A Master at Identifying Sin

I am a master at identifying sin. I might be tempted to brag about that fact, except for this: While I’m a master at identifying the sin in other people, I’m a mere novice at identifying the sin in myself. And I don’t think I’m the only one. There seems to be something deeply embedded in sinful humanity that gives us the ability to spot the sin in others but to ignore it in ourselves. We can provide a thorough accounting of someone else’s flaws, but often only a cursory account of our own.

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I recently found myself pondering logs and specks—the funny little parable Jesus uses to make a dead serious point about that very disparity. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?”

While some of Jesus’s parables require historical context if we are to picture them properly, this one’s simple enough. You’ve been outside with a friend doing a little home improvement project. Suddenly there is a major collapse and when the dust settles you see your friend holding his eye and you hear him saying he’s got a bit of sawdust in there. You rush over to see if you can help. But as you approach, he backs away and tells you that you need to get some help of your own. What he knows (and you’re ignoring) is that amid all the fuss you got something in your eye too. But it’s not a little speck of sawdust. It’s a log. It’s a plank. Actually, the word Jesus uses here describes the roof beam, the single biggest piece of wood in the whole house. So while you’re trying to get a microscopic speck out of your friend’s eye, you’ve got a 30-foot beam jutting out of your own. It’s an illustration that is deliberately hyperbolic, deliberately absurd.

And here’s what Jesus says about it: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” That’s obvious. You can’t do microsurgery on someone else’s eye when you’ve had major trauma to your own. You need to deal with your own major mess before you can deal with someone else’s minor mess. But what stands out to me as especially significant is that Jesus describes this as hypocrisy. That’s interesting to me because hypocrisy is a moral word, which means you haven’t just made a mistake, you’ve committed a sin.

Hypocrisy is when you have a high standard for everyone else but a low standard for yourself. Hypocrisy is when a politician says, “everyone needs to wear a mask,” but when she is spotted in public, sure enough, her face is bare. Hypocrisy is when a prosperity preacher tells people to give generously so he can spend lavishly. And, in the context of what Jesus is saying here, hypocrisy is when you care more for other people’s sin than for your own. It’s when your foremost concern is not your own flaws, but the flaws of other Christians.

Here’s the thing. Jesus is not making the point that there’s never a time to go to another Christian and to help him see his sin. We actually need other people to help us in that task. Most of us can think of times that our eyes were opened to some sinful habit or pattern only after someone took the time to point it out to us. But it’s a matter of putting first things first. Maybe it’s helpful to think about it in this way.

It’s miserable to have a speck in your eye. When you have even the smallest particle of sawdust in your eye you’re desperate for someone to help you get it out. But if you go to the doctor and find she has a roof beam sticking out of her face, you’ll probably find another doctor. Why? Because the beam in her eye doesn’t just make her unqualified, but actually incapable. She doesn’t have the vision. She will mess it up and make it worse.

And just like it’s miserable to have a speck in your eye, it’s miserable to have a sin in your life. And just like you want someone to help you find the speck, you want someone to help you identify the sin. But that person needs to be qualified, and the qualification is that she herself has put sin to death, that she herself has pulled that metaphorical plank out of her eye. It’s when she has done that that she’s qualified and capable.

It may be your responsibility to help another Christian spot a sin and repent of it. But your first priority must be dealing with your own sin. Your first priority must be demanding holiness of yourself, not of everyone else. Your first priority must be to admit that you’ve got some planks in your eye and to be far more concerned with getting them out than going after the specks in someone else’s. Because if you try to help a friend while that sin is still firmly embedded in your life, you’ll be unqualified and incapable; you’ll make it worse.

You’ve probably heard the famous quote from Robert Murray M’Cheyne who said: “For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ.” What he meant to point out is that the way to grow in godliness is not to fixate on your own sin, but on Christ’s glory, Christ’s beauty, Christ’s holiness. This is good and wise counsel. And maybe in light of Jesus’s parable we can add to it something to this: “For every look at someone else, take ten looks at yourself.“ This will align your priorities. For every one look at someone else’s sin you’ll be taking ten looks at your own and 100 at Christ’s glory. The point, of course, is not to follow mathematical formulas but to admit spiritual weakness and establish godly priorities. It’s to admit that while you can be tremendously helpful in the lives of others, you can also be recklessly harmful. It’s to establish that your first priority is not to dig out their specks, but to haul out your logs.