When Others Sin, I . . .

June 26, 2009

How do you react when others sin?

This week we once again have been barraged with revelations of the sexual sins of a major public figure, Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina. We thus have the opportunity to examine ourselves, to see if we are reacting rightly or wrongly to such revelations.

Here are some common reactions, with some words of evaluation about each one:

  • When others sin, I find out all I can about it. All sorts of unnecessary information is available on Governor Sanford’s sin. Some mainstream newspapers read more like supermarket tabloids than serious journalism. A natural human reaction is to soak this up, to titillate our prurient desires by searching out the details of these illicit liaisons. Don’t do it. Such information does not make you love Jesus more, does not make you a better witness for Him, does not protect you from future sin, and does not make you a better citizen. The outline of the infidelity, and the possibility of misuse of state funds, is all we need to know.
  • When others sin, I delight in relating the details to others. Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). When you gossip, your speech is tearing down at least three people: yourself, the person you’re talking to, and the person you’re talking about. Don’t gossip.
  • When others sin, I look for something to admire in those hurt by the sin. We all need examples. When public leaders sin, we often are let down by those we admired. Oftentimes, however, someone around the sinner acts in an exemplary manner. In such cases, our focus should move from the sinner to the example – so that we, and those we speak with, can indeed be built up. In this case, I commend to you Jenny Sanford’s public letter. In an incredibly difficult situation, she seems to be acting with grace and wisdom.
  • When others sin, I think, “What an idiot! I would never do something like that!” The Bible is clear: Anyone who engages in adultery or fornication is a fool, ultimately destroying pleasure, not gaining pleasure. Proverbs 6:32 says, “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself” (see my sermon on this passage). So the first part of the statement is correct.

But Paul writes, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). That is, be careful that you don’t fall into a similar sin – in this case, sins such as adultery, fornication, lust, or viewing pornography – and be careful that you don’t fall into the sin of pride, thinking more highly of yourself than you ought (Romans 12:3). Is your life free from sexual sin? If the answer is no, use the occasion of this man’s sin to confront your own: Seek forgiveness from God and from those you have wronged, seek counsel and accountability so that you might fight this sin in the future. If the answer is yes – if your sexual life and thoughts have been pure – use the occasion of this man’s sin to remind yourself of the dead end of this sin, and to strengthen your resolve and your methods of dealing with temptation in this area. And then cultivate the next response:

  • When others sin, I confess that sin as if it were mine. If you have not committed such a sin, what has prevented you from doing so? Friend, it is certainly not your inherent goodness, your superior moral sense, or your high degree of self-control. Every one of us is guilty before God of sins so terrible that they demand a judgment of “Condemned!” (Ephesians 2:1-3). If I am free of a particular sin, God must have prevented me from committing that sin. Hear what John Donne writes:

O Lord, pardon me, me, all those sins which thy Son Christ Jesus suffered for, who suffered for all the sins of all the world; for there is no sin amongst all those which had not been my sin, if thou hadst not been my God, and antedated me a pardon in thy preventing grace.

If I have not committed any particular sin, God has, in effect, pardoned me ahead of time for that sin by extending His grace beforehand, protecting me from the sin. So the praise and honor go to Him. Sins of others thus should lead to greater humility on our part, not pride.

  • When others sin, I ask God to search my heart. My friends, sin always deceives. Sin always destroys. Sin is always discovered. So may we take the occasion of great sins by great men to ask God with David: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24). When He shows you the sin in your heart, confess it — and know the joy of living a life blameless before Him. Confessed sin – Praise God! — is always forgiven, by the blood of Jesus.

(For more on this topic, see this sermon I preached 11 years ago at the height of the Clinton/Lewinsky imbroglio. The last lines of this devotion are taken from that sermon).