Christ and the Adulteress by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image from Wikimedia

Christ and the Adulteress by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image from Wikimedia

How do we tell someone they sin in a loving way?

When we see a person commit sin, we often feel compelled to point it out to them. We may feel that they need us to recognize the sin for them so that they can correct it or we may want to shame them into changing or perhaps we have been hurt and we want retribution. Maybe we have good intentions and desire simply to see our brother turn away from destruction and get on a healthier path. What can we do?

Perhaps if God’s commandments were arbitrary and without consequence, then He would need the righteous (those who followed the arbitrary rules) to point out the sins of the unrighteous (those who ignored them). But that’s just not the case. God’s laws are not without purpose or meaning. They are given to us to shape us into persons of love, to draw us away from the stinking death that is the consequence of a life of sin and to lead us instead along God’s path of freedom and communion to the loving embrace of the Father Himself. He even endows each of us with a conscience to lead us on this path, if only we will listen to it. When a person chooses to disobey the commandments of God, the natural consequences are emptiness, fear, isolation, and spiritual death.

It is also often the case that sin begets sin and suffering begets suffering. Life is a complicated matter, an intricate web of relationships, experiences, and decisions, and the path that leads a person to commit the most grievous sins may be a path that was riddled with suffering, pain, and loneliness caused by the sins of others. A person who has only known brokenness may feel trapped and their actions may be a reflection of their own abuse and an imitation of the examples they have been given. He may lash out against being broken by others by adding to the brokenness of the world, and he may start to believe that he is unworthy of any other mode of existence–even when his conscience tells him that sin and death are tearing him apart.

The sinner starts to forget that he is loved by God and that he is made in His image and likeness. Instead, a person who has fallen into sin finds himself drawn back to the dust from which he was formed–though he may not reveal it on the outside–he stands at the edge of the abyss.

It is mercy, not judgement, that pulls our neighbor out of the abyss.

Image from Andrew  on Flickr

Image from Andrew on Flickr

When a person expects or even deserves justice, it is precisely mercy that offers a space for repentance. Think St. Dionysios and the murderer or Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. Mercy, in all its forms–silence when one could point out another’s sin, ignoring a desire to exact retribution, making light of a situation by which another is burdened by guilt, assuming good intentions–transcend earthly justice and draw us, and more importantly, our neighbor toward the heavenly realm. Mercy, more than pointing out another’s faults, invites a sinner to turn around, to change his ways. Mercy, more than judgement, recognizes Christ in our neighbor and reveals Christ in us.

Love covers a multitude of sins means not only that when we love another person, we are less inclined to see their sins against us, though that is certainly true, too. Love covers another’s sin like a soothing, healing balm covers a burning, festering wound. Why deepen the wound that sin causes with our own infectious judgement or “righteous” commentary? Love and mercy are the salves we can offer each others’ brokenness. Love and mercy shed Light in the abyss.

Does this mean that we have no voice against sin in the world? In an age when moral relativism tells us that we are expected to accept what is done as what should be done, this is a legitimate concern. We often get tongue-tied when it comes to morality even when we know clearly the commandments of God: in order to avoid offending anyone, we accept anything and everything anyone ever does (or at least we pretend we do).

There is a way of life and a way of death and between the two ways there is a great difference. –Didache

Being merciful, abstaining from judgement, doesn’t mean losing our moral compass. We don’t have to pretend there is no way of darkness. You don’t have to think stealing is an ok thing to do to have mercy on a thief. You don’t have to buy into the culture’s image of sexuality to love your friends who do buy into it.

Sounds like the common adage, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Right? Well, not quite. I’d like to amend that statement to say, “Love the sinner, hate your own sin.” What spiritual benefit can come from hating an abstract sin? Hate the sin you commit. Hate the moments when you contribute to the brokenness of the world. Hate the times that you have thrown yourself or your brother into the abyss. Hate the thoughts that you have that slash open the already bleeding wounds of others. Hate your own denials of Christ, and do not condemn Peter.

It’s a hard task to be merciful to others when we think we ourselves are righteous. But if you don’t make time to contemplate and point out the sins of others and spend your time rather working out your own salvation, you’ll find that you yourself are in desperate need of mercy and love. If you look to yourself in the instant you are tempted to look at another, you will encounter your own brokenness and can ask for God’s mercy. Make an effort to remember that you, too, stand on the edge of the abyss and, but for the love and mercy of Christ, would plummet downward. Run to embrace the source of Light and Life.

Do not be disgusted by the sin of your brother–be disgusted by the darkness that lurks within your own heart. Do not find opportunities to convict your neighbor–find opportunities to convict your own wayward soul. Do not deepen the wounds of those suffering from sin–uncover your own hidden wounds, and while you allow God’s mercy to bandage and heal your broken life, be His healing hands on earth by learning to love your neighbor. For God desires mercy and not sacrifice, and He desires it of you.