Best of Reflections: How We Should Deal With the Sins of Others…And How We Usually Get It Wrong
“So watch yourselves! If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”
When our fellow Christians sin, we often choose one of two common responses. First, we can come after them with a vengeance. We attack them, criticize them, ostracize them, gossip about them, and do whatever we can to make them feel rejected. It’s sad, but Christians can be some of the meanest people in the world. I know, because I’ve been the recipient of such nastiness...and I suppose I’ve divvied it out sometimes too.
In response to this kind of mean-spirited judgmentalism, many Christians today choose the opposite course. If our fellow Christians sin, we do nothing. We say nothing. We embrace the cultural mantras: “Live and let live” and “I’m not going to get involved in somebody else’s business.”
Jesus teaches us to deal with the sins of others in an altogether different way than the ones we commonly adopt. His way is more complicated, more uncomfortable, yet more gracious and more healing. In contrast to those who would take a “live and let live” posture, Jesus says, “If another believer sins, rebuke that person” (17:3). The Greek verb translated as “rebuke” is a strong verb. It means “to express disapproval.” Elsewhere in Luke, this verb is used when Jesus rebukes the wind and waves, demons, and his disciples when they’re getting everything wrong (8:24, 9:42, 9:55).
But does the command of Jesus to rebuke sinners justify the first approach I described above? Not at all. After telling us to rebuke those who sin, Jesus continues: “[T]hen if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive” (17:4). It’s clear that our rebuking must be for the sake of repentance and forgiveness. We must rebuke, not in self-righteousness or in order to hurt, but with a passion for forgiveness. And we’re not talking about ordinary forgiveness here. When Jesus speaks of forgiving “seven times a day,” he’s using a figure of speech that means, more literally, “always.”
So Jesus calls us into the messy middle between judgmental criticism and passive acceptance. Out of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and with a desire to promote forgiveness and reconciliation, we are to confront those who sin, but always with grace and mercy. As it says in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When people close to you sin, what is your tendency? Do you lean toward harsh criticism or passive acceptance? How is it possible to rebuke someone in love? Have you ever experienced something like this, either as the giver or the receiver?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, I am challenged by your words today. You know, dear Lord, that I am not inclined to rebuke anyone, expect perhaps for my children, and even then I don’t like doing it. I’d much rather stand back when people sin. I don’t want to make them unhappy, most of all, with me. And I really don’t want to be like Christians who ladle out judgment as if it were their divine right to condemn the world. Ugh!
Yet, I realize that if I am truly concerned for my brothers and sisters, if my love for them is deep, then I will not want them to remain in sin. I will be eager for their repentance and restoration, not so I can feel better about myself, but so that they might live better lives and so that your church might be strong and so that you might be glorified. So, help me, Lord, to take the risk to reach out in love even when that means confronting someone in their sin. Yet may I do this with compassion and humility, aware of my own sin and my own dependence on your grace. Amen.
P.S. from Mark: I realize I have touched on a topic that is not adequately addressed in a few paragraphs. So if you’re looking for a more thorough discussion of how we are to deal with sin in the body of Christ, let me point you to my blog series: What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus