Should I convict other people of their sin?

One of the litmus tests that evangelicals make when we evaluate a potential church family is to observe whether they are comfortable talking about sin. I often measure the authenticity of my relationships with other people according to the degree to which we can share our struggles with sin genuinely. If someone insists on keeping things positive and pleasant with me, even if I know a lot of information about their lives, I don’t feel like they’re being real with me, whether that’s fair or not. A different question is whether we should offer others unsolicited feedback when they are doing things that appear to be sin. Do we have the responsibility to convict others of their sin?

The notion that we are responsible for calling out other peoples’ sin can be a very dangerous excuse for us. Satan’s name in Hebrew means “the accuser.” Almost all of us at one time or another have been little Satans who go around accusing others in order to justify ourselves, even if it’s within our own heads. Many Christians in social media, including myself, are notorious for the bullhorn form of “exhortation” against sin that almost never is motivated by or able to accomplish any legitimate edifying purpose.

But what about discipleship relationships? What about when people come to talk to me as their pastor about their life and they name something they’re doing that seems sinful to me? I often feel like I fail people because my instinctual tendency is to say, “Oh, well that seems perfectly reasonable to me” or “Man, I do that kind of thing all the time.” It seems like what I’m supposed to say is “Yeah, you screwed up and I’m disappointed in you.” Because that feels like the difficult, “manly” thing to say instead of the cowardly, people-pleasing banter that I’m so quickly drawn to.

I’ve only had a few times in my life when somebody other than my parents confronted me about sin that wasn’t in the context of an argument over household chores or division of labor in an office space. I remember in college, I behaved inappropriately at a party towards a woman in our co-ed service fraternity who was a pledge at the time. Our pledgemaster tore me to pieces over it. It was hard but it was actually very good for me. I accepted his rebuke as legitimate; it was like the prophet Nathan going before David. I fasted that next day as a penance, and I tried to honor the lesson that I learned at every party I went to after that.

I’m grateful for the times I’ve been rebuked by people who I knew cared about me because it meant that I could feel secure knowing where I stood with that person. But it does make a difference how it happens. I’ve been reamed out by a couple of supervisors or colleagues, which caused me to wither and close off to them.

In any case, this question came up because I was flipping through a book on spiritual direction called Seeking God Together by Alice Fryling. She said the following which really made me do a double-take:

A common misunderstanding of spiritual direction is that the director points out the sins of the directee. Some people even seem to want that to happen. Someone said to a friend of mine, “My spiritual director really nailed me on that one,” and she seemed pleased about being “nailed.” Since I happened to have been the spiritual director she was talking about, I wondered how she felt I had “nailed” her…

To set the record straight, spiritual direction is not about pointing out sin to people. That is the job of the Holy Spirit… When I meet with someone for spiritual direction, it’s not my job to point out sin. It’s my job to do all I can to create an environment where the directee can hear from God, whether it be about sin or about something else…

This takes a tremendous burden off of us as we listen to one another. We are not responsible for pointing out mistakes, inaccurate perspectives, or sinful behavior. We need only to listen in and for truth and grace. When, through our listening, the Spirit of God convicts, it is always in the context of te good news of the gospel of grace.

How does that sit with you? It’s definitely something I want to be true. I suspect that for the Mark Driscoll school of Christian leadership, this is a bunch of foofy liberal hogwash. Spiritual direction is such an ambiguous thing. Men like me generally want every task to have a clear purpose and goals and techniques.

Listening together and letting the Holy Spirit convict, encourage, or inspire? So amorphous. Such a lack of clarity (or control). What do you think? Does Alice Fryling’s perspective sound solid? She actually had some scripture to back herself up which I didn’t include because it got too long. Do you think she’s right?

18 thoughts on “Should I convict other people of their sin?

  1. I just happened to wander onto this thread and thought it was great. I’d like throw in some points for discussion fodder.

    As for pointing out the sins of others, it depends if the person is IN the Church or OUTSIDE the Church. I think Paul makes that clear in 1 COR 5:9-13. God will judge those outside, but “is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?”. Also, Jesus in MAT 18:15-22 states after the 3rd attempt to correct someone and “refuses to listen to even the Church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We ARE to point out someone’s sin INSIDE the Church, but ultimately if they refuse to listen after these steps, then cast them out and God will judge/convict them, not you. But we are to forgive when they do come back, again MAT 18:10-14 and 2 COR 2:5-11.

    But, as you point out that satanis means “accuser”, one must first self-examine and be rooted in love for the other person to avoid this accusing spirit. Jesus lays this out in MAT 7:1-5. How we judge others is how we’ll be judged. We are to “first take the log out of our own eye, and THEN you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye”.

    To those outside the Church, I say we should be more into orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. What I mean is our actions will win over people more so than our doctrinal belief. Be a model of Christ, preach the Word, love everyone, serve everyone, and let the cookie crumble the way it goes. Some will believe, some won’t. Some will thank you, some may want to listen more later, and some may scoff or even try to kill you, but that’s our charge. We are not to convict those outside but to love. If that person decides to join a Church and become a Christian, then they have to know what they’re signing up for and that is the duty of the whole Church, not just the clergy.

