It’s safe to say no one likes to deal with sin in his own life. We all know what it’s like to feel guilty. Sometimes we try to hide what we’ve done from others and, in fits of denial, from ourselves. Other times, we may excuse or defend the offense: In fact, the guiltier we feel, the more fervently we may defend it.
But as a recent letter reminded me, we often have another problem in dealing with sin, and we may have a harder time recognizing this one: Our reluctance to see and confront sin in our loved one’s lives.
The letter came in response to my last column, which looked at the reasons abortion-rights supporters were horrified by the prospect that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. The bottom-line reason, I argued: Many (men and women alike) have been involved in abortions themselves, and only by declaring abortion an unassailable “right” — sanctified by the U.S. Constitution and the civil religion of “choice”— can they attempt (however inadequately) to refute the accusations of other people and, ultimately, of their own conscience.
My correspondent (Ron) wasn’t offended by my analysis: He was pro-life himself. But Ron had a different problem: He hates to play the role of the accuser. “I don’t want to call my friends criminals and murderers,” he said. “How do I talk to my friends about it? I do not want to be judgmental.”
Ron wasn’t really asking a question. Judging by the bulk of his letter, he was a mature Christian, and he knew the mature Christian answers: Love the sinner and hate the sin, speak the truth in love. Ron didn’t need a tutor so much as he needed a sounding board and a friend. He was wrestling with putting the answers into practice — “seeking help in sorting this out,” he said — and he just wanted to talk to someone who’d understand how hard it was.
Ron, I think, has a pretty good handle on the situation. But a lot of us don’t when we’re dealing with family and friends. And not just in cases involving abortion: We’re often loath to confront any number of sins in their lives.
The chief reason is that we’re afraid to damage our relationships. Imagine your sister is living with her boyfriend. (For many of you, that doesn’t take any imagination.) You’re not happy about it; you may even be heartbroken about it. But you don’t want tension with her, and you really don’t want to take such a strong stand that you strain the relationship to the breaking point.
In a situation like this, you know the stand you should take. But, again, it’s hard — and you’re scared of what could happen if you push it too far. So you don’t say much. Or you say something, but you water it down. (You don’t tell her she’s doing something wrong; you ask questions that won’t threaten her autonomy, like “Are you sure you want this?”) Or you say nothing at all.
We’re also reluctant to take a strong stand for another reason: We want to think the best of the people we love.
Say your brother announces that he’s gay. You’ve always thought homosexuality was wrong, but it’s always been an abstract issue for you in practice; it’s never had much to do with your life. Your brother, on the other hand, is a huge part of your life. You love him dearly and you can’t bring yourself to think what he’s doing is actually wicked, especially when he’s not trying to be malicious — or as the culture around you would put it, “he’s not hurting anybody.” (The culture has a very narrow concept of harm.)
In this case, you may face a temptation beyond the desire not to make waves. You may find yourself trying to define homosexuality as good (or at least not all that bad) precisely because it’s your loved one who’s involved, and he insists he’s “happy” in his lifestyle. Instead of loving the sinner and hating the sin, you’re tempted to love the sin because you love the sinner.
It should be pretty clear what’s wrong with these approaches. But it’s no mystery why they can ensnare us anyway. They can be so emotionally charged that we just don’t think straight. And some cases are even more so. Parents whose son “comes out” — telling them, in the process, how he’s suffered over his secret and dreaded their reaction — are apt to feel heartsick, protective and guilty — either that they’ve caused him pain with their attitudes or that they caused his homosexuality itself. Then, to top it off, he tells them, “This is who I am and you have to accept it. If you reject it, you reject me.” This amounts to emotional blackmail, whether or not it was intended to be, and it’s liable to work. Again, we can see why: It would take a heart of stone not to sympathize with a parent’s longing to make peace with a child at all costs.
And yet, that’s the point: Some costs are too high — and no cost is higher than a soul. Which brings me to my experience with Becky, more than a decade ago.
