Wagging Fingers or Bended Knees? {on teaching our children about the sins of others}

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What do you tell your children when they witness the sin of others? What should our reaction be? Let's look together at how Jesus handled this very thing.

It was a bright, sunny spring day with puffy clouds in the sky. My children and I were returning home from a busy morning of running errands. Since we were ahead of schedule for once, I decided we would stop at a local coffeehouse to grab a refreshing treat. I love the coconut lattes there and my children love their green tea– fruit smoothies. We could sip our drinks and talk about what the evening held, which included grilling out and a trip to the local baseball diamond where both of my sons had games scheduled for later that evening.

As we rounded the corner of the building to reach the front door, a teenage boy stood near the door with his back facing us. I thought he looked familiar. His navy blue coat and curly brown hair seemed to belong to the son of a friend of mine.  As we got closer, I saw him turn his head to the side and then realized it was my friend’s son. I spoke his name cheerfully to greet him. The reaction I got was not what I expected.

He snapped his head around quickly, looking our way. As he did, he also turned to face us and hid something behind his back. As we grew closer to him, it became evident what was being held back from our view. My nose smelled cigarette smoke, as my eyes saw the concerned and worried look on this teenager’s face.

I made small talk with him, asking about his involvement in a sport I knew he played and questioning how he was coming along in his quest to find a job. I told the children to go into the coffee house and order their beverages and that I would catch up with them in a minute. After a few exchanges of pleasant sentences with this teen, I gave him a hug and then went in to pay for our family’s drinks.

It didn’t take long for one of my children to pipe up, commenting on what they’d seen. “Mom! Was ________ (boy’s name) smoking a cigarette?” one of my kids inquired. Before I could answer, another chimed in, “Oh yes he was! I saw it. AND I smelled it! Smoking cigarettes is bad!!!”

And so that day our little outing to grab something refreshing to drink turned into an impromptu lesson about our thoughts and actions when we encounter what we perceive to be the sins of others.

Throughout eternity, people have reacted to the wrong behavior of others.  A quick trip through the Bible will see people stoning others for their sins.  A glance into a world history book will see individuals being flogged or put in the stocks or forced to wear a red letter “A” on their clothing signifying their status when it came to their sins. And today, well, just how do we react to the news of another’s wrong choices? Or better yet—how should  we react?

Our reaction to another’s sin should be modeled after Jesus. He spoke the truth, but He also enfolded it in forgiveness and lavished it with love.

So what do we teach our kids about the sins of others? Here are a few thoughts:

We all sin.

Sometimes in our quest to raise our children to be godly, we can send a wrong message. When we point out that the standards in our family are in keeping with scripture, sometimes we mistakenly give off the impression that we as a family are somehow immune from making wrong choices; that other people who may exhibit behavior that is in violation of Scripture are somehow “less than” our own family members.

But we all sin. The difference between a Christian and someone who is not a believer is that the Christian knows where to go with their sin. When they first forge a relationship with Christ and place their trust in him, all of their sins are forgiven.  And when they sin in the future—which they will—they have a place to go with their sin. They can hit the refresh button and begin to walk again without the offense being held against them. It is important to remind our children that while we are trying to live a life that pleases God, we will still sin sometimes. Just like other people do.

When we do sin, we need correcting from some, and love and encouragement from all.

Of course when a child makes a wrong choice, he or she needs discipline from their parent. If a student breaks a rule in class, the teacher needs to correct them. Police officers are put in place to confront and arrest those who break the law. A pastor or church leader needs to deal with a public sin of someone in their fellowship. But just because we know someone, it does not grant us the permission to wag our finger at them or try to point out their sin.  Sometimes it is our place to offer gentle correction, keeping in mind we could also need correcting at times. In most cases, however, what they need is to be reassured of our love. To know that we are there for them should they desire to talk. And the straight–up truth that we recognize that we sin too and that we do not think that we are any better than they are. Our default mode should be to lovingly encourage them back toward the right path with out condemning and shaming, wagging a self-righteous finger in their face.

When we see another sin, we need to realize that we could also do the very same thing.

