God can make it a lot harder than it needs to be. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a very true principle which we need to remember whenever we find ourselves looking down our noses at someone else.
We all stumble in countless ways. If you think you’re immune to certain kinds of sin, God will be happy to straighten you out on that subject. Don’t sit around telling God what’s wrong with everyone else. Instead, ask Him to help you take responsibility for your own issues and to learn the positive lessons He wants to teach you through your struggles with sin. We’ve all failed so many times that we have no room to be mocking anyone else. Instead, we need to be encouraging both the saved and the unsaved to see the potential that God sees in them. Ask God to help you see other people through His loving eyes and He will. Every human soul is precious to God.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (or, How many times should we forgive?)
Recovering from Abuse: Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Praying Down Your Enemies
Trash Talking Humans: Unacceptable Behavior for Christians