Sometimes what Jesus does not say is more important than what he does say. For example, take his instructions for how to respond to someone who sins against you (Matt. 18:15-17). At first, it seems a simple process, and it can be very effective at restoring a strained or broken relationship. But it turns out to be not simple at all, and if tried in the wrong spirit, it can become an effective process for community bullying. What makes the difference? The difference is in what Jesus does not say.
The first step, he says, is to meet privately with the other person. “If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus advises, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” But pointing out what the other person has done to injure you, naming the other person’s fault, is really the second step. The first step is to undertake some rigorous self-examination and soul-searching, probably with the help of one or more mature Christian friends and advisors.
Earlier in the gospel, Jesus asks, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5 NLT).
Sometimes what I perceive to be the sin against me, the injury I’ve received, is really the wounding of my pride, my ego, my vanity, my precious self-image. Sometimes, when I feel wounded, it’s a sign I’ve lost my grounding in truth. The fifteenth-century classic The Imitation of Christ tells us, “People who walk before [Christ] in the truth will be safe from evil attacks, and the truth will deliver them from the schemes and insults of the wicked. If the truth makes you free, you will be free indeed, for you will not care for the vain words of others.” (chapter 14). So if you walk before Christ in truth, you won’t be injured by the assaults of others. And if you are injured, you’re probably not walking before Christ in truth.
Before I take an accusation or complaint to someone I feel has sinned against me and wounded me, I need to be clear about what part of me has been wounded, and I need to be certain I’m walking before Christ in truth. Only then will I have a solid foundation for discussing with the other person what I experienced.
Sometimes the other person’s sin against me is really a difference in how we understand God and practice our faith. I feel injured when the other person doesn’t agree with me, doesn’t reflect my beliefs, doesn’t practice faith the way I do. And in going to that person to point out his fault, what I’m really trying to do is teach the other person to know God the way I know God.
But no one is called to know God like I know God, and no one is expected to follow God’s instructions for living the way I follow God’s instructions. According to Jeremiah, here’s what God says about the relationship, the “new covenant,” God will make with us: “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD .’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already” (Jer. 31:33-34 NLT). So if another person’s faith offends me, if I think it injures me, if I count another person’s actions against me as sin, before I do anything else, I need to stop judging and examine my own heart to see if I’m really following the instructions God has written there, or if I’m following the instructions written there by the world, by my family, by my culture and society, or by my politics or national identity.
So there’s the real first step, the work I need to do before I confront anyone I think has sinned against me. I need to do some rigorous self-examination, probably with the help of one or more mature Christian friends and advisors; I need to be sure to take the log out of my own eye before I deal with the speck in anyone else’s eye; I need to be certain I’m walking before Christ in truth, not in my favorite illusion; and I need to be certain I’m following the instructions God has written on my heart, not the instructions written there by the world.
The last step Jesus mentions in dealing with someone who sins against you, when all else fails, is to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” And how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He sat down and had coffee with them. He traveled in their country (John 4:4); he asked to drink from their wells (John 4:7); he healed them and their households (Luke 7:1-10; Matt. 15:21-28); he counted them as blessed (Luke 18:9-14); he went home with them for supper (Luke 19:1-10). He didn’t allow any barriers to stand between him and others, no matter how great their differences. He proclaimed by his way of life as well as by his words that God was reconciling all people, not letting their sins and trespasses stand between them (2 Cor. 5:19).
There’s a story about an anthropologist who invited the kids in an African village to play a game. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he said “Go,” they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that, when one could have had all the fruits for himself, they said: “Ubuntu,” a word that means “I am because we are.” “How can one of us be happy,” the kids asked, “if all the other ones are sad?”
If you remember nothing else about dealing with people who sin against you, remember this. We’re all in this life together, all members of one human community. God has woven us together so we cannot be separated from each other, and we need each other if we’re to be whole. What builds up one person, builds up everyone, and what diminishes even one person, diminishes everyone. What a difference it would make if we would deal with one another on those terms.