Many years ago, a college friend of mine (I’ll call her Lisa) confided to me that she was a single mother. She explained what had happened and how the father had walked away from her and their child. She regretted the choices she made and had asked God for forgiveness. And she chose to keep the baby rather than seek an abortion. As I recall the situation, Lisa’s parents were helping her raise the child, while she completed college. Unfortunately, Lisa’s Christian friends ostracized her and would have nothing to do with her.
At a time she needed Christian friends to help her get her life back on track and get close to the Lord again, the Christian friends she had known deserted her. Why? Because she had a baby out of wedlock. And here’s the irony: She met these Christian friends through a pro-life group that she had been a part of. Her choice to keep the baby was not good enough, however, for these “pro-life” friends.
Lisa’s story is not unique. I know a lot of Christians. And many of them can be downright unpleasant (even cruel), especially when talking about the sins of other people. There are of course degrees of unpleasantness (or cruelty), but in most cases, you can tell who the good guys and gals are by who spends more time helping people vs condemning people.
Please don’t misunderstand. I believe Christians should speak the truth. Christians should call sin “sin.” They shouldn’t obfuscate, redefine, ignore, or disregard the clear teachings of Scripture, and when the time is right and as the Lord leads, they should be bold in proclaiming the truth about sin as well as our accountability to God. Those who know me know I don’t hesitate to write against sin, preach against sin, and counsel people against sin, but….I’m learning that when we lose sight of the fact that people are involved – people who are loved by God and who Jesus died for – well, our focus is completely off.
Jesus Does Not Condemn
One of my favorite stories in the New Testament is found in John 8. It’s the story of Jesus facing down the crowd wanting to stone the adulteress woman. Here was a woman caught in the act of adultery. According to the Mosaic Law, her life was forfeit, and the mob wanted her to die. It’s of course interesting that only the woman was brought before Jesus, not the man. Perhaps the man got away or perhaps the crowd was sexist and only cared about punishing the woman. John (the author of the Gospel which contains this episode) doesn’t say, so we’ll set that aside. What we do know is that Jesus wrote something on the ground (John doesn’t say what) and then asked whomever was without sin to cast the first stone. The crowd melted away, and Jesus turned to the woman and asked: “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” The woman, probably both relieved and confused, replied that no one remained. Jesus’ next words are among the most beautiful in the Gospels: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Note that Jesus identifies the woman’s adultery as “sin” and he exhorts her to “sin no more.” That’s the truth. But he also refuses to condemn her (even though he alone had the authority and credibility to do so). That’s the grace part.
Similarly, the Lord is recorded as saying to Nicodemus: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:17, KJV). Later in his ministry, Jesus reiterates this very same thought: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47b). And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus shows God as a loving, compassionate Father waiting for His wayward child to return home and overjoyed when he does (Luke 15:11-32).
Balancing Truth With Grace, Mercy, and Patience
Yes, there are passages that speak about God’s judgment in the Scriptures. There are plenty in the Old Testament and even in the New Testament (such as Revelation). I’m not saying God is a Supreme Pushover who never raises His voice, never expresses disapproval, and only wants to shower us (regardless of our actions and attitudes) with the proverbial equivalent of cosmic cream puffs. Yes, God is both a God of mercy and judgment. But, that’s my point. God is the Judge. Not you and not me. God.
And yet I’ve met a lot of Christians who try to play God. And frankly they do a poor job of it, because they seem to want to channel the fire-and-brimstone part of God, even though the Bible is abundantly clear that God is a God of great mercy (Psalm 136) who rains down judgment only when He has to and does so even then with great sadness (Ezekiel 18:32) – and only after ample time for the people in question to repent and thus avoid the judgment (Genesis 15:16, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15). God would much rather forgive than punish (II Peter 3:9). Even Jonah understood this, which is why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2). Jonah, like many Christians today, had a much more harsh view of sinners than God did!
I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that there are professing Christians who go to the other extreme and claim that God loves everyone (which is true) and then discourage any talk of sin or God’s judgment (which is bad). If you give people all grace and mercy and no truth, then grace and mercy lose their meaning. You can’t have love, in fact, without truth.
For this article, however, my focus is on those who err on the side of not emphasizing God’s love and grace enough. Christians shouldn’t be eager to take up the pitchforks. We should rather (as the hymn says) “throw out the life line.” The Christian world has far too many critics and too few caregivers.
