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Deadly Admonitions: How Not to Help Struggling Christians
I was standing in line in an office store behind three people in lively conversation. It was obvious from their speech that they were Christians and, upon listening closer, one of the two men there was a new Christian. I heard the older lady tell this gentleman convincingly, “That’s the Lord’s way of keeping you saved.” What that meant I didn’t have a clue, but I was interested.
It became apparent that this man was trying to quit smoking. Then the other man there, evidently a veteran Christian, advised his friend, amidst much that he said, “Well I always tell folk to smoke, drink, cuss…till you stop. You’ll get tired of it.”
The scenario was not unlike another a friend of mine related to me. He had a friend earlier in his life that was a philanderer. This young man had sought spiritual help in a church service where at some point (whether during or after I don’t know) an old church mother said to the gentleman, “Oh, you’re just being a man, baby.”
May God have mercy upon these men and all like them just beginning the Christian life and even greater mercy upon the sincere ones who counsel them with error!
What Judging Does and Does Not Mean
First some scriptural context. As Christians we do not judge other people in a way that presumes our own innocence of sin or immunity from their sort of sin. This is Christ’s injunction in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:1-6). We are correct in saying that the holiness of God and his righteous standards are in judgment against all ungodliness; and to the extent that we side with righteousness we judge indeed (and this doesn't mean that we have nothing to reprimand when offense occurs).
This is interesting for another reason. Christ explains that sin itself judges and condemns a person (John 3:17-21). When we presume to judge a person in a posture of standing over and against them, without regard of our own sinfulness, we stand in the same condemnatory role as that person’s sin. Thus Christ’s instruction is given to protect us from participating in that person’s sin.
In the end, the position Christ commands of his disciples is one of loving restoration. Thus the apostle Paul is correct when in Galatians 6:1-2 he counsels Christians to restore those overtaken with fault in non-judgmental love with a clear view of one’s own ability to exceed the one in the same sin. In effect, Paul has restated Christ’s command exactly.
Godless and Deceptive Advice
Now, the good that I find in these two accounts is persons who have clearly perceived a trait in their lives as an antagonizing or binding force that works destructively in them and hinders their relationship with God. Their humility makes them ready to receive the grace of God for strength to overcome their struggle. But the great horror for souls like these is to become enjoined to well-meaning Christians with counsel that is not only unscriptural but is simply not thought out.
What could these two young men possibly hear in the advice that was given to them? Perhaps “Continue to have all the uncommitted sex you want. You’re a man and men are highly sexed creatures. You’re only doing what is natural to you and for your body. God doesn’t condemn you yet, baby.” And perhaps “Smoking is a vice you must rid yourself of; but you’re a new Christian and it’s understandable that it might not be so easy at first. Don’t worry too much about it. When the time comes you’ll get tired of it and it’ll stop.”
I find the advice given to these men to be godless and (unintentionally) deceptive. It is godless because it does not rely on the spiritual grace God provides to overcome sin and effectually undermines the work of Christ. "You’re only doing what’s natural to you”—yet if it’s natural I should continue with it, but why am I conflicted and in turmoil over it? “When the time comes…”—you mean that I can’t expect God’s active help in quitting this habit but it will rid itself sometime in my future? What if that’s ten years down the road? The men would be justified responding this way.
Moreover, the advice is deceptive because the New Testament scriptures constantly explain the flesh, the lower, carnal nature and strong coercion in humans in constant battle against the Spirit of God, something the advisors surely understood. The reason why these men were calling on God is because they had become enslaved to their deeds; and after a while people grow to hate the addictions that enslave them.
Demons with Friends
But what about the ones who frolic in sin and like it (and no one can say that sinning doesn’t feel good) and haven’t yet discovered sin to be a hard taskmaster? How will he respond to this advice? “Cool! I can be a Christian and continue to score with every girl I want. God wouldn’t give me my sexual nature just to condemn me for it. It’s a wild buck right now, so I’m going to enjoy the ride while I can.” He will say, “Whew! I really didn’t want to give up my cigs. Quitting would be hell itself. Really, what could it hurt?” (And this indubitably raises the question about whether smoking is a sin or not, but this is not the topic. It is a sin for this man because his conscience tells him so, 1 Cor. 8:4-13.)
The advice given to this kind would effectually send them back into a possibly worse form of their wrongdoing. And how do we defend these admonitions when the wrongdoing becomes strong vice, broadly defined as inordinate sex, substance abuse, or no respect for life?
I need not go on. These two men were on a path to freedom (and hopefully still are) until meeting up with damnably bad advice. What God requires of us in our struggles is that we are always swimming against the current of sin, as tough as it may be. Where sin may be at work in our lives, he requires our utmost efforts to rid ourselves of it as we rely on his strong, supporting grace.