Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Christians are often divided because we are by nature defensive. Too many divisions in the church — specifically in personal relationships — stem from insecurity and defensiveness in the face of accusation, whether real or imagined. These accusations may fall anywhere on the spectrum from an explicit and harsh rebuke to passive-aggressive concern.

By nature, we are passionately, even ruthlessly, committed to our own image, reputation, and vindication, even at the expense of important friendships or relationships in our lives. Even the people we trust more than anyone — a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a best friend — can quickly become villains with a sideways glance, comment, or question.

When we’re called into question — our integrity, our motives, our work ethic, our love or devotion — our internal alarm sounds and we take up arms to defend ourselves. Why? Because despite being saved by the cross, we desperately want to prove ourselves. We want to be worthy of God’s love — and of everyone else’s admiration.

If someone accuses us of being wrong, we want them to be wrong. And we want everyone else to know they’re wrong.

No Condemnation, No Panic

If you are in Christ, though, you are free from condemnation (Romans 8:1). No judgment can be brought against you that would confiscate anything Christ bought for you on the cross. He paid for all your sins — all your weaknesses, all your failures, every time you hurt or disappoint someone, everything wrong about you. For sure, on this side of eternity, you will be wrong. You will sin (1 John 1:8). But no one — not your friend, not your dad, not even Satan himself — can damn you with that information, however right they may be.

If this promise is true — no condemnation for us in Christ — it should radically reshape our response to criticism. We should be the least defensive people on the planet, because the gavel has fallen once for all, and we are free. We can receive the questions and accusations without fear, and with humility and patience. Instead of being defensive, irritated, or hostile, we can test all criticism — of whatever kind and from whatever heart — calmly and carefully.

Ultimately, there’s only one judgment that matters, and it’s not the courtroom of your friends’ opinion. Through Christ, God has already ruled decisively and eternally on your behalf and in your favor.

Test All Things

Try this: Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. I’m not saying respond as if you’re guilty. Don’t immediately plead guilty. But put on a posture of faith-filled, no-condemnation deference, and be willing to test whatever questions or accusations they bring to or against you.

The Bible tells us to consistently test ourselves anyway, regardless of what others think or say (2 Corinthians 13:5; see also Galatians 6:4). Don’t assume you are in the right. Ask yourself serious, probing questions about your faith and life. “[God] leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Why not, then, also use others’ critical comments as an opportunity to truly search yourself for anything out of step with the gospel? “Test [every potentially prophetic word about or against you]; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). With your Bible open, and your heart humble, try their words on, and see if they fit after all.

We are saved through faith, but only the kind of faith that perseveres and bears fruit — through real faith. We should be zealous to experience and witness the fruit that proves genuine faith. Criticism is a great window through which to see the harvest.

The Spirit in Them

To scoff or too quickly reject a brother or sister in Christ may be to reject the work of God — specifically the Spirit — through them. Responding harshly or defensively might minimize or even smother real things God is showing or teaching them about himself and about you.

As the Spirit pulses through the veins of the body of Christ, the church, we want to encourage its movement into and between every extremity. And yet our ego — our sense of security and satisfaction in ourselves — loves to clog arteries in the church, at least the ones closest to us. We’re quite happy for the Spirit to bring correction and change in the other members, but reflex violently when it comes near us.

Along with his Spirit, God gave your believing friends and family the Bible in order to reprove and correct you. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). God wrote a book, in part, to equip people in your life to help remedy what’s wrong about you.

Therefore, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with [your loving accusers] in love” (Ephesians 4:2), and counting them more significant than yourself (Philippians 2:3), embrace their questions and criticism as God’s love for you. They may not always be right, but like it or not, this is one of God’s most consistent means of making you like himself.

Young and Old

That Spirit, that Book, and that commission of making you more like Jesus are for all believers in your life — those older and more mature than you, your peers in faith and ministry, and even those younger and less mature than you. For sure, these different groups will largely play different roles in your growth and sanctification, but do not disregard criticism just because it’s not from someone further along than you.

Paul says to the young in life and faith, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Does Paul have in mind that this example would just be a confirming one for older believers? No, he also knew their younger, more childlike life would correct older, more mature men and women in the faith. So do not despise or immediately reject the reproof of any Christian, not even those younger or seemingly less mature than you.

More Blessed to Receive

When it comes to rebuke, it very well may be more blessed to receive than to give. The promise from Jesus says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; also James 4:10). Humility lays aside its obsession with its own reputation and vindication. Humility invites correction and accountability, because it values truth and godliness more than its own image or standing. And it is humility that will be rewarded in the end.

Humility will be rewarded in the end, and it will receive grace all along the way. “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6). If we want to experience more of the grace God has for us, we have to humble ourselves. When we deny the impulses to be defensive, irritated, or hostile, God lends us more of his power, his wisdom, and love — more of his grace.

In fact, it is blessed to be criticized and even reviled falsely.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12)

Do we really believe that? If we did, we wouldn’t get so quickly bent out of shape when we’re called into question or maligned, especially not when the criticism comes from people we know love us and our Lord. Then we would resist defensiveness, rejoice in God’s discipline and final reward, and patiently search ourselves for truth and error.