One of the most difficult things to do is to lovingly confront another person about sin, or—even harder—about what may have been sin. In his excellent book Side by Side, Ed Welch offers some practical counsel on doing this well.
The hardest sins to talk about are those we see someone commit, but we receive no invitation to speak. Here, we must decide if the sin is to be called out or covered.
Don’t Be Silent Out of Fear
Most people who have witnessed sin or are even suspicious of it in another don’t regret raising such important matters when they are raised well, but they do regret having been silent.
A church was left dazed when both a men’s leader and a women’s leader left their spouses, wrote a good-bye note to their families, and disappeared together. As a plan for pastoral care gradually developed, over a dozen people in the church said “I should have said something.” They had observed the way the two leaders had interacted and spoken about each other, and they regretted their silence.
When sin becomes public, especially when it is sin that damages relationships or incurs legal problems, so many think, “I should have said something.” Yet we are slow to remember those mental notes. Our fear of people’s angry reactions, the myth that help is needed only when asked for, and our sense that we have no right to say anything because we ourselves are quite a mess—these contribute to safe relationships rather than loving ones.
Don’t Be Silent Out of Anger
If the sin has been against us, our anger is an even bigger problem than fear. The Old Testament puts it this way: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17). When angry, we might be excellent at talking to others about someone’s sin, but wretched at talking to the actual sinner. Meanwhile, just a smidgeon of humility would remind us that we are rivaling the very sin we oppose as we stand in prideful judgment. If we are stuck in anger, we are the needy ones, and we ask for help.
If we have any questions about how to proceed, we ask for help. We are part of a larger body, not private therapists, and we will often ask the larger body to help us to help others. And even when we ask for help, we proceed carefully. Confidences are important to us, and we want to speak well of people, so we might ask anonymously.
“I think I should speak to someone about something I witnessed. Could you help me know what to say and even whether I should say it?”
Just the Facts
Our task is to hold up a mirror so that others see themselves more than they see us. We tell what we have actually seen; we avoid interpretations and usually stay away from speaking of how the actions might have hurt or disappointed us—that can wait for another time.
”The other day I saw you walking down the street with Rich [not her husband]. Is everything okay? Should I be concerned?
”At the church meeting, you seemed pretty angry. I noticed that everyone went silent after you spoke, as if they were afraid to say anything. Could we talk about that?”
”You seemed on edge this morning. When I asked about your upcoming day, you said my question was stupid. Is something wrong?”
I was thinking about our conversation the other day. When you talked about Jackie, you seemed to be holding some things against her. Could we talk about that?”
”When we were talking about your marriage, everything was about her—it was all her fault—and nothing was your own. I know things are complicated, but isn’t our goal to be seeing our own faults long before we see our spouse’s?
Yes, any of those comments would be difficult for most of us. But we are compelled by love. How would we want to be approached by someone who is aware of our public sin?
Be Prepared for Possible Negative Reactions
It doesn’t always go well. The one we approach might get mad at us, which means we have probably identified something important. Anger is usually a self-indictment. Or the person becomes upset because we have been clumsy, self-righteous, or judgmental, in which case we are saddened, ask forgiveness, and grow in wisdom.
And what if the other person does not accept our words and refuses to hear? Perhaps we wait, perhaps we persist because the matter is so important, perhaps we get advice from a wise friend, or perhaps we enlist someone else who has witnessed the sinful behavior and go together (Matt. 18:15-16). Love is what orients us. Fear or anger will blind us, but love and the best interests of others are our guide.
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