When the Truth is Hurtful
I once heard there is nothing more irritating than a reformed smoker. Since I have never been a smoker, I can’t fully comprehend this characterization. Kicking the smoking habit is a good thing, and if one is successful over the long-term, he can add years to his life. Why would someone not celebrate this victory and encourage others to join in?
But I get it.
Just because you have overcome a habit in your life doesn’t mean I have to follow your example. At least, not until I am ready. In fact, your old behaviors are so fresh in my mind, it is hard for me to comprehend you are preaching against the very thing you once held to so passionately.
Of course, this is no reason to reject the truth. Years ago, I was walking on a beach when an old man ran up to me and started pointing at his neck. He appeared to have recovered from a serious operation that left him badly scared and unable to speak. As he pointed at his neck with one hand, he mimicked the act of smoking with the other. Then he pointed at me as if to ask, “Do you smoke?” I said, “no.” He smiled, mouthed the word “good”, and proceeded down the beach to share his gospel.
Why wouldn’t someone who has overcome a destructive habit not want to warn everyone he meets? Yet, there are some pitfalls when it comes to confronting sin in others. And while I don’t think people should let the enthusiasm of those who have overcome a vice discourage them from heeding their testimony, I do believe there are things any of us should take into consideration before we start telling other people how to run their lives. Consider these:
Make sure your message isn’t a mask for sin. Unbridled enthusiasm is a good thing. A double-standard is not. I realize we are all sinners, and if we waited until we defeated all of our sins, we would never confront a brother or sister about a problem we see in their lives. On the other hand, if we have an ongoing sin in our lives that leaves us in a perpetual state of shame, it is easy to become obsessed with a different sin in the lives of others and become judgmental and legalistic in the process. This is why Jesus told us to take care of the plank in our eye before we pick at the sawdust we see in others (Matthew 7:3).
Love the people you confront. I once heard a preacher say, “Some people who warn others about hell act as if they want them to go there.” Love is hard to convey in the midst of a confrontation, but it is possible. We show love when we empathize as those who understand how easy it is to be trapped by sin. We love when we listen to people’s stories and try to understand the circumstances that led them to make some bad decisions. The Apostle Paul sharply disciplined the church at Corinth in a letter we call 1 Corinthians. In a second letter he wrote, “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)
Don’t sin as you call out sin. There are right ways and wrong ways to address sin in the lives of others. We may not be able to immediately discern how to proceed, but I believe if we pray for wisdom and ask God to guide us, we will come closer to saying and doing the kinds of things that honor Him and lead to real change. There is little room for carelessness when it comes to calling out sin. Judging others before we know the facts, sharing the facts with third parties and disregarding the feelings of those we are confronting undermines what God could have used for good and gives Satan a greater foothold.
I realize, even when we strive to address sin with love and compassion, we might experience a harsh reaction. I have lost more than one friendship when I attempted to save someone I cared about from a destructive path. I have been called “judgmental”, “holier-than-thou” and “God’s gift to humanity.”
Maybe, in some of these cases I fumbled in some of the ways I have just shared. Or maybe I did my best. Only God knows for sure.
Regardless, I think he calls me to guard against being hurtful with the truth. Don’t get me wrong. The truth stings. If it doesn’t, we might need to sharpen our message.
But the ultimate goal of truth is healing, not hurt.
So, if you have quit smoking, I would love to hear your testimony. I promise I won’t be offended. However, if you are a reformed Diet Coke addict, give me some time.
I’ll tell you when I’m ready.