Loving Sinners as Jesus Does
One of the things that drove Jesus’ critics crazy was our Lord’s habit of eating with sinners. Yet, Jesus spent time (not just little bits here and there, but lots of time) with sinners. Whether we’re talking about prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors, religious hypocrites, or any other type of sinner, Jesus would rather talk with them than denounce them. Did he, at times, denounce people? You bet. But isn’t it interesting that most of his denunciations were of religious leaders? You don’t see Jesus going around condemning prostitutes or adulteresses, even though he certainly did teach that these things were wrong.
When I see Christians pontificate from the pulpit or on Facebook or in everyday conversations about how alcoholism, pornography, homosexuality, drug usage, divorce, etc. are awful or terrible or whatever strong adjective they can think of, I cringe. I don’t cringe because I necessarily disagree. I cringe because it’s so easy to condemn sin and so much harder to actually overcome it – or to help someone else overcome it.
Don’t just tell someone what they’re doing is wrong. Tell them God loves them and wants so much better for them. And then help them. Don’t just give them a tract and wipe your hands. Get your hands dirty and help them. That’s where the rubber meets the road on the whole “Love your Neighbor” commandment.
Many years ago, I was moderating a discussion in a Bible study on pornography. One person burst out and said that porn was “disgusting” (true) and that anyone who is at all lured by it or tempted by it is also disgusting (hmmm). Why is it that Christians often compete with one another to see how strong they can condemn a particular sin or someone guilty of it? I agreed with this person that porn is indeed a tragic and (yes) disgusting addiction that is ripping our nation apart, but I also pointed out a couple things that needed to be said.
First, many people have selectively defined porn in order to give themselves a pass while still pointing the finger of condemnation at others. For example, maybe they don’t look at Playboy or a hardcore porn site, but they’ll thumb through Cosmopolitan or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Or maybe they’ll condemn looking at pornographic pictures, but they’ll curl up with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and enjoy every minute of it. Folks, porn is porn. And as Jesus said, get the beam out of your eye before you go after the speck in your neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:5). Second, even if the person making the condemnation isn’t struggling with porn, where’s the sensitivity and desire to help? I told this person (and those in the group who nodded along with her) that she just discouraged anyone struggling with that sin from coming forward and asking for help with that addiction. Who in the world would want to admit they struggle with a sin that everyone in the group was condemning? Should we call sin “sin”? Absolutely. But there has to be some grace and mercy there. We have to show compassion and understanding for the sinner. Otherwise, we won’t be rescuing people from sin. We’re just thumping our chests and trying to make ourselves feel good because we don’t struggle with that particular sin. We’re like the Pharisee gloating that he’s not the publican (Luke 18:9-14).
There’s no question that Jesus taught virtue and preached against sin. But this wasn’t the extent of his ministry. He took the time to talk with sinners and try to help them. Likewise, how many Christians today take the time to understand the circumstances, dynamics, temptations, and pain which contributed to a person’s sinful choices? Not many. It’s much easier to just condemn the person for their sinful path and then, if we feel like putting in a little extra time, maybe writing a letter to our elected officials to ask for a law against the behavior of the sinner in question. Is that how Jesus did things?
Once again, I understand there’s a time for government involvement, but we are not supposed to outsource the heavy and difficult burdens of Christ’s work to the government. It’s not the government’s job to make us a “Christian nation,” not that we ever were one. A nation-state cannot, in any biblical sense, be “Christian.” That’s an individual thing, and therein lies my point. Christians need to be about the hard work of evangelism and discipleship. We can’t look to the government for that. We can pray and hope the government will keep us safe and protect our religious freedom, but when it comes to the Great Commission, that’s our task.
When it comes to sinners, let’s love and help them. Let’s leave the whole condemnation thing to God. That’s His role (Romans 12:19). Our role is to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone (Mark 16:15). And, as we do so, let’s the world see us as loving, humble servants and not arrogant activists with chips on our shoulders.
This of course applies to our fellow Christians as well. Christians should not be in the habit of shooting their wounded (as is the case sadly with many church communities). We need to love one another, encourage one another, and support one another.
Yes, we need to speak the truth, but we need to do so with love (Ephesians 4:15). And yes, we need to stand for truth, but we need to likewise stand for mercy (Proverbs 3:3). And when it comes to judgment, we need to let God be God. When people like Lisa come across our path, we speak the truth and call sin “sin” (as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery), but we also show compassion, forgiveness, and love (as the father of the prodigal son). Our role is to show the grace, patience, and mercy of God through the loving Gospel of Jesus Christ.
**Check out Authentic: Character Traits of a Genuine Christian by Brian Tubbs