So what is the sign of repentance anyway? How do we truly know when someone is face down on their penitent face and when they are simply posing for the cameras? And my God, what gives us the right to be concerned with this matter in the first place? Let me first state that in attempting to scratch the surface of this one, the finger that so often comes dangerously close to pointing at God’s vengeance and eternal damnation is pointing right back at myself, because I am the worst of sinners when it comes to judging (and so many other areas). So here goes nothing. Where do we draw the lines between “gently” rebuking our brothers and sisters, harshly judging them under the guise of saving their mortal souls, and biting our tongues when we believe they are “backsliding”? And when they profess to be “giving it to God,” what then?
Let me lay a foundation and define judgment as I see it and then I’ll get into our obsessive flirtation with it. What is it? Judgment is not characterized by speech alone, but can come in the form of a disdainful look, a sigh of disappointment, or even the distancing of oneself from a long-time friend for fear of becoming “guilty by association.” And now, where does it come from? In all honesty, I am more apt to believe our judgment of others is better explained as a deflection of our own guilt about the sins in our lives than as a genuine concern for their salvation. Either way, I think too many of us are confused about how we approach judgment in the Christian community. As far as non-believers are concerned, we may as well be charging admission when we point our disapproving fingers, roll our disbelieving eyes, and dispel our urgent calls to repentance because these tactics we’ve come to know and love are nothing short of entertaining to non-believers. Seriously, I pray for the whole world to know Christ, but you and I both know that isn’t going to happen, so let’s concentrate on the smaller picture for now.
I guess the real problem then is Christians…not the ones who have mastered the art of empathy and surmounted the challenge of coupling compassion with admonition (hats off to all 3 of you!), but those who have intentionally (God forbid) or unintentionally tarnished the crown of mercy and singed the garland of grace. In a perfect world, all Christians would be skilled at gentle rebuke. If we were truly learning from the master, rebuke would play out as it does in Mark 16:14, “…Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.” Jesus rebukes the disciples in this passage not for their wicked ways per se, but for their lack of faith in Him. So when one of our brothers or sisters is sinning, is it their actual sin that bothers us or is it their lack of faith? If there is ever an instance in which I feel it is appropriate to correct one of my friends, it should be when he/she is not trusting in God’s power to heal and forgive, not solely because I disapprove of his/her choices. And even then, my approach should be such that the playing field is level. We are both sinners; both in need of God’s love and mercy; and both under the blanket of grace, rather than the weight of condemnation. Ah yes, in a perfect world…
But here’s another one for you to chew on. Not only have we eclipsed gentle rebuke with biting judgment, but we’ve actually taken it one step farther. One of the biggest problems it seems is that many Christians have not learned to distinguish where rebuke ends and forgiveness begins. Daily we walk the line between responsibility as a Christian and responsibility as a friend. What is truly disheartening is that we have somewhere along the line divorced the two and come to the conclusion that we cannot play both roles at the same time. In our rush to ensure that God’s precious flock does not wander from the field, we have unknowingly pushed a few sheep off the proverbial walk of faith and down a cliff of despair and guilt.
Let me be very clear. I am extremely apprehensive to express any sort of disapproval of one’s actions to begin with (though I do it quite often), but I am only human. So, when I have truly invested in one of my friends, given myself some sort of a platform from which to speak, and genuinely feel that out of concern alone I cannot shut my mouth any longer, I have been known to share my feelings about the choices he/she is making. And then, when I have spoken my peace, I do my best to let it go! But is this what the Bible calls us to do or are we called to a much greater duty? You ready? I really don’t have an answer for you on this one, but I do know one thing – there is a very finite line that has been drawn in the sand for us to take note of and it addresses the following question. When do we expel the immoral brother (which is most often, ourselves) and when do we lovingly embrace him? I got three words for you…RE-PENT-ANCE! The moment a sinner cries out to God for forgiveness, our rebuke falls to the wayside and God’s mercy takes over. But as one writer points out, “The trouble with most Christians today is that they would rather be on the judgment seat than on the witness stand.” Don’t we love it when someone else’s sin is more visible than ours? We get to feel better about our own iniquities or at least about our ability to camouflage them. And God forbid someone should actually acknowledge their sins and cry out to God for help. Then we get to judge their sincerity and the motives of their heart. Listen to what God’s divinely inspired have to say about that. 1 Corinthians 4:3-5”I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” If that isn’t enough to squash the pride in you, consider this. The appearance of our righteousness in the church often leads to the disappearance of God’s righteousness and who wants to answer for that one on judgment day?
So let me explain it in one more way. Eric Sandras says in Buck Naked Faith, “It is the pursuit of the kind of the relationship with the Father that Jesus had, and not the expectation of attainment in this lifetime, that we’ve needed all along.” I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. We get so caught up in trying to be Jesus that we often fail to be WITH Jesus. God desires us to pursue a relationship with Him, to seek Him and long for His friendship. To strive for the very same intimate bond that He had with Jesus. But He’s also made it perfectly clear that while we are on Earth, in our sinful bodies, we will never have that perfect relationship. So maybe we should focus on a more feasible goal. We should be encouraging each other to pursue a relationship with God through confession, trust, and ever-increasing need for His grace, not holding each other to the impossible standard of filling His shoes. So when you get the urge to pick up your gavel, don your black robe, and shout, “Guilty!” try to remember that you’re the one on trial and throw yourself on the mercy of the court.
God, we throw ourselves on the mercy of your court. Please silence the voices of our accusers and when we look to you, let them look away. If we do allow their misplaced anger and hurt to sting our souls, gently reminder us that as long as we trust in you, you will never abandon us. And if we ask ourselves – what does it look like to trust God? May we always hear the answer – it looks like a cross set upon a hill, stained red as a reminder that we are loved.