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.


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