June 8, 2009
Newberg Friends Church
What about others’ sin?
This is the question that got me started thinking about the topics of perfection and sin. I have been an elder at various times, and in “eldering” positions as an administrator, and the question is a living one for me.
First, to link back to David, we have in David a person whose heart is designated as perfect before God. I can learn from his life both what that means, and what that means with regard to my own sin.
We learn that a perfect heart does not mean never straying, never erring, never sinning; instead it includes the following characteristic attitudes and actions:
To meet those who confront us with our sin contritely rather than angrily
To prefer being in the hands of God to being in any other hands, including our own
To have a consistently humble heart toward God
To seek God’s will and do it
To believe in God’s mercy
To rely on God to perform what God has promised, rather than taking things into our own hands
To leave vengeance to God
To trust God when we’re in trouble
To be wholehearted in putting God first
What if someone sins against me?
The first helpful item in thinking about how to cope with another person’s sin, and sin against me specifically, is to leave vengeance to God. But Jesus goes beyond simply abandoning vengeance to actively doing good: Love your enemies, pray for those who are spiteful toward you and use you badly; bless those who are out to get you.
So, personally, in relation to others’ sin against me, the Bible is clear; in fact, Jesus requires me to forgive those who have sinned against me and makes that the basis for being forgiven for how I have sinned against God.
I’ve been thinking that if I understood sin correctly, I would be horrified at the plight of my enemy, rather than wanting him or her to be crushed—I would beg God to have mercy on my enemy.
Christians pretend no one is their personal enemy in order to avoid doing what the Gospels prescribe for enemies; particularly no other Christian can be an “enemy”; maybe we should be more honest.
How about sin in others that is not against me?
A perfect heart will not act out of personal vengeance or a personal agenda.
Jesus experienced this every day of his life—how did he respond? He confronted, forgave, set in a different direction—offered alternatives to guilt, shame and a return to sin.
St. Paul in Galatians 5 lists the fruits of the “flesh,” namely that part of the divided self that is not given over to God: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envyings, drunkenness, carousings; these things do not characterize those who are inheriting the kingdom of God; instead, these are characteristics of those wholeheartedly following God’s Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Galatians 6:1 then says, even if another person is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourself lest you also be tempted. The Greek word translated “restore” is also translated elsewhere as “perfect,” the verb; it also means “mend,” or “complete,” or “set in order.” It is used of the disciples mending nets—I think it’s helpful to see this as an analogy. The perfect net is one that catches fish.
St Paul goes on to say that our main business is to examine our own work and see how perfect we are, using that as grounds for confidence, not examining our work in comparison to another’s. We are also to bear one another’s burdens—this is the law of Christ. We need to be wholehearted in doing good, because God sees to it that a person reaps what she or he sows, and we need to prioritize doing good to others, particularly those in the faith.
Romans 13:8 Love one another; loving your neighbor fulfills (perfects) the law; love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore it is the perfection of the law.
And what about societal sin?
Prophetic speech—no personal gain—is exemplified in what Jesus said to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the money-changers in the temple. It is also in what he said to individuals for the crowd’s benefit, such as Zaccheus, the woman taken in adultery, and the rich young ruler. Other examples are Nathan to David; Jesus to Peter; Job praying for his friends.
Always note the note of pity in Jesus’s voice, pity that causes him to issue a warning to those headed in the wrong way.
This describes God’s perspective on a person who sins against another person: It would be better for him if he were drowned in the ocean with a heavy rock around his neck than that he causes one of these little ones to mistrust God—death is better for the perpetrator than making life hard for another person—This is an actual statement of fact, a description of the way things are, but this is not a prescription, not the same as saying “drown the perps.”
God’s pity, like the rain, falls on victim and oppressor; God knows how completely misuse of power can destroy a person.
The first sin recorded in Genesis sent people who knew God personally scurrying to hide in the bushes, ashamed of their vulnerability and humanness and error. However, as St. Paul writes, “As in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”; what characterizes Christ is complete openness to God. Like Jesus, we can run toward God instead of away.
What if instead, in response to our own sin, we run to God and say, “Against you and you only have I sinned; create in me a clean heart; renew a right spirit, don’t take away your holy spirit from me; what do you want me to do to make things right?
What if when we see another person sinning, we come alongside and say, “Does what you’re doing make you happy? Does it bring you closer to God? How can I help carry the burden you are carrying that causes you to behave in these ways that destroy you?”
What if when we see our society perpetrating evil, we fall on our knees and repent for our part in that evil? What if we pray for God’s mercy on the wicked as well as God’s advocacy for the innocent? What if we pray for God to meet the oppressor on the way to Damascus? What if we pray for God to protect the victim in the desert? What if we examine our hearts in terms not of our sin, but of our wholehearted will to do what God tells us, and the resulting action?
What if we look at others when they stray, err, trespass, sin, as nets that need mending rather than fuel for burning? What if we actually followed the example and words of Jesus with regard to ourselves and others? How would things be different?