True Compassion for the Sinner

Yesterday, I (Mom’s youngest son, Jake) wrote about how it is necessary to avoid normalizing sin as parents (or, really, as human beings). Today, I want to talk about another aspect of that process: how can we sympathize with someone without allowing what we say to easily be construed as an excuse for sin on their part? For the sake of time, I’m not going to reiterate what I mean by normalizing sin during this post. If you’re so inclined, and you want to read the thoughts of a presumptious 23-year-old, you can read what I mean in Part I (scroll down to yesterday’s post).

As Christians, we are called to be caring and loving.  We are called to sit with the sufferer (hi Dr. Masri!). 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man.” The scope of that verse is above my pay-grade, but I think it’s undeniably applicable in all of the situations that we’ll face when discussing our sins or the sin of others that we know. There probably won’t be any situation we encounter where we will be unable to look back on our lives and think, “I’ve been there” and probably “I’ve given into that temptation.” So what do we do with it?

My opinion (for what it’s worth) is that the key is found in Hebrews 4:12-15.  “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart….For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  From this passage, I think we can find three things we can do when discussing sin with our kids, or friends, or anyone. None of it is groundbreaking (I’m not a preacher or a theologian, after all), but it’s in the context of those three responses that the importance and practicality of sympathizing with the sinner becomes clear.

Point them to Scripture

No amount of empathizing with their sin or normalizing it in a effort to help someone avoid feeling condemned (“I’ve been there too, we all mess up”) is going to be as effective, as useful or as soothing as the Word of God. It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” As good and as awesome as our experiences have been and as helpful as our testimonies can be, the most important thing we can do is point them to Scripture. By pointing them to Scripture, we are pointing them to Jesus, and the experience and words of Jesus are infinitely more important than any experience or words we may have. The fact that “Mom and Dad sin, too” is not the reason your kids aren’t condemned; Jesus is the reason your kids aren’t condemned.

 Remind them that Jesus sympathizes with their weakness

One thing I think is easy to forget is the best example we have of someone who is loving, caring, understanding and sympathetic (all the things we are trying to be) is Jesus, and yet Jesus never sinned. It is clearly possible, then, to express understanding and love without communicating your personal identification with that sin.  We can sympathize with the weakness of our flesh, as sinners, without normalizing the specific sin. What Hebrews says is that our Great High Priest can sympathize with our weaknesses because He has been tempted in the same way as us.

This seems important; past sin is not a prerequisite for sympathizing with someone’s weaknesses. You don’t need to be a drug addict to sympathize with a drug addict. More importantly, a drug addict can receive sympathy, understanding and care from someone who is not a drug addict. And kids can receive sympathy, understanding and care from Jesus, who did not sin like them. It seems, then, that they will be able to receive sympathy, understanding and care without accompanying language that can be construed as normalizing their sin.

Remind them there is grace and mercy in time of need

This, of course, is the fun part. After pointing a sinner (that means all of us) to Scripture and sympathizing with temptations, we get to remind kids/friends/even ourselves that mercies are new every morning. As my young friend, 11-year-old Katelyn Jones recently wrote, He is “our Lord, our God/Our strength and refuge/Through life, through death/Through every kind of storm.” No matter our weakness, no matter our sin, no matter the storm, He is there, He is good and He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin.

That, I think, is how we sympathize with someone without normalizing the sin. We sympathize with them only in the context of pointing them to where their help really lies (the Word of God) and what their present and future state is (a forgiven child of God). Their help doesn’t rest in the fact that they share a sinful experience with you; it rests in Jesus.  Their forgiveness is not assured because you have been forgiven of the same thing; their forgiveness is assured because of the One who extends the forgiveness.

I think the danger of normalization comes when we spend more time or place more emphasis on our ability to identify with them. “I have been there too.  Everyone has.  There is no condemnation for those in Christ.” That’s true, but why is that true? And what does it mean? It’s true because of what Jesus did for us and what Scripture says, and it means that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence.

As a culture, I think, with good and understandable motives, we have slipped in a mode of thinking that self-consciously expressing compassion means doing whatever is necessary to make it clear that we don’t think we are better than the one confronted with their our sin.  However important that may be, it is much more compassionate to point them to the Word of God, point them to Jesus, and point them to the throne of grace.  Anytime we stress our shared experience, I think we risk normalizing the sin, which is as selfish as it is counterproductive.

As dc talk said, we all wanna be loved, and none of this is to say we shouldn’t be loving, empathic and understanding.  But if someone falls down, while it might be empathetic and loving to explain that you’ve fallen down before too, the real goal is to help them back up.

Empathy or Excuse: The Normalization of Sin

ImageIf you’re one of my regular readers you know I took a summer break from blogging. My son, Jake (pictured here with his fiance, Sarah) is currently doing an internship out-of-state before starting his second year of law school. It seems he’s been having a lot of time to think while he’s off by himself and he asked if he could share some of his own musings. Honestly, he’s actually got me thinking. I thought maybe you’d like to join me.   

