“Jane” had just learned that her niece, “Leslie”, had begun living with her long-time boyfriend. Leslie, knowing her Aunt Janie would take offense to her decision, had debated long and hard about whether or not she should tell her about the decision they had made. Ultimately, Leslie decided honesty was the most important component of any relationship and thought it would be better to disappoint her Aunt now rather than have her find out from someone else later.
Jane dwelled on the new living arrangements and fretted over them. After the couple had been together nearly two months Jane picked up the phone and called Leslie.
“I have something really important I need to talk to you about,” Jane began, “And I just can’t ignore it anymore. I’m really worried about you. I’m really worried about what you’re doing with your life. We need to talk.”
Leslie knew this moment was coming and was a little bothered by the dramatic way Jane had chosen to broach the subject and the fact that Jane was turning this conversation into an ordeal. They were to meet for dinner later in the week, giving Leslie several days to anticipate and dread the coming conversation.
When the day finally arrived, Jane had arrived at the restaurant early, was holding a table for them in a prominent spot, and had her worn and well-used Bible laying on the table, ready as a handy and quick reference.
Leslie took her seat and braced herself.
For the next forty-five minutes Leslie listened as Jane quoted scripture, called her a sinner, warned her about fornication, condemned sexual immorality, and level cruel clichés like, “he’ll never buy the cow when you’re giving him the milk for free.”
Leslie listened patiently. Then she offered her defense: The world had changed and relationships weren’t forged today the way they were in the past. She loved her boyfriend and full intended to marry him and if you wanted to get down to it, you could say they were betrothed–it wasn’t like she was sleeping around her giving herself to every man she met. Also… and this was the point she knew Jane would detest most of all… Leslie was not a Christian. She didn’t share her aunt’s religious beliefs and therefore did not look at sex and marriage in the same way as Jane.
Jane couldn’t swallow that pill. In many ways she was married to her ideology and had little tolerance for anyone who didn’t share her views. She supported laws that would mandate conservative Christian morality on people who didn’t willingly submit to it–even non-believers… even believers who held different opinions… even people of other faiths. She didn’t find Leslie’s admission to being a non-believer as anything other than one more reason to quote scripture and call her a sinner.
Leslie left feeling battered and bruised. Everything about the episode, from the dramatic phone call, to the anxiety-ridden wait, to the very public accusations, had caused her a great deal of grief… but at least it all seemed to be over. Jane had cleared her conscience by telling Leslie she was a sinner destined for hellfire and she assumed that would be it.
Until the next day when Jane called, expressing her “grief” and Leslie’s hard heart and her determination to follow the ways of Satan rather than Christ.
That’s when Leslie lost control. What followed was a fifteen-minute angry tirade about the sins Leslie considered Jane to be committing. Words like “self-righteous”, “hypocrite”, “judgmental” and “two-faced” popped out of her mouth. She angrily told her aunt that she would sooner go to hell than to be trapped in heaven for an eternity with people like her. And then she hung up.
Jane couldn’t understand why Leslie had gotten so angry and she viewed it as an attack on her faith. Somehow, she equated Leslie’s frustration with her to the persecution of the saints.
“What are we supposed to do when the world won’t let us talk about or faith freely?” she demanded of me.
When I argued that no one had infringed on her rights, that she had been more than free to express her beliefs to Leslie or anyone else, but that Leslie also had the right to reject them, and that maybe Jane’s approach was not the most loving or compassionate… or Christian… I, too, became an example of all that was wrong with the world.
But the truth is, Christians need to assume a lot of the blame for the way non-Christians view us–and to this day I maintain my position that Jane’s approach had been a poorly planned one. I can’t help but feel that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7 when he warned believers about plucking the splinters out of others’ eyes when they have logs stuck in their own.
When Jesus interacted with sinners, he didn’t come at them with Bible in hand, ready to thump them over the head. He didn’t scream “sinner, sinner, sinner” at that them. If anything, he reserved those sorts of proclamations for believers who thought they had the authority to judge each other. Instead, he entered in relationship with them first. He healed them. He restored them. He made them whole. And then, and only then, did he tell any of them, “go and sin no more.”
Jesus knew that sin can’t be eradicated from anyone’s life until they’ve experienced the sort of transformation that comes with a relationship of love with God. It was that very relationship and transformation he offered them and the problem of sin would fix itself.
What Jane missed–and what the church often misses– is the reality that Jesus tells us about in Matthew 7 before he goes on about specks and logs: How we judge others is how we will be judged.
When we confront others with harsh words, we can expect Jesus to confront us with equally harsh words. When we offer condemnation rather than gestures of grace, Jesus will offer us condemnation. When we focus on another’s sins, Jesus will focus on ours.
But many believers, knowing very well what the grace of Jesus is like in their lives, will put up blinders and assume that they’ve somehow found the magic formula for living. The problem is, the people who know us best, also know our failures and the know that, just as with the saints, no one is perfect all the time. We all have moments of failure. We all have moments of selfishness. We all have moments we don’t live up to the high expectations we hold for ourselves. And those people, when they feel they’ve just been backed into a corner for an attack, will more than happily rip those blinders off.
And we don’t always like what they have to say when they start reflecting our behavior back at us–when they start listing our sins and imperfections and flaws. We get angry. We get hurt. And so was the case with Jane. But if we feel like we need to list someone else’s sins for them, we’d better be willing to let them list our sins in return.
When I look at my own spiritual life, I hold high expectations for myself. I don’t always live up to them–but my failures usually serve to refine me and make me stronger the next time. But the catch is, the high expectations I live by are a product of my relationship with the Christ and the transformation that has been taking place in my heart and soul since I was a child. I’ve lived a lifetime with a relationship with Jesus and still, on a regular basis, I become aware of changes I need to make in my life in order to live more fully in his footsteps.
On a regular basis I feel a healing hand touch me and I hear a warm voice say, “Go and sin no more”… but it’s taken me a long time to get there, so what right do I have to judge someone who hasn’t gotten to this point in her journey yet? I don’t have any right–and the funny thing is, every time I manage to dislodge one of those logs from my eye, I quickly realize there is another one I need to start working on.
Eventually Jane and I had a much calmer discussion about how to confront someone else’s sinful behavior. At that point the best advice I could give her was: “It might not be the best thing to do to come at them with the Bible and accusations of sin. Maybe the best thing to do is to tell them why that particular life choice isn’t right for you. It will give you a chance to witness about how Jesus has transformed your life without coming off as an attack. After all, faith is not about following a check list, it’s about relationship and in the end, that’s what they need more than a list of things to do and not to do.”
Jesus came to us to offer us something more than laws and rules and moral platitudes. And he wants us who dare to bear his name to offer something more to the people in our lives as well.