    Bottom line, I believe it’s all there in the Great Commandment MAT 22:34-40. Love God and love others as yourself. How do you love yourself? Would you want someone to point your sinful way out if you didn’t see it or were leading others astray unknowingly? Would you not rejoice and thank them? PROV 9:7-12

  2. As a forever-recovering evangelical, I’ll tell me my sins if you’ll tell me yours. I totally understand that pastors can’t be bearing all the details of their dirty laundry to the entire congregation. However, as a person in the pew, I want to see that you have some objectivity about your own foibles. If you have a temper that goes off in a flash with no warning (or whatever your prevailing sin might be), I want at least some indication that you are aware of it and working on it.

    As a hospital chaplain, I get to be confessor a lot. I’ve had some horrific sins confessed to me. For the “ordinary” ones, I often ask something like “So, what’s that all about then?” For the horrific ones, something like “It seems to me that you are feeling [name the emotion they seem to be displaying] about this.” Wait for confirmation or clarification. “So what does God have to say to you about what you did?”

    The whole convicting others of their sins thing seems to have an underlying assumption that all human beings are sinners and the Holy Spirit is utterly incapable of breaking through to that person’s conscience. The Spirit is not incapable. That’s probably why the person is confessing. And if the person gives no indication that they know they are sinning, then the Spirit hasn’t got there yet so I certainly am not. There is only one savior and it’s not me.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

    • Makes sense to me. I got to do a chaplaincy internship one summer. There’s a reason Methodists require CPE for ordination. It was one of the most important pieces of my vocational training. Oh and I’m a recovering evangelical too!🙂

      • CPE is an excellent thing to do. For one thing it helps us to learn that many times the sins we’re trying to lay on other people are actually our projections of our own sins.🙂

  3. First of all, you’re quoting a spiritual director about a direction encounter. And she is spot on – it is not the director’s job to ‘call out’ sin. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. In direction, we endeavor to listen to both the Spirit and the directee, to gently hold whatever is being shared in the presence of God and to look at it from different angles than the directee may have previously thought about. That’s why we have training in things like dream analysis, Jungian psych, body language, theological reflection, the enneagram and MMBI personality profile instruments/methods. As a pastor with a parishioner, you might, on occasion, choose to be more direct, especially if that is part of the counseling session. This just serves to underscore that direction and pastoral counseling are two different animals.

    • Oh wow. Never thought about making a distinction between the two. Thank you! I think I’m more called to spiritual direction than pastoral counseling. I have a lot of opinions about the world that I spout off in cyberspace but in one on one relationships, my passion is to help people notice God.

  4. Fryling’s quote, “… It’s my job to do all I can to create an environment where the directee can hear from God, whether it be about sin or about something else…”, clearly eleviates the angst evangelicals and counselors might feel when faced with tacit support to “point out sin” (lest you risk the branding of “silent approval”) during spiritual counseling rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to convict—if you go in for that foofy liberal hogwash🙂 The Power of the Holy Spirit …amorphous? Yikes! NIMBY Welcome back, Morgan!

    • I take it you caught on to the fact that I was being a little facetious in places. I do genuinely wonder if I’m too easy on people in the flesh. I can be all hellfire and brimstone when I’m talking about sin on a macro level, but I get very uncomfortable confronting people face to face. So if my job is simply to create a gracious space where they can see the truth about themselves, that’s a huge sigh of relief for me.

  5. The longer I think about this, the more I think it really does come down to whether the “rebuker”, even if he or she is angry, communicates love to the “sinner”. One of the most foofy liberal people I’ve ever known used to quote Bible verses at me about how I needed to be more gracious to him. It was infuriating because it was self-serving. But we all have our blind spots, and I have usually felt grateful (and changed my behavior) when someone pointed mine out when they truly had my best interests at heart.

    • Yeah. Proof-texting is even more obnoxious when it’s for the purpose of manipulating within a relationship.

  6. Interestingly, the usual model of “conviction of sin” is for someone outside of the sin to come in to do the convicting. I think a better model is for us to live close enough to one another that when we sin against one another, which we inevitably will if living close enough together, we can approach one another for forgiveness.
    I’ve had the privilege of living in close relationships like this at various times in my life. I’ve been able to see the hurt in the ones whom I have offended, and then to respond to that by seeking forgiveness. Nothing in my life has done more to increase my gratefulness to Jesus for His work on the cross.
    Looking for an outsider to be a “convicter of sin” is to seek out an idol. It is to look for a standard, a model, a version of God which we can manipulate and mold into our own image. Instead, we need to accept everyone in every relationship as a legitimate imago dei, and to be quick to confess our need for forgiveness in every circumstance, and quick to hear the complaints of others.
    Moving to a position of humility, and of wanting to become more like Christ, means accepting everyone as our convicter of sin. We need to become sensitive enough to see the hurt we cause to others, and to be ready to respond to it.

  7. I have strong feeling about this subject as it relates to communication within the body of Christ. I have copied the link to my most recent blog which interestingly enough I just posted this week. I believe it addresses your discussion and I suggest you note the judgement listed in the verses I quote about those who stand in what is suggested to be silent approval of the evil others in the church are practicing.

    http://whosesideareyouonanyway.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/which-came-first-the-christian-or-the-keg-4/

  8. The scriptures say that vengeance belongs to God. Why would conviction/judgment not also belong to God?

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