We have all been there. Someone in our small group asks to have coffee and we agree. Soon, we are sitting across a table before work one morning and see the expression on their face. We know the expression, we have had the expression. It is guilt and shame mixed with concern. As the conversation progresses, it turns to confession. Our friend is struggling with a particular sin and knows that confession is the right approach to dealing with it. They are seeking help, and they have come to us.
Or perhaps the tables are turned and everyone in the group is noticing a behavior or pattern in someone’s life that is destructive. There have been enough instances to merit a conversation, and now we are sitting across the table ready to question someone’s actions for their own good and for God’s glory to be demonstrated in their life.
These are tough moments, but mature believers know they are important, vital even, to holiness. I have sat on both sides of those conversations. I have been the recipient of confession and the confessor. I have had people drop stuff in my lap and I have approached others in confrontation. It is because we love each other, we want what is best for each other, and we have a God who deserves a holy witness before the world.
But something often happens in that moment. The person lays their sin out on the table, and it is ugly. There it is, sitting next to your coffee and muffin. Eye contact is made and you see the pain produced by sharing this, the vulnerability as they await your first words. Are you going to recoil in disgust? People sin, but only gross people do that! Are you going to hammer them?
No, most of us know better than that. Instead, we excuse it.
In his excellent counseling book, Side by Side*, Ed Welch discusses the importance of confession and talking about sin. He says this, “Sin is our most dangerous problem… Though we prefer to live and let live when it comes to sin, we know that God has called us to help one another face our sins.”
Welch spends a solid chapter of his book on the importance of this confrontation with others about sin. It is a big deal, and we need to do it well. However, he makes an interesting point concerning the way we often approach sin. We are usually concerned about coming off too hard on someone, and this causes us to commiserate instead of counsel. Welch states, “a common mistake is either to match sin for sin or to sympathize in some way.”
He is right. I have done both of those. Think back to a time when you were talking with someone about sin and your response was to let them know you had done it as well. You spend five minutes telling them how natural it is and how many other people are dealing with the exact same thing. This is the kind of helping that hurts.
Though our goal might be to make someone feel less alone or embarrassed by their confession, commiserating doesn’t help. It shifts the conversation away from what is most important. Instead, we keep the focus on the issues at hand. We want to partner in an all-out battle against sin.
He suggests to use phrases such as: “What can I do to help?” or “What can we do to fight?”
Of course, Welch is not saying we never discuss our similar struggles. The goal is not to hide your problems or to make them feel as though they are the only ones who have them. No, tender care is the rule in this setting. No need to kick a man while he is down. Nevertheless, commiseration is not counsel. Commiseration stops short of actually dealing with sin. You have been asked to that table for help, not to just make them feel better. Commiseration is the easy way out for both parties. It can give them false peace with their conviction, and it keeps you from rolling up your sleeves and joining the fight with them.
May we heed Welch’s advice and truly love one another well.