Talking to people about their sin is a privilege. It may not always feel like that – some conversations can be awkward in the extreme – but to help people leave their old patterns of behaviour behind and instead become more like Jesus is a high calling indeed. Whether it’s obvious sins like an explosive anger or drunken violence, hidden sins such as pornography or jealousy, or much more “respectable” sins like pride or indifference, everyone needs someone to help them move from their old self to their new.
For many, the sheer fact that someone has taken the time to point out their sin can be transformational (when the tone is gentle and humble, that is – accusations made in anger usually have a somewhat less helpful impact). Frequently human beings are blind to the desires of their hearts and the consequences of their actions – having that explained can be a huge motivation for change.
For all, an invitation to repentance coupled with a reminder of Jesus’ abundant love, grace and call to holy living is an essential conversation. As Christians, we are not here to promote some kind of self-improvement, behaviour-modification programme. Our goal is always to encourage people to run to the Lord for the forgiveness and power they need to live the life he has died for us to enjoy. We can helpfully model that life of repentance and faith as well.
In the middle, however, helping people to understand their sin properly can be a crucial, and often over-looked, component. It can be tempting to over-simplify what’s going on in someone’s life. But as Ephesians 2:1-3 reminds us there are three big factors in sinful behaviour and real change is most likely to happen if we encourage each other to address them all, not just one.
Factor 1 is the world. We live in a broken environment, interacting with profoundly broken people – hurts and temptations fly at us on a daily basis and we are not immune to the pain. The abused, the bullied, the betrayed (to name but a few) know what it’s like to have their pasts and presents nudge them towards sin. It’s no surprise that a woman left alone by an adulterous husband can tend towards mistrust or jealousy. It’s hardly a shock that a man, repeatedly bullied a school, resolves never to feel powerless again, even if that means trampling on others at times. Such relationships are not a simple cause and effect (pain does not inevitably lead to sin) but it’s fertile ground for its growth. In order to help people break free from sinful patterns, we can usefully spend our time pouring the Lord’s comfort into past hurts and actively seeking change in current challenging circumstances.
Factor 2 is the flesh. Not only do we all live in a broken world, we live out our lives with broken bodies and broken hearts. Fluctuating hormones can have a profound impact on our patience and purity and physical illness or exhaustion can easily influence how gently we interact with those around. A trip to the GP can be helpful in minimising the effects of ailments large and small.
Even more crucially, though, the desires of our hearts fuel our words and actions in profound ways. Human beings pursue their desires (their inner idols) – sometimes to the detriment of those around. Peace is beautiful but demanding peace at the expense of our family’s well-being is ugly in the extreme. Wanting comfort is not wrong but seeking it in an explicit online fantasy, hurts individuals and families alike. Aiding people to see what they are really wanting – and see how unbecoming those over-desires are – will help them understand what’s driving their sinful behaviour from the inside and want to re-orientate those desires to something more in tune with the Spirit’s work.
Finally, the third factor is the devil. We are in a spiritual battle and while we can be confident that the overall war is won, every human being has a fight on their hands. Satan wants us to sin, encourages us to give in and rejoices when we fall. Putting in strategies to both flee and fight temptation is always a useful plan but nothing is more important than prayer. Seeing sin from the perspective of heaven shows just how much of a wrestle is going on. Pleading with the Lord for the leading and protection he loves to provide can bring true freedom and hope.
These factors are not necessarily present in equal measure – different human beings struggle in different ways – but they will all be present to some extent. None of us is immune from their snare.
Before our next conversation with someone, it’s worth checking we’re prepared to walk with our brothers and sisters through all three of these facets of sin. To over-emphasise choice and under-emphasise comfort is to leave people feeling misunderstood. To ignore choice and simply confirm the victimhood of the person we are walking alongside, encourages people to become inert. Minimising the role of Satan, plays right into his plans to keep humanity trapped in its ungodly patterns of life. And, with that knowledge in mind, we can commit to helping a person address their sin in a holistic way – a way that helps them to undermine their sin effectively and bring their lives afresh to the foot of the cross.