Loving someone who is in sin is one of the hardest things we can do because it requires so much with no promise of any return. Not only do you have to love through difficult circumstances, you have to watch as someone you care about makes poor choices and potentially ruins their life. The balance between confronting the sin and loving the sinner is a delicate one.
We recently visited some old friends who recently divorced, and met their young son. He's very bright, and JT and he got along great, although he doesn't get along with his parents as well. In fact, he can be a bit of a monster. He hit them, insulted them, and told them they were worthless and that they never gave him anything. The longer we were there, the more we saw a possible cause. Our friends had no united front. They countermanded each other's decisions, and the more lenient parent usually won. And the kid knew it. The hurt of the divorce showed through their relationship, creating such an unstable environment that, I believe, the kid was uncertain and scared, which came out in outbursts of abusive anger toward his parents. These outbursts were often ignored and rarely dealt with appropriately. It was so bad that as we packed the car to leave, Dev decided to confront the problem and recommend they seek counseling.
Later, as Dev and I were describing what we'd seen and what Dev had said, he questioned whether he should have interfered. MeLissa was listening intently, perched on the edge of her seat. "If you hadn't," she said, "you would have been accountable before God." I'd never really thought about it that way. We saw a problem borne out of sin (the child's rebelliousness and the parents' passivity), and because we witnessed it, it became our responsibility to address it in a biblical manner. Not just for the well-being of the family, but because God put us in that position for a reason, and we had to do the hard work of confrontation.
My sister and her best friend have a policy: if one of them is doing something the other thinks is foolish, they are obligated to point it out once. If the fool continues, the friend has done her due diligence. I don't know if our friends will take Dev up on his suggestion, but I hope so.
The Bible is filled with instances of God confronting those He loves. In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus had to tell Peter to back down and stop trying to put his own agenda on Christ's kingdom. In Matthew 26:30-35, Jesus condemned Peter's bravado and reminded him of the cowardice underneath. Thankfully, Peter listened and slowly grew into the man Jesus intended. But the Northern Kingdom of Israel took the opposite route, eventually succumbing to God's discipline and basically disappearing from the face of the earth.
Over the last few years, Dev and I have been mentoring a — well, the curmudgienne in me wants to say "troubled young man." He is mentally ill, emotionally wounded, and spiritually abused, and is responding in lawful, but sinful and damaging ways. We've sifted through ancient wounds, troubled living conditions, and unhelpful health-care providers. We've struggled through conversations about God's love and grace and forgiveness. For a spell, we felt our job was simply to keep him alive long enough for the Holy Spirit to work. He understands that we don't approve of the path he's on but that we still love him and want to support him.
For the analytical side of me, it's been an interesting journey. He's very smart and analytical, despite having a mental illness that often amplifies his emotions to unreasonable heights, and I've occasionally provided a voice of logic in the storm of emotion. I've tried to remind him of the truth he knows. Some of it, he's misinterpreted. Some of it the world and his pain have twisted, perhaps making him think our concern for what he's doing is not as strong as it is. But we can't control influences — or how others interpret the messages the world inundates us with. And we can't control the path another takes. But as his decisions accumulate, I realize it's had the effect on me.
We don't just disapprove. We don't just sit in judgment and shake our heads. We mourn.
The emotional reaction seems to start with considering how it impacts me. Doesn't he see how his actions affect those around him?
Then it moves on to a type of judgment. His actions are biblically wrong and he knows it, so why won't he stop?
Mixed in there is a thread of understanding. Life happens, and a messed-up brain doesn't help.
Like the Prodigal Son's father, we don't love him only when he does the right thing, but when he's in the middle of continued sin. Real love doesn't stop when the object becomes unlovable. Showing love to someone in sin is hard, and, if you're doing it right, it will affect you. Jesus wasn't being coldly calculating and reasonable when He cried out, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34). He was mourning. Mourning is essential because, like Dean Revell says
, unfulfilled mourning can lead to depression. It affects us, physically and mentally, and by dealing with it, going to God with our pain, we not only help ourselves, we set an example of faith for the other person.
It's important to mourn the sin and the pain, but also the break in the relationship. One of the most poignant scenes in The Return of the King
, the third installment of The Lord of the Rings, is when Frodo lies deathlike after being stung by the giant spider Shelob. Sam leans over him and cries, "Don't leave me here alone! It's your Sam calling. Don't go where I can't follow! Wake up!"
For several years, Dev's co-worker has been angry. His sister started smoking medical marijuana for anxiety a couple of years ago. He felt she should at least go to counseling to address the core issues that caused the anxiety in the first place. His parents agreed, but they wanted their daughter to know they supported her, so they didn't push it. Her smoking increased to the point that she lost her job, and now our friend suspects she's moved on to harder drugs. Afraid of losing their daughter, his parents say nothing, but he can't stand by and watch. He feels the split between himself and his family keeps growing wider and wider.
He can't follow. He can't pretend that everything is fine. He's confronted and he's mourned, but he's reached his breaking-point. His interaction with his sister is no longer edifying to either of them, and he needs to step back before he causes more damage.
The Bible talks about grieving the Holy Spirit
, and God removing His hand of protection (Isaiah 8:6-10). Our friend feels the need to separate to protect his own heart, but also because he has nothing more to add. When someone's in trouble, God puts people into their lives to give them what they need. But those relationships are often only for a season and a purpose. It's not uncommon for someone in pain to watch a once-supportive friend walk away and feel abandoned. But often it's because that friend's job is done, and another counselor is on the horizon. Even parents may have to cut off contact for a while so another with a different voice can give the same message in new words. A voice with less history and baggage, maybe.
But even that new voice may only be there for a season.
The fallen world causes us to act in fallen ways that lead to pain and separation. This cycle of friendship-breaking sin isn't original — it's God's story with humanity. He lovingly confronts us, supports us, mourns us when we fail to repent, and finally leaves us to our own devices. We can't ask any more of ourselves.
If, by the grace of God, our beloved sinner repents and asks for forgiveness, the answer is easy. Forgive. Restore the relationship as far as it is up to us. Galatians 6:1 gives the hope that restoration can happen directly after the confrontation, and sometimes it does. But sometimes the prodigal friend needs time to discover how far into sin they've fallen before they ask for a hand up. Paul saw this in Corinth and urged the church there to restore the repentant brother to full fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). He understood that the point of confrontation, mourning, and abandonment was to thwart Satan's evil plan in the person's life, and nothing does that better than restoration. To reject restoration would be a cruelty God didn't intent.
I've been on the fringes of such stories — a pastor who, when confronted with his sin submitted to church discipline and won forgiveness from his wife; a young woman who was raised in a dangerous quiverfull cult and accepted her parents' sincere apologies. A friend whose brother left a life of drugs and returned to Christ. But, sadly, it's a rare thing. The rarity doesn't absolve us of loving sinners. It just means we'll have to lean on God's strength and guidance more.
Of course, none of this is really possible without God's strength and guidance. It's where the entire idea came from. He created love, and all true love comes from Him. We can't love properly without tapping into His love. And it helps to remember that He loves the sinner even more than we do. That's why He set the example on how to love them (1 John 4:7).