I’m writing today because Mom has selfishly (my quip, not hers) decided to deprive us of her writing and encouragement this summer, and I want to whet the appetite of those of you who still remember her blog and are anticipating this fall, when she’ll like Jordan, come back wearing the four five.  (When Mom read that sentence she reminded me that most of her readers are people like her who will have no idea that I just referenced a Jay-Z song.)

As an almost 24-year-old guy with no kids I don’t have much to say about parenting.  I am writing about something that I’ve been thinking about recently, which can perhaps be extrapolated in some ways into parenting. The issue I’ve been thinking about is the normalization of sin, or at least one aspect of it that I think, as Christians, we can sometimes unhelpfully perpetuate.  An example of what I mean is when we attempt to comfort a fellow believer with encouragement that goes something like: “Hey, I totally get it, man.  I struggle with that, too. EVERYONE struggles with that. You’re not alone.” 

The motivation behind something similar to that encouragement, of course, is usually good. “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Usually, in my experience at least, that verse or a similar one is brought up in that context.  “You’re not alone. You’re not the only one. Don’t feel condemned.  There is no condemnation for those in Christ.”  And of course that’s true. Oftentimes, such an encouragement is a necessary, sympathetic, empathetic, God-glorifying balm on the wounds of a discouraged traveler. But sometimes I think it can be unhelpful.

For instance, when I was 18 I went through a stage of underage drinking. Dad, should he have been so inclined, could have empathized with me by saying something similar to the statements I listed before.  “I’ve been there before, son. No condemnation etc. etc.” But in my immature, self-excusatory stage (I say that as if it’s a stage I’ve completely overcome) I could easily have turned that encouragement into an excuse. “Oh yeah, I remember those days, son.  Man oh man, underage drinking, isn’t it fun? Hoho those were the days.  I mean, you shouldn’t drink underage <wink wink>.”  That wouldn’t have been his heart and it wouldn’t have been what he said.  But it very easily could have been what I heard. Instead, over the course of several conversations he pointed me to Scriptures that clearly delineated the seriousness of drunkenness. He allowed me to see the consequences that drunkeness had on saints in the Old Testament. He didn’t berate me or pretend he was the perfect parent and I was the drunken punk, but he also didn’t pretend he was the cool parent and I was the normal kid. It’s important to remember that stating the seriousness of the sin doesn’t mean you are yourself “making someone feel bad.” 

See, I think that when confronted with our sin our hearts usually go down one of two paths; the path of geniune contriteness or the path of excuse-making. Dad didn’t have to tell me, “You could have killed someone driving home, or gotten arrested!” He didn’t have to overreact and tell me about all the alcoholics in my family.  All he had to do (and he did) was skillfully help me to avoid the path of excuse-making.  Once my heart started going down the path of geniune contriteness, I didn’t need anyone lecturing me about DUI’s, the danger I was to others, or alcoholism; I thought of those things myself.   Dad could simply pivot to reminding me of the Gospel, truths that were beautiful in light of the seriousness of my sin.

The problem is that sometimes sin is serious, and it is always grievous.  There are many cases in the Bible where men tore clothes and poured ashes when confronted with the reality of their sins against God (I am not advocating that).  I believe it is perfectly consistent to feel the weight of your sin while being aware of the fact that there is no condemnation for that same sin. As a matter of fact, I think that heavier the weight of the sin, the more amazing and liberating it can be to be aware of the fact that Jesus bore the condemnation of sin so we don’t have to. In the greatest and best show of all time in my opinion, Friday Night Lights, Lyla Garrity’s mother comforted her once by saying that “God allows sin that we might know his mercy.”  I’m not sure of the theological specificity of that statement, but the heart of it is significant.  I don’t know that too many of us understand grace as well as the thief on the cross did.

I think there are times where it is appropriate and good to empathize with someone who has failed; it is an important part of sitting with the sufferer. I have done that many times myself.  My parents have done that at times and it has often been helpful. I often try to do that with my friends. But I also think we need to be careful not to allow our empathy to be easily construed as saying, “This is no big deal.  Don’t worry about it. Yeah you sinned, but…” I  think there are times when kids (and everyone else, including me) need to have someone avoid empathizing or identifying with their sin, but instead say something to the degree of, “This is serious and it is wrong. There is no excuse for it. This sin has grieved God and is against Him alone.” The inexhaustible mercy of God can be expressed as clearly in those terms as in the “I’ve been there, too” terms. 

I don’t know what specific situations call for which response.  But I do know that the beauty of forgiveness is that it covers the murderer and the selfish sibling, the abuser and the arrogant.  Identifying with a child’s sin is not a prerequisite to expressing biblical truths related to God’s response to sin.  

The normalcy of the sin has no effect on the extension of heaven’s mercy. 

Sheree’s note: Jake will be blogging again tomorrow with some more thoughts on this topic. We welcome your thoughts and comments.  Please pass them along!