Becky (not her real name) was a single mom of a toddler and a professing Christian: She had, I thought, repudiated the lifestyle that led her to become a single mom in the first place. But some months after I met her, she moved in with a guy, and months later they became engaged. I’d moved to another town, but the next time I saw her I tried to convince her to move out, to live apart and chastely before they got married. She didn’t — in part, I think, because she had it in her head that living together was all right if it led to marriage and a stepfather for her son. Ultimately they did marry, and I’m pretty sure she considered that result to be validation for her choice.
After some more months passed, though, Becky wrote me and asked why a distance had grown between us. So I wrote back and told her. I said I knew why she did what she’d done, and how I believed she’d made it OK in her own mind. “But if I am to speak to you in truthfulness and love,” I told her, “I can only tell you: It wasn’t OK.” I went on:
Whatever the world today may try to say, God is very clear on this: A sexual relationship is meant as the blessing of a lasting commitment — marriage — between a man and a woman. To take it out of the marital context is to demean it, and you; to make it, and yourselves, so much less than you were meant to be. It hurt both of you; it hurt those of us who care about you; and most of all, it hurt the Father who loves you and wants so much more of you.
I stressed to Becky that I wasn’t saying this to hurt her, but to help her. I talked about why, even though she’d since married, it wasn’t enough to say “that’s in the past, and it all worked out in the end;” why it was still vital for both her and her husband to repent, for their own spiritual well-being and for a truly God-pleasing marriage, as opposed to the worldly idea of simply “making it legal.” (I neglected to say something I should have added: That if they hoped to raise her son to be chaste, the example they’d set flew in the face of that teaching.)
And I talked about how I wished I didn’t have to write this letter at all — how tempted I was to delete the whole thing (which I’d been struggling with writing for the past five hours) and simply promise to write more often, as if nothing was really wrong. “But that,” I was compelled to admit, “would be self-indulgent on my part, placing my short-term comfort, and yours, ahead of your spiritual welfare. If I didn’t care about you, that’s what I’d do, Because I do care, I can’t.”
Then I explained why, in an analogy I’ve since thought of many times when placed in similar situations:
Think of it this way: A doctor examines a patient and discovers she has a serious, even terminal, illness. The illness can be treated, and a full and happy life can be the result. But the treatment is difficult, and telling the patient about the illness would be emotionally traumatic to her. What would we think of a doctor who said, “I’m not going to tell her; I’ll let her live in blissful ignorance until it’s too late?” Would we say that doctor was being caring and compassionate? Or would we say he was guilty of flagrant malpractice?
Well, then, what about our spiritual health? Is that somehow less important (or less “real”) than our physical health, or is it (because it involves eternal life) far more important? Do we believe that any human doctor’s diagnosis of our physical state is more certain than Scripture’s diagnosis of our spiritual state? Do we believe the Bible is the Word of God, or don’t we? If we do, we have no choice but to give His diagnosis of our condition and His prescription for our treatment, however unwelcome it might be to face up to.
Becky never spoke to me again. I’ve always regretted that. But I’ve never regretted what I did. I can’t be responsible for whether she took the message to heart. I can only be responsible for trying.
I only regret the times I should have tried with other people, but didn’t. Sometimes I’ve had reason to hesitate: In deciding how to proceed, I had to think about things like how well I knew someone, what’s the right time and way to talk to them, and whether they profess to be a Christian (which makes a big difference in the kind of conversation we’d have). But in stopping to think about these things, I’ve sometimes awakened months or years later to realize that, instead of finding the right way to say something, I’ve said nothing at all. Other times, if truth be told, I’ve just let my own fears lead me to procrastinate.
But this I know: If you love someone, you must seek the welfare of their soul above any risks to your relationship with them.
And you can’t reach that goal by evasive maneuvers. You can only get there by going straight to the heart.
Copyright 2005 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.