Don't Always Start with People's Sin
By Josh Anderson
Over my years of pastoring and counseling I’ve experienced and seen a tendency of Christians minimizing people to one thing. Typically it’s paired with criticism. Typically it’s a label. And typically, it’s under the ‘sinner category.’ Broadly speaking, the surrounding pagan culture does this too. In the church we use labels and phrases like, “they’re just sinners,” “they’re bad people, just look at what they did,” “some people are mean,” “they don’t believe the right things,” “their problem is that they’re just idolaters.”
For some of us this simply manifests a sinful, critical spirit, or deep fears that govern our relationships. It also highlights the tendency of seeing people only or primarily through the biblical category of sinfulness, Adamic sin, or noetic effects of sin (i.e., how sin impacts our minds).
To be sure, we are a sinners (Genesis 3; Romans 3). Don’t water it down. Everyone has had their own experiences within the church of what emphasis the role of sin plays in how we view one another. But we want to share in the Bible’s breadth of how it tells and teaches about the broad spectrum of who people are and their individual experiences.
For example, in Christ we are saints, beloved holy ones (Deuteronomy 7; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 3:12). Remember what this means. God himself lives within us. Jesus’ father is our father. We are married to God’s son, Jesus. Jesus is praying for us as a high priest, administering specific blessings from his throne. The Spirit has made us a temple. Remember, these aren’t metaphors. These are realities. Things happening right now for you, me, and the Christians in our lives.
We’re also sufferers (Genesis 3; Psalm 2, 3), people who experience aging, death, loss of relationships, etc. We’re people who are sinned against by others (Genesis 3). Each of us experience varying temptations from within our sinful nature as well as from God’s Enemy. Suffering can be defined on a spectrum, and not every one of us is suffering in the same way. Comparison isn’t the point, and the Bible doesn’t compare sufferings. The point is, as image bearers of God we are also sufferers.
Even this is reductionistic to say Christians are only these three things, because there are more adjectives to describe who and what we are. We’re social, cognitive, emotional, sexual. One person can simultaneously be a grandparent, a parent, a child, a mentor, a mentee, a friend, an enemy. We have souls and bodies. In Christ, we are called, holy, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, righteous, and in process of being made like Jesus, our husband and high priest.
The point is: you and I (and others) are always more than one thing. For Christians, we’re categorically saints, sinners, sufferers. For non-Christians, they’re sufferers and sinners.
And this should impact how we interact with others.
Each of us will grow in loving others by identifying what our tendencies are in how we begin viewing others. If a Christian in your life believes something plainly unbiblical, do you emphasize only their wrong belief, and discount their good, right beliefs? If a Christian is suffering, but you haven’t seen them at Sunday service, do you emphasize their lack of church attendance and look past what they shared? When you hear a Christian parent voice difficulty and discouragement about a situation with a child, do you emphasize their indwelling sin, and discount their discouragement or attempts to grow in their parenting? If you know someone who’s poor, do you emphasize their personal laziness? If someone in your life says they’re gay, do you tend to emphasize their ‘gayness’?
By remembering that we are more than one thing, it gives us opportunity to move past what we think is most sinful about a person’s life and move toward the person. By remembering a fellow Christian is a saint, sufferer, sinner it gives opportunity to be humble, and ask God something like, “Lord, I don’t know what this person needs. Help me hear them, and come alongside how you’re working, to be an encouragement to them.” Sometimes this will mean discussing a person’s sin. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes this will mean just listening to them. Sometimes it will include prayer, while other times it won’t.
By identifying our tendencies of over-emphasis or wrong-emphasis of a person’s sinfulness, and by remembering people are more than one thing, we gain opportunity to minister to people more effectively. The point isn’t to find the perfect balance for how and what to emphasize in a moment of personal ministry. In fact, we are always going to emphasize one thing in a moment of friendship, and we should. Everything can be the most important thing all the time. We can’t emphasize everything in Scripture or about people’s lives in every conversation. Nor should we. But when we identify our personal tendencies and remember that people are many things, when we remember their stories (like ours) have many different experiences, we will grow in our effectiveness to love others.