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!

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