Sometimes the truth hurts.
Sharp spiritual wisdom, like correction or exhortation from brothers and sisters in Christ, might feel cold and surgical, but it’s a gift that keeps us from being hardened by sin (Hebrews 3:12–15). And just like a surgeon’s incision, the initial cuts might cause pain, but the goal should be to keep us from greater harm. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
Over the last couple years, God worked in my own life through my small group to pierce my calloused heart. I had been flitting from commitment to commitment, failing classes in school, missing meetings with friends I’d scheduled weeks in advance. But the Spirit worked through Christian brothers to convict me and lead me to repentance. It was as if they were holding up an MRI of my heart that exposed the cancerous growth of my unbelief and fruitlessness.
Afraid for my relationship with Jesus, they called me out. But they also pointed me to Jesus. God used those brothers to change me. Yes, it hurt. But that evening of heart surgery set me on a trajectory toward spiritual vitality.
Is God calling you to be a friend who wounds well?
Bad Roots, Bad Fruit
Sometimes we’re only willing to confront others on surface-level sins. We don’t dig down deep into the root system to see how we’ve dishonored Christ and turned away from him. It’s hard to patiently trace those roots up through the stem to the wilting flower of a friend’s life.
Do we patiently feel out the connection between deficient thankfulness, joy, and peace, and a brother’s Netflix binge that numb his affections (Ephesians 5:3–4)? Do we see our sister’s lack of personal joy in her heavenly Father that reveals itself in craving Instagram likes at any cost (1 Peter 3:3–4)?
The gospel says we’re justified by faith alone in Christ’s finished work (Romans 3:28). Yes, you can be struggling with sin, and God’s righteousness will still cover your offense. But it’s also true that anything less than a violent attitude toward our sin can allow the devil to gain a foothold and destroy you (Romans 8:13). God calls us to a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Spiritual Med School
So how do we begin to apply a spiritual scalpel to tumors of the soul and a shovel to sinful root systems as we admonish and encourage one another?
Study the ideal in Scripture. Gardeners know the difference between flowers and weeds. Surgeons know the difference between tumors and organs. So too, we should work to recognize counterfeit faith from genuine faith by studying God’s word.
Take time to study the fruits of the Spirit, in the positive and negative examples of Scripture, and their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Fearless faithfulness? Study Sarah (1 Peter 3:1–6), and then Jesus’s perfect example (Hebrews 3:1–6). Joyful self-control? See its opposite in Esau (Hebrews 12:16), and its fulfillment in Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Nothing prepares us to lovingly confront sin in one another like soaking ourselves in the Bible day after day after day.
I responded well to my friends because they were lovingly looking for roots and tracing them out to bad fruit — they weren’t taking potshots. They knew what they were looking for, and they knew what my choices were demonstrating. They took the time to trace the complex system of my sin, so that together we could destroy tumors in the body of my faith.
My friends aimed precisely at ways my character was deficient. They could see that my character fell short of the fruits of the Spirit in concrete ways. Not going to class on time could mean a self-control issue, but a chain of missing class, paying for things you can’t afford, and overcommitting dramatically increases the probability that the root is a self-control issue. Patiently and prayerfully gather data.
Kill sin by the Spirit (Romans 8:13). There’s a way to stoically encourage self-control in others that doesn’t require any of the Spirit. But Christian Hedonists deny themselves for the delight in the promised reward: more of God. We’re not looking to encourage righteousness apart from the righteousness Jesus purchased for us and empowers in us. We want to convict our siblings that they have no pleasure that lasts except Jesus, and we want to show them that the lies offered to them — no matter what they promise — are actually deadly poison.
Offer precious promises that incite hope and enable a partaking of the sweet sap of Jesus’s own divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The Spirit is supplied to us as we believe the gospel (Galatians 3:5), so be a friend who helps others both see their deficiency, as well as the beauty of Christ’s character that is available to us by embracing his promises.
Follow Up Regularly
We’re fellow servants, sufferers, and sinners-made-saints. We often speak too harshly. We often misdiagnose one another. I didn’t agree with every criticism my brothers offered, but even fallible instruments are wielded by a perfect Surgeon for our good.
Bearing fruit takes watering and sacrifice. Brothers volunteered over the next few months to study with me. Take time to follow up by asking questions, and encourage your brother or sister in small steps toward a concrete goal.
Win What Jesus Won
Do you love your brothers and sisters so much that you’re willing to go to war with them against sin — not just once, but over and over again? Do you hate sin so much that you weep over it with your brothers and sisters?
Jesus has told us that he will not lose one of those whom the Father has given into his hands. He’s already won his bride, and died for every cell in her. And he will have her. But he holds us through the Spirit-empowered hands of our brothers and sisters.
More than likely, you have friends in your life whose roots are sinking into toxic soil. With the Holy Spirit’s help, you can be the spade that exposes them and plants them into the rich ground of God’s truth.