Loving the Sinner
Michael Lane, Executive Director, Delve Christian Ministries
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"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." - Matthew 7:1-5
I have discovered this principle of life -- that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love Gods law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. - Romans 7:21-25 (NLT)
A few weeks ago, my wife and I enjoyed a visit from our church's senior pastor. One of the topics that came up during the conversation was the murder of a prominent abortion doctor while he attended Sunday service. We briefly discussed some of the obvious ethical questions raised by the murder and strongly agreed with each other that taking his life could never be condoned no matter how strongly one feels about abortion. However there was another, more subtle point which I wanted to bring up. The doctor had been attending a Christian service, so I presume he called himself a Christian and felt that he was a follower of Jesus. He must have somehow, quite mistakenly, been able to reconcile his work with Christ's teachings. Presumably the pastor or minister of that church as well as many among the congregation would have been aware of his chosen profession, and had also been able to reconcile his profession with his desire to follow Christ.
How would our own church react under the same circumstances? I asked our pastor if he would knowingly allow an abortion doctor to attend the weekly service at our church. "Absolutely," he replied with no hesitation. "I would not allow him to become a member of our congregation without first renouncing his profession, but I would be delighted to have him there in the pews every single week. What a great opportunity that would be to help him understand God's will for his life!"
This example of a Christian who performs abortions is extreme to be sure, but it got me thinking about how most Christians usually react to those in their congregation who are failing to live up to God's standards, especially those who know it and are trying desperately to change. Our pastor's response expresses deep love and a desire to help, not criticism and judgment.
If only every follower of Jesus had the same response! Sadly, the typical Christian's reaction to sin in their brothers and sisters is not a desire to lend a helping hand. What they really want to do is gossip about it.
Sin is a very uncomfortable topic among Christians. We're supposed to be different from those who don't know the Lord. We're supposed to be better. Sure, it's true that we're called to a higher standard, but that certainly does not mean that we don't make mistakes. Paul explains this very clearly in chapter seven of the Book of Romans. The difference between those who serve Jesus and those who don't is that we have made a commitment to do everything we can to avoid sinning and will repent when we fail to do so. Fail we will, each and every one of us.
As you look around your congregation on Sunday morning, know this about every single person you see -- they sin. Some of them have serious problems with drugs or alcohol. There may be a few who are addicted to gambling or pornography. Some feel that their marriage is beyond saving and are contemplating divorce. Somewhere in your church this morning may be a married man who dearly loves his wife, but is having an affair and feels powerless to stop it. Perhaps a young lady in the back of the room has gone too far with her boyfriend and is now pregnant.
All of these people love Jesus and want to live in His will, yet for one reason or another, they have fallen short. In all likelihood, they are ashamed of their failure and have either asked for God's forgiveness or will do so very soon. God will hear them and will help them according to His plan for their life. He will forgive them when they ask because they are His beloved children.
If all those gathered at your church on a Sunday morning knew of these sins, would they be as gracious as their Lord who suffered and died for these very sins He forgives?
There would certainly be a great deal of hushed whispering between friends in empty hallways, but most of it would consist of feigned disgust and manufactured outrage. We all know from personal experience that sin remains an ongoing problem after we give our lives to Jesus, yet many remain incredulous that anyone at their church could be battling any given particular sin. It makes them uncomfortable but at the same time it's interesting and curious. And so, in order to maintain the pretense that everyone in their own circle of friends, at least, would never indulge in that particular sin or vice, they reassure one another that it's a heinous sin to which none of them would ever fall victim. When this phenomenon gets really bad, as I've seen on a few occasions, the whispers escalate into staring glances and loud talking which halts abruptly when the person who is the topic of conversation walks into the room. The people being stared at and talked about are not oblivious - they know exactly what's going on and what's being said about them behind their back. It won't take long before these people move on to another church where they can battle their sin in loneliness and anonymity.
All of this sounds extreme, and many of you may not be able to believe that such a thing could go on in a Christian church. I wish that it were not so, but I've seen it now a dozen times in several different churches. I'm too pragmatic not to believe that this kind of thing is going on in churches all over North America.
There is only one acceptable motive for talking about someone else's battle with sin, and that is to ask, "How can I help?" If there is something tangible which we can do to help, then we have an obligation to offer that help. An offer of help does not in any way suggest that we condone the sin. It's entirely possible to demonstrate great love and compassion even as we let the person know that what they're doing is at odds with God's will for their life and that we want to help if we can.
If we've nothing tangible to offer, then the very least we can offer are our prayers. Beyond that, we have no business talking about what someone else is dealing with. It may not be appropriate to associate with believers who are continually engaging in sin, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 5:11, but we must never stop showing our love and extending our hand.
This situation in our churches will only change one person at a time. We each have to be committed to neither listening to or spreading gossip. When we judge our brothers and sisters in Christ, it must be in the context of wanting to help them get right with Jesus, never as an exercise in boasting about our own righteousness. It's time to end the back-room prattling in our churches, and dispense with the ridiculous notion that someone who is battling sin deserves anything except our genuine empathy and all the help we have to give. Even in extreme cases where a Christian will not confess or repent of their sin, what do we gain by forcing them out of our churches or alienating them to the point that they leave? As our wise pastor rightly pointed out, there is no better place for them to be on a Sunday morning than right beside us, where they can hear the Word and observe the love of Christ at work in us.
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