Sin is an icy, slippery slope.  Usually when someone is caught up in a sin that has great consequences, it started with just a little wrong choice. I think of the time a good friend of mine made a choice to start participating in a particular activity without her husband. The activity was not wrong, however it brought her in contact with a lot of single men. I knew she was disillusioned with her marriage at the time and so I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to take up this activity. I gently told her so. Then, one by one, she made a series of choices—from participating in this activity, to talking frequently with a single man she met there, to going out to coffee with him one day, to eventually allowing physical contact to occur. At the end of the sad story, she had an adulterous affair and left her husband and children for this man.

But as sad as that situation was, I came to realize something when I saw it all unfold: It could have easily been me! I too was going through a time in my marriage where I wasn’t so thrilled with the guy I chose. Nor was he too thrilled with me. My friend had invited me to take up the activity with her but I declined. (Thanks be to God!) We are all just a few choices away from the icy, slippery slope of sin. We need to remind our children of this.

When we hear someone talk about the moral failure of others, we must not gossip, but instead make prayer our practice.

Oh boy, is this one not only hard to teach our children but also hard to do ourselves!  But we should refrain from chiming in, giving our unsolicited two-cents worth, when we hear about the moral failure of others. We should stop the conversation, stating only that we will be sure to pray for them. Period. End of story. And then? We should pray for them! 

This is what I did with our children that day we encountered the teen taking a puff on a cigarette. We did discuss the habit of smoking, and whether that was actually a sin, or just a stupid health choice. But I would not allow any discussion about the person. I told them we loved this young man. We had known him for many years and loved his family.  I wanted my children to know that I cared for him and would be praying for him, but I would not be participating in any “Can you believe it?” type of talk. And I quickly shifted the focus back to the times when we are tempted to behave badly and what might make us do so. I wanted to foster empathy in them, while also maintaining the goal of behaving biblically ourselves. A hard balance to achieve.

We need to model for our children acceptance rather than awkwardness.

We need to show our children that even though it may be awkward to be around someone whose lifestyle is violating scripture, we need to love and accept the person in the midst of their struggle. This does not mean we dismiss their sin or act like it is no big deal. It does mean we speak the truth in love. We tell the truth about sin but we also let the person know we love them too much to let them stay stuck. If they desire support and encouragement to take their life in a new direction, we need to be available to pray for them and help tangibly if we can.

I have seen many instances when someone ––especially a struggling teenager––felt more love and acceptance from the wrong crowd rather than they did from Christians. And sadly, they often gravitated toward the wrong crowd because of the awkwardness they felt when they were around a group of Christians who acted uncomfortable or avoided them.

I am not saying we should allow our children to spend a great deal of time hanging around the wrong crowd. As Scripture says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33 HCSB) but they can be taught that when they do encounter the person who is not making good choices, they can be loving and encouraging. They don’t have to be friends with such a person, but they should be friendly when they do have contact with them.

We must teach our children to remember who and Whose they are.

Even though we should strive to teach our children to be loving, patient and understanding with the sins of others, we do want them to fight as hard as they can against sin in their own lives. Therefore, it is important to remind them that at all times they should remember both who and whose they are. They are a member of a Christian family. And they belong to Christ. By reminding them verbally of this, hopefully this phrase will be brought to their attention when they come up to a crossroad where they might be tempted to make a wrong decision. Another way to put it is to say what my own sweet mother used to tell me often, ”Be sure your sins will find you out.” And you know mama is always right!

What else could you add to the list? Discuss with your children how to avoid sin but also how to treat someone else who is making a wrong choice.  Here is a verse to use in your discussion:

Galatians 6:1-2 says,  “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (HCSB)

Remember, model for your children how to refrain from wagging fingers and to bend our knees instead.

Blessings,

Karen

Karen Ehman

Karen Ehman is a New York Times bestselling author, Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker, and writer for Encouragement for Today an online devotional that reaches over 4 million women daily. Her latest book Listen, Love, Repeat: Other-Centered Living in a Self-Centered World, is full of ideas for scattering kindness to family, friends, strangers, and the "necessary people" who help you get life done. A wife and mom of three, she resides in central Michigan where she enjoys cheering for the Detroit Tigers and processing life with the many teens that gather around her kitchen island. Connect with her at karenehman.com where she helps women to live their priorities and love their lives.

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