Sometimes, the Bible seems to be filled with paradoxes — hard paradoxes that remind us why we shouldn't lean on our own understanding. For example: God loves and desires a relationship with each of us, but every person in the world won't go to heaven. God is merciful but just. God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus are three, but they're also one in the Trinity. God is sovereign, but we have free will to make our own choices.
And finally, we shouldn't judge others, but we’re meant to restore fellow believers who are falling away from the Lord ... which means we have to judge them, right?
This last “paradox” is increasingly difficult to grasp in a world that worships acceptance. But like the others, it makes sense when we take it back to God’s word. Living by God's rules makes Christians unpopular. Venturing to voice God's rules seems dangerous. And the reality is that it is dangerous, not just because of worldly consequences, but because our desire to judge others can get out of hand quickly.
And yet, exhorting one another — encouraging one another — to stay on God’s course is crucial to having a healthy community. It is also crucial for having healthy relationships when other Christians sin against us. Last week we talked at length about encouragement, but we didn't get to the part where the Bible applies this command to helping each other overcome sin and cling to our confidence in God.
"Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2 ESV).
Encouraging others in this way walks a dangerous line. And yet, while we are here on earth, we are responsible for this community of believers. Because we love each other, we want to continue in the race together. And if we are in fact the believers we say we are, we should desire companions who will be honest with us about our sin because we ourselves want to eradicate it from our lives.
That means that we should hold each other accountable when it is appropriate. But there are a few things to be cautious of:
This command is for Christians.
The Bible doesn't tell us to confront non-believers about sin. Our exhortations should only be brought to fellow believers. Why? Encouraging others to continue being faithful to God's commands requires that they are already trying to implement those commands. Confronting non-believers just doesn't work because they simply won't be receptive. "But people who aren't spiritual can't receive these truths from God's Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can't understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means" (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV). What's worse, you may damage someone’s openness to God if you start holding them to standards that they don’t believe in. This is not to say that you shouldn’t talk to non-believers about God, but evangelism is a different topic entirely.
All too often, we are hyper-aware of others' sins because of ours. Our sinfulness highlights the sin in others because we want to feel better about ourselves. It's the "Well, at least I'm not doing that bad" scapegoat mentality that we use to justify our disobedience. Holding up a loving and gentle mirror to a fellow believer can quickly fall over the line of judging her more for our own benefit than hers. That's why Jesus warns us:
"Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5 ESV).
We often see in others the sin that we struggle with the most. No matter how blatant that sin is in someone else’s life, we aren’t equipped to help them if we haven’t first confronted our sin, confessed, and opened ourselves up to help from the Spirit and fellow believers ourselves.
Get the facts.
"If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13 ESV). Gossip is often rampant in communities, especially communities of women. But gossip should never be the foundation on which you assess a fellow Christian. Make sure you have the facts before you approach anyone. If you aren’t privy to the facts about someone’s personal life, it should be a red flag that you aren’t the person to approach him or her. Furthermore, if there is an issue, don’t go “getting advice” from others about how to handle someone’s dirty laundry. Go straight to the person so their reputation is not further damaged and you aren’t slandering her.
Identify your motivation.
Since we are so often motivated to confront others in selfishness, it’s crucial to closely consider and pray over your intentions. Are you going to them in love, hoping that your comments will restore and grow this person? Is your intent to promote unity between you and them and/or within the body at large? Or are you motivated by a desire to throw the spotlight off your sins? Are you motivated by spitefulness toward this person and a desire to take your revenge by making him or her feel bad?
If answered honestly, these questions can reveal your motivations, possibly even showing you that you are not the person to confront her. Instead, you should pray for her (Matthew 5:44). Remember that encouragement, even when we are encouraging others to turn away from sin, should build others up, not tear them down (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Sin can be destructive, leaving deep chasms in our lives. When you come alongside someone who is suffering the consequences of sin (or who will suffer the consequences soon enough), don’t forget to have compassion on them. Rejoice with them when sin is conquered, and weep with them over what sin has destroyed. If you have struggled with the same sin, approaching them with honesty about your struggle is the best course, both to show them that you are genuine in your encouragement and that there is a way to overcome.
Love is gentle.
Even when you want to know you're straying away from God, it doesn't feel good to be confronted about it. It doesn’t feel good to face the consequences of sin in our lives. The way you approach a fellow believer will make all the difference in the world. Start out one-on-one so that the person doesn’t feel like you are ganging up on him or her, and be gentle (Matthew 18:15). Your confrontation should be an outpouring of the love that has motivated you to approach this person. Speak kindly with humility, and pray that God will both give you the right words to say and open the other person’s heart to you.
When people don’t sin directly against us, forgiveness may seem irrelevant. But it’s important that you forgive the person for whatever they have done so that you don’t hold their mistakes against them in the future. For example, if you confront someone who is having an affair and decide that you’ll never trust her again, you aren’t looking at that sin the way that Christ looks at it. If a person repents, give her forgiveness as freely as it has been given to you.
It is in this final, and most challenging element of community that we see that every other piece of a God-centered community comes into play. Exhorting one another to leave behind our sins requires that we are encouraging, loving, empathetic, forgiving and motivated by a desire to serve the best interests of our fellow Christian’s relationship with God. It’s a delicate task, and yet it is so essential to having a healthy community where we don’t allow sin to fester or Satan to get a foothold. It isn’t a license to be the Bible police. Rather it is a challenge for us to love one another enough to truly care about each other’s hearts, despite our own sinful tendencies.
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Have you ever been confronted about your sin by a fellow believer? How did you handle it? What did you learn from it? Was it in line with the principles above?
Have you ever had to confront anyone else about their sin? If yes, what could you have differently according to the guidelines above? If no, was it because you didn’t know it was within a believer’s right to do so or perhaps because you were too scared of their reaction?
How can you invite others into your life to speak (hard) truth into your life’s messiness? Do you have relationships that are close enough where people would be able to do that? Why or why not?
How can meditating on some of the principles above prepare your own heart to confront others if/when the situation demands? How can they help you recognize your own shortcomings, seek repentance, and change in the meantime?
Think of a situation where someone might confront you about sin in your life. How would it make you feel? How would you want them to go about doing that? Now, think of confronting someone else. How can putting yourself in their place help you have empathy towards them and soften your heart towards someone in their weakness?