Monday, April 13, 2020

Anonymous Asks (88)

“What should I say when someone morally offends me?”

When you set out to correct people, one of several things may happen: (1) they reject your advice and never think about it again; (2) they reject your advice now, but take it to heart later when they have time to reflect; (3) they accept your correction politely, but only in order to get you to stop talking and go away; or (4) they accept your correction politely and actually learn from it.

It also happens occasionally that your intended target rejects your advice, but other people come to know of it and benefit from it. That is not the ideal outcome, but it is still a pretty good one.

Outcomes and Opposition

Provided you tell people they have offended you with a measure of grace and tact, (3) is a fairly common response. (1) is what happens when you don’t use grace or tact, and sometimes even when you do. It’s also fairly common. (2) and (4) are a little more difficult to quantify.

Aristotle said there are people whom one cannot instruct. I suspect he meant roughly 80% of humanity. Most people resist correction, and they are not interested in your opinion when it differs from their own or your standards if they differ from theirs. This is sometimes true even when they have asked you what you think. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” There are times when the Bible teaches it is better to keep your displeasure with what other people say to yourself and move on. The world is full of potential provocations, and the man who is not easily offended will have more success in changing minds in the long term than the man who is quick to show his annoyance.

A Little Reflection

When you feel offended and are tempted to say something, your first question to yourself should be “Who exactly am I doing this for?” You will need to answer yourself very humbly and very honestly, because motivation is something about which it is very easy indeed to deceive ourselves, and actions based on lies do not generally end well. Some people just love policing other people’s conduct. It’s their natural disposition. Maybe nobody gave them enough attention as a child, who knows. But if that’s you, then you need to think long and hard before you jump in anywhere with a word of correction. The problem may not be the other person at all. If the answer to “Who am I doing this for?” is really “God”, then you should be able to explain to yourself how God’s honor or kingdom is served by opening your mouth. If the answer is really “For them” and not just for your own personal satisfaction or to tick off a checklist item in your own head, then you need to figure out how to deliver the message in the way it is most likely to be heard and appreciated.

A solid second question is this: “Who gave me the authority to speak?” or “Who am I to call this person to account?” Sometimes the answer is “Nobody at all.” You may not like what they’re saying, but you are not their judge. Unless they are enjoying the hospitality of your home, or unless you are their father, mother, husband or fellow believer, they do not have to play by your rules, and maybe not then either. As mentioned, people often respond with hostility when you try to correct their language. The apostle Peter wrote about suffering for the sake of Christ, but added this: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” In Greek that word is a real mouthful. It is allotriepiskopos, a compound word that means someone who oversees a stranger. Strong’s defines it as “one who takes the supervision of affairs pertaining to others and in no wise to himself, a meddler in other men’s affairs.”

Christians and the Unsaved

In the Church Age, where God’s people are no longer a theocracy and we live in societies whose standards are not prescribed by the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses, the apostle Paul taught that Christians are to be careful about passing judgment on the unsaved. “God judges those outside,” he said. Christians have a set of common moral standards to which we may hold one another. Unbelievers do not have the same standards. You and I have a right, and maybe even an obligation, to correct our fellow believers when they genuinely give offense because we are part of a God-designed process by which they are to grow into the likeness of Christ. We do not have the same role in the lives of unbelievers. It is both possible and desirable to set a high personal moral standard that everyone sees and understands without giving people lectures.

The standards of our society are not the standards of the church. They have changed radically since I was a child, and are changing daily, and not in a good way. If it is useful to correct an unbeliever at all, it is only to hold him to a standard he acknowledges and accepts, though we must bear in mind that there may be unpleasant consequences as a result. This is what John the Baptist did when he called to account Herod, the Idumaean (Edomite) ruler of Galilee, who was (at least nominally) a convert to Judaism, for taking his brother’s wife as his own. In doing so, John was holding Herod to a standard Herod claimed to accept, but he also ended up losing his head on account of his attempts to correct another man’s immorality. Each person must judge for himself whether such sacrifices are worthwhile.

Hills Worth Dying On

The fundamental problem with correcting unsaved people who, for example, use foul language, talk about their sexual exploits, tacitly or explicitly approve of conduct you know God hates, and so on is this: as a Christian, you only get so many opportunities to speak on behalf of Christ. Often they are fewer than we would wish. The question then becomes “Is this hill worth dying on?” Usually this is not because there is any danger you may actually die, but because many times passing moral judgment on an unsaved person will put sufficient distance between you that you never have another opportunity to present Christ verbally. Your testimony to them is effectively dead.

It would be nice if I never heard another person take the Lord’s name in vain. I would really enjoy that. But the standards of our society are now such that the unsaved do it all the time, and only the politest ones even realize doing so is offensive to Christians. If I can get the cleaning lady to understand that I wish her to stop saying, “Oh God,” in front of me — and if that’s all I can do — what exactly have I accomplished? She is still on her way to hell, she has no spiritual power to implement the change I am encouraging her to make even if she wants to, and she derives no observable benefit when she does come into the presence of God from having held her tongue on my behalf. All I’ve done is teach her to suppress the symptoms of her unbelief rather than helped treat the disease. It may also mean she is reluctant to open up to me about anything at all, and I’ve also lost a good witnessing opportunity.

And have I made society better? You be the judge.

The Motive Behind Moral Correction

Now, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t speak at all. Depending on the situation, I may be able to get her to understand, without pushing her away or insulting her, that I would be grateful if she didn’t talk about my Lord frivolously. If she will give me the opportunity, maybe I can share with her how much Christ means to me and why I’m careful not to use his name the way she does. But I must always be extremely careful to put her needs and her salvation ahead of my own comfort, or I will certainly lose any chance to have a real conversation with her that might change something meaningful in her life.

The biggest factor in correcting anyone is my own motive in doing it. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I always remember singing in Sunday School about the recipe for joy in this life, and it was to get one’s priorities in the following order: Jesus, Others and You. There is real wisdom in that trite little platitude. What offends my fellow man should matter more to me than anything that might offend me personally, and what offends God should matter far above all. Whether I am personally put off by something somebody says should be way down my list of important considerations.

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