In wisdom and love God does not leave his people to live this life alone, but rather calls us into community. One of the sad inevitabilities of living in community is that we will sin against one another. The invitation to Christian community is an invitation to be tested by other people’s sin and weakness.
There are many ways to react badly when sinned against by another Christian. Some of us tend to react with sulking and feeling sorry for ourselves. Some go big and blow up while others give in to the slow, brooding kind of anger. Some just walk away. There are as many ways to react badly to sin as there are ways to sin against one another. There are not nearly as many ways to react well to being sinned against. The Bible gives us two: lovingly overlook that sin or lovingly address that sin. The question is, when are we to overlook and when are we to address?
The well-known eighteenth chapter of Matthew provides a detailed roadmap for addressing sin, but before a person follows that route, he first needs to determine whether or not this is the kind of sin he can simply overlook. Overlooking a sin is held high in Scripture. Proverbs 19:11 says “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Proverbs 12:16 says that “the prudent ignores an insult” and on the other side of the cross, in 1 Peter 4:8, we are commanded, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”
Love covers a multitude of sins, but love does not always cover a multitude of sins. There are situations in which the most loving action is to address a sin, to make known to the other person that you have been offended by his words or deeds, and to give him the opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness.
Here is how you can go about determining whether this is an offense you should overlook, or an offense you should address.
Before you do or say anything to another person, examine yourself. Try to see if there is a log in your eye that you have missed in all the fixation on the speck in your neighbor’s eye. As much as you can, examine your motives to determine why it is that you desire confrontation or why you desire to avoid confrontation. Are you angry and seeking revenge? Do you harbor a grudge against the person and feel like you can only ease this burden by telling him of his offense against you? Will you only feel better after you inflict guilt upon him? As you focus on your own sin and on your motives, you may find that the desire to pursue confrontation fades in the light of God’s holiness and in the darkness of ungodly motives.
Examine Yourself Again
Having now established that your motives are pure and that you are not overlooking a similar sin in your own life, examine yourself to ensure that you are right in this matter. Have you looked for Scriptural principles to determine if you have truly been sinned against? Is there clear violation of a Scriptural principle here, or are you dealing with a gray area? If you find that this is a gray area where there is no clear definition of right or wrong, it may well be best to simply put the matter aside.
Determine How Important It Is
If you have passed through the first two filters and still believe this is an issue worthy of confrontation, consider just how important a matter this is. Are you dealing with a matter of preference or a matter of objective right and wrong? Is this an issue that will have long-term ramifications or something that will not much matter one way or the other? Are you making dogma out of personal preference? If, upon examination, you determine that this matter is not of great importance or that it is more about preference than anything else, just let it go.
Look for Patterns
There are times that we sin in a way that is out of character. For example, you may be consistently punctual but then, one day, show up late for an important meeting. In such a case it would probably not be worth my while addressing this offense. However, if you are constantly showing up late for even the most important meetings, this may be a matter I should address with you. We often do better to confront patterns of sin or offense than isolated incidents (though, obviously, with more egregious offenses we may need to confront them immediately).
Before approaching the person who has offended you, ensure that you are being sensitive to his or her unique situation. There may be stresses or strains in that person’s life that are causing him or her to act out in ways that are atypical. In such a situation you are not excusing the person’s sin but, rather, understanding that difficult times can cause even the finest Christian to act out in ways that are unusual for him. Adding the burden of confrontation may not be the wise or sensitive thing to do at that moment.
It may be valuable to seek the counsel of other mature Christians before pursuing confrontation, though do ensure that this is not simply an opportunity to gossip and vent, after which you will feel better and let the matter drop. Discreetly seeking wise counsel may be a very good way of “error-checking” your assessment of the previous four steps.
If you have assessed your own heart, the offender, and the offense, you still feel confrontation is necessary, pursue forgiveness and reconciliation in the way Jesus outlines in Matthew 18.
In most cases, though, I think you will find it is wise to let the matter go. This means that you will need to release your pride and outrage. You will need to be willing to let the matter well and truly drop, not telling others about it and not letting it fill your mind and outrage your heart. It is the glory of a man to overlook an offense; it is a foolish and prideful man who believes that every little offense is worthy of confrontation.
(Thanks to Chris Brauns and his book Unpacking Forgiveness for providing this helpful grid)