This past Sunday I preached on the sin of silence: keeping our mouths closed when we should open up and speak. As I reflected on the Scriptures that deal with this topic, three particular applications emerged: silence in the face of an unrepentant Christian (Lk 17.3; Mt 18.15–18), silence in the face of an unjust situation (Prov 31.8–9; Lk 10.25–27), and silence in the face of an unbelieving friend (Mt 28.18–20; 2Cor 5.18–20).
Each topic could have been a sermon in itself—as those present might testify! Consequently there was more to say than time to say it.
One issue that I didn’t address is when a believer ought to confront the sin of a fellow professing Christian, and when love ought to cover that sin (1Pet 4.8). When faced with that situation, it might be wise to think through the following questions.
- Do I have a relationship with this person? The less I know a person, the less likely I am to understand them and their actions. This is a base level application of loving your neighbor as yourself. After all, if someone you didn’t know confronted you, how would you respond? Thus it seems wise to take time to get to know the person before addressing your concerns with them, but not in a utilitarian way. That is, don’t get to know them simply so you can confront them. Get to know them as a fellow image-bearer of God and follower of Christ. And question your assessment of their life. Maybe they’re not as wayward as you first expected.
- Do I see a pattern in their behavior? Is this a one-time action, or have I seen similar responses over a period of time? This isn’t to say that a one-time failure should always be met with silence. (Remember, Jesus transforms the silent into the discerning.) But before I make conclusions about someone’s character from a single episode, I should consider whether this was an aberration or reflects a pattern.
- How does this sin affect those around them? Varying sins have varying affects on other people. Gluttony has less effect on another than gossip. Even within a single type of sin there may be differing degrees of the sin’s effect on others. Gluttony for a married father of five (like myself) has potentially more dramatic consequences on others than, say, for a widower. Both are equally sinful, but the degree to which their sin affects others is different. This is something to consider while contemplating whether to approach a fellow Christian. Is the effect of what we perceive as sinful behavior rather limited? If so, then perhaps it is a time for us to forbear, pray, and leave room for the Spirit to grow them in grace. But sins like anger or impatience or harshness or drunkenness or speculation have more potential for negatively affecting those around them, and thus for damaging their witness to the gospel. The more one’s sin affects others, the more likely we need to confront.
- How does this sin obscure the glory of God in their lives? This, of course, is where question three must inevitably lead. We are not called to be strong witness to the gospel for our sake, as though the goal were to be known for our testimony. The goal is for the glory of God—expressed supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and made powerfully alive for us by the work of the Spirit—to be increasingly displayed through us for the joy of all people and the spread of his fame. Thus I must ask in what way this sin keeps them from accomplishing the chief reason they exist. In what ways are they not seeing God as supremely valuable and are thus obscuring his worth by their sinful actions? And how do those sinful actions keep others from seeing the ultimate worth of the One True God? We do not confront on a merely horizontal plane, striving simply to alter a person’s thought-patterns and behavior. In these difficult scenarios, we are co-laborers with the Sovereign Spirit, seeking to awaken them to the intrusion of the Vertical in their world, dazzle them with divine glory, and satisfy them in the Triune God.
“We are not told to be self-righteously judgmental,” Paul David Tripp helpfully observes, “or to act like detectives, hunting for all the sin we can uncover in people’s lives.” Such behavior is off-limits because it is grounded not in love but in arrogance—thinking that I have arrived and that others need me to pull them up to my spirituality. That Pharisaic thinking resides in us all, and we are right to be wary of it.
“Rather,” Tripp continues, “God is saying that when he chooses to expose another’s sin to us, we are to respond with self-sacrificing, redemptive love” (War of Words, 168). Such love includes words that encourage and exhort our fellow believers to know and follow our Lord. Remaining silent when we ought to speak is a failure to love.
May God give us wisdom to discern when to cover and when to confront, and grace to love our neighbor when we must confront.