Q: What's the difference between "seeing sin" in someone else's life and confronting it, and having a critical spirit?
A: The key distinction between recognizing behavior that's ungodly and passing judgment on others is the posture of our heart. Are we aware of other people's mistakes because they trust us and have confided in us, or have we appointed ourselves the "moral police" so as to justify examining blemishes in everyone else's behavior? Is our ultimate goal to help restore prodigals into a redemptive relationship with Jesus, or do we have a hidden agenda to elevate ourselves by condemning those around us? Be honest now!
What Does God Say About This?
Here are two oft-quoted Scriptures about confronting someone else's sin:
"If your fellow believer sins against you, go and tell him in private what he did wrong. If he listens to you, you have helped that person to be your brother or sister again. But if he refuses to listen, go to him again and take one or two other people with you. … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, then treat him like a person who does not believe in God or like a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17, NCV).
"If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1-3, ESV).
The first passage applies solely to professing Christians and includes disciplinary consequences. The second is gentler in tone and more general in application. And while both examples encourage straightforward dialogue about ungodly behavior, they also clarify the respectful parameters in which those hard conversations should take place.
I think the most compelling lesson about uncovering sin in someone else's life occurs in John's Gospel account, when a group of angry deacons shove an adulterous woman in front of Jesus while he's teaching in the temple courts:
"The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, 'Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?' This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her'" (John 8:3-7, ESV).
One simple statement from our Savior left those mean-spirited men—who up until that moment had been hurling insults—mute. His words illuminated their own ugly flaws, which made shaming someone else much less appealing. One by one they dropped their rocks and slunk away.
How Does This Affect Me?
I've been confronted twice lately by other Christians. One came from a red-faced stranger who was furious with me for wearing knee-high leather boots with a skirt to her church. She called me a "Jezebel." The second came from a good friend, who tenderly pointed out my pride in a specific situation.
The name-calling left a bruise on my soul. But the compassionate rebuke turned me back toward the forgiving arms of our heavenly Father. As Christ followers, we've got to recognize that God alone has the perfect combination of holiness and mercy to stand in judgment of the human heart.
We must remember the only One worthy of condemning us chose instead to pardon us. Then—in light of our own sinner-saved-by-grace stories—when the Holy Spirit impresses us to confront someone who's messed up, we'll do so with honesty, compassion, and humility. Our motive will be one of real restoration instead of self-righteousness.