One of the passages that came up when we were planning this series was the story of the Pharisees bringing an adulteress to Jesus to ask if they should stone her. I know it’s not a passage intended to teach us about speech, but we do see a lot of examples in it of how we talk.
You see the Pharisees, they are speaking words of condemnation, talking down at another sinner. Their holier-than-thou speech was designed to push her down and puff themselves up.
You see Jesus, silent at first. Sometimes in conflict, silence is golden. What He doesn’t say, speaks volumes.
Jesus is writing in the sand. We don’t know what He writes, but we see how His written word is as important as His spoken word.
We see Jesus speak the truth, getting to the heart of the issue. He still calls sin sin, but He doesn’t condemn the woman caught in sin – He gets everyone thinking. When we ask genuine questions, it stirs people’s hearts to reflect and evaluate the situation instead of just retorting against our remarks.
And we see Jesus speak forgiveness into the life of the adulteress, calling her out of her sin and into His love.
We’ve covered a lot of these throughout this month, but today let’s take a moment to consider how we should and can speak words that restore instead of condemn.
When someone does something wrong, I want them to know why it was wrong. I usually have words to help them understand just how bad it was, and very rarely are these words nice.
Very often these words are useless. The person already knows they’ve done wrong. Everyone else has told them. And if they didn’t know, my poor use of tone and attitude just prevented us from fixing the problem.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to inform a friend of how they’ve sinned, but our love for them calls us to go beyond that.
“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” – Matthew 18:15 (HCSB)
The goal of confronting them is to win them, that is, so that the relationship can be restored, and so that they grow in holiness. We do not correct to make them feel bad, but to make things better for everyone involved, including them.
When our goal is restoration and living like Christ did, the words we have for someone we are upset with will reflect that. Not only does our goal in confronting them change, but the way we do it does too. Wanting that person to be more like Christ (and wanting to be more like Christ myself), the cross will be central to the conversation.
That doesn’t mean that I will ever have a conversation with my sister that starts with the words, “Look, Jesus died on a cross. You need to let me have the last bowl of ice cream.” What it does mean, is that the cross will be my basis for evaluating the situation. Ice cream is not usually a gospel issue, nor even important. But someone who has done something sinful is. That means it is worth talking with them.
“No foul language is to come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” – Ephesians 4:29 (HCSB)
How do we build them up instead of tearing them down with harsh words? Like Jesus, we speak truth. Sin is sin. We cannot downplay that. But also like Jesus, we offer forgiveness. In the cross where we found forgiveness, Jesus has forgiveness for them too. He died for our sins and rose again. That means we died to our sins with Him so that we can have new life in Him (see Romans 6:4, 6-11). Since the cross is enough for both us and them, if we both trust Christ, the Spirit brings us together to make us one (1 Corinthians 12:13). So we speak gospel truths to them and, like Jesus, we call them out of sin and into love.
“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
– John 8:11 (HCSB)
“Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” – Galatians 6:1 (HCSB)
Sometimes it won’t be popular to be the one offering forgiveness. Everyone may be upset with another person who has done something wrong. That happened once in Corinth. See Paul’s response:
“If anyone has caused pain, he has caused pain not so much to me but to some degree—not to exaggerate —to all of you. The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person. As a result, you should instead forgive and comfort him. Otherwise, this one may be overwhelmed by excessive grief. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.” – 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 (HCSB)
It’s crazy. It’s not intuitive. But this is what Christ did for us and what He calls us to. When we’re upset with someone because of something that’s our fault, we need to watch our words and be careful not to sin. But when we’re upset with someone because of something they did, we need to see Christ’s forgiveness toward us and them. Then we forgive them. We approach them to ask about their sin in a sincere way, not seeking a fight but caring about their restoration. When they know their fault, we extend the forgiveness, grace, and restoration that Christ has made freely available to us. As much damage as our tongues can do, this is one way we can use them to set people free.