I made a late-night Wal-Mart run recently, and, on my way to the register, I had the misfortune of passing by a woman dressed in an outfit that didn't leave a lot to the imagination, and that didn't flatter the woman in any way whatsoever.
She just looked awful, bless her heart.
(Having lived in Texas for 17 years, I've learned that you can say the most derogatory things about a person, but if you follow up your criticism with "bless his/her heart", it's no longer considered harsh, slanderous, malicious, or evil in any way. Once you "bless" someone's "heart", why, anything you say about that person is meant in good faith and should cause no offense to anyone.)
But, I digress.
I have to admit that somewhere inside, I cringed as I passed by this woman at Wal-Mart. Her appearance alone was not the best, and the outfit really made me wonder what on earth she was thinking.
But, as much as I cringed inside at the sight of this shopper, I had to cringe even more at what happened next.
At the very moment this woman passed me on the left and disappeared behind me, another shopper appeared on my right, a few yards ahead of me, coming out from a side aisle. This shopper was a young man, maybe 18 - 20 years old. He was with a small group of friends his age. It was obvious this young man had noticed the same woman, and his reaction was instant. With a contorted facial expression, he loudly blurted out, "Oh, my God, that's disGUSTing!" As he and his group walked away, this young man continued to groan loudly and comment to his friends as he looked back over his shoulder at the woman in the aisle.
I hoped that somehow, mercifully, the woman had not heard the young man's reaction to her appearance. But, that's not likely. Odds are, she heard it, and will carry it with her long after the young man has forgotten all about it.
As obviously inappropriate as the woman's clothing was, she didn't deserve that. Even without a spiritual perspective, it is easy to see how out of line the young man was in publicly mocking a complete stranger whose story he did not know.
I didn't know the woman's story, either, but I got to wondering.
Maybe she was extremely naive, innocently oblivious to her impropriety.
Maybe she was painfully aware of how she looked, but for whatever reason, wore the outfit anyway, despite the shame.
Maybe she was truly a rebel, daring the world to see if she gave a rip what anyone thought.
Maybe she was deluded enough to think she actually looked good.
Maybe she was a prostitute past her prime. (Yes, the outfit was really that bad...)
Who knows? I didn't. Neither did the young man who belittled her. If any of these possibilities were true, or if the truth were something else altogether, in which situation would this young man's reaction have been appropriate?
Obviously, none. There's no scenario in which this reaction would be godly. And, it's easy to see that in this case. But, what about cases in which it's not so easy to see? What about cases in which the offender is not a stranger? Or, when the offense is not as clearly defined? Or, perhaps, when the offense is much more serious and personal than a stranger's attire in a public place?
Do we as Christians know how God expects us to respond when our brothers and sisters make mistakes?
According to Galatians 6:1, "Brethren, if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted."
Think of all that has to come into play in order for the Christian to put into practice the teaching of this passage:
*Gentleness: the patience to be kind, even tender, toward a person whose conduct may have stepped on your
last nerve, or may have seriously offended or hurt you.
*Humility: the ability to see that the offender's mistake is not something to which you are magically immune.
*Restoration: the commitment to rebuild something when you might just as soon burn it to the ground.
*Maturity: this admonition is given to "you who are spiritual"; if you can't deal with this command and put it into
practice, you're not spiritual; you're worldly, still a child.
Compare these qualities, and the response God wants, to the response the young man in Wal-Mart gave to the woman dressed inappropriately in public. Instead of being marked by gentleness, it was very harsh. Instead of coming from a humble heart, the young man's comment came from pride, not considering his own weaknesses, which were just as evident as the woman's were. Instead of showing a desire to rebuild or restore, the young man's comment was destructive and served no positive purpose at all. Instead of being guided by a mature spirit, the young man showed tremendous immaturity in his careless and hurtful response.
But, it's easy to tear down this young man; in fact, just as easy as it was for him to tear down the woman as he did.
What matters is what can be learned from the moment. The challenge lies in the conduct of the Christian toward others when they fall short. The truth lies in the realization that Christians, who profess to be spiritual, may actually be no different from the young man in Wal-Mart.
How often have you seen Christians react to the mistakes and sins of others? How many times have you been the one reacting? And, how many times have you been the one who made the mistake others reacted to?
Do we consistently follow Paul's admonition to restore such a one with a spirit of gentleness? Do we remember that we should also consider ourselves, and how easily tempted we are, when restoring someone who has sinned?
Or, have there been occasions when the response has been harsh, prideful, destructive, and immature? Are there believers in this world, separated from the church for no other reason than the wounds they received at the hands of Christians responding to their mistakes? We need not even ponder the whole world for this question to be relevant. Are there such believers in your own community? Perhaps even from your own congregation?
Of course, every soul is accountable to God, and no one, not even the most unfairly wounded soul, should allow the insensitivity of others to keep him or her away from Christ. They shouldn't. But, we know it happens. May we never be the unwitting instrument of another soul's departure from fellowship with the body of Christ.
There is, however, another extreme to avoid.
If we are to follow the model of Galatians 6:1, and restore a sinning soul with a spirit of gentleness, it is clearly implied that we must also avoid the alternative of not dealing with sin when it occurs. An easy short-term way of avoiding offense is to avoid the confrontation or intervention altogether. "A brother in sin? Leave him alone! We're sure not to offend him that way." May it never be.
In fact, the same Paul who wrote Galatians 6:1 also upbraided the church in Corinth (I Corinthians 5) for tolerating immorality among their members, and even went so far as to say that they should cut themselves off from a so-called believer who would not give up an immoral way of life. He warned them about the nature of leaven, and how dangerous it would be for them to allow the presence of unrepentant sin in their fellowship.
So, clearly, the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy is not the model for how the church should deal with sin. When we know of sin in the life of a brother or sister, just letting the matter go in order to keep the peace is not an option.
It comes down to a conversation, a prayerful response.
When a brother or sister is found to be in sin, loving brothers and sisters must intervene to help the struggling soul get things right again. All the while, the ones intervening must be gentle, humble, and mature if they are to have a chance at rebuilding.
And, they are not the only ones bearing responsibility for the outcome of this conversation.
The sinning Christian must also be responsible for how he or she reacts to the reaction of his concerned spiritual family. It's always a possibility, and ever more likely in today's culture, that he or she will react with indignation: "How dare you judge me?" "What right do you have to tell me......." "I don't have to put up with this..." It's always possible he or she will leave the fellowship in anger, even if the attempted intervention was as loving and kind as possible. In that case, to use current lingo, "It's on him." He has revealed who really owns his heart.
But, even with this possibility, the conversation must happen.
Christians must never assume that a soul struggling with sin is doing so pridefully, stubbornly, or even with full awareness of the danger. The heart beneath the behavior may be ready to repent, just waiting for the right opportunity to do so.
May our response to a sinning soul never be, "Oh my God! That's disGUSTing!"
Instead, let us respond, "Dear God, please use me to help. And, help me not to fall myself."