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By Jon Bloom — 2 years ago
A few months back, considering the heightened level of contention among some American Christians in recent years, I stumbled upon this golden nugget of pastoral wisdom from Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan pastor from four hundred years ago:
It were a good strife amongst Christians, one to labor to give no offense, and the other to labor to take none. The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others. (The Bruised Reed, 47)
Sibbes was exhorting his Christian brothers and sisters during a terribly contentious historical moment, when professing Christians in England were saying and doing appalling things to one another. And it seems to me that we would be wise to heed Sibbes’s counsel, and do our part to contribute to the collective public reputation Jesus desires for us: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
We all know from Scripture, however, that there are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words (Proverbs 27:6). And we all know that those on the receiving end of our hard, wounding words may, and often do, find them offensive. So, if we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle should guide us for the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with our words?
“There are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words to someone.”
Well, not surprisingly, Sibbes has something very helpful to say about this as well. But first, I need to provide the biblical context from which Sibbes draws his principle.
Jesus on the Offensive
It was during the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, just days before his crucifixion. There had been numerous tense verbal exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders, as the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all tried to get Jesus to incriminate himself with his words — and all failed. So, they gave up that strategy (Matthew 22:46).
And then Jesus laid into them, delivering seven prophetic, scathing “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, requiring 36 of 39 verses in Matthew 23 to record. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matthew 23:13)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)
You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
This is Jesus at his most offensive — at least we would have thought so, had we been scribes or Pharisees back then.
But this raises an important question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive? The distinction may seem small, but answering the question illuminates when our own love requires hard words — and what our aim in those hard words should be.
To answer, we need to briefly look at how the New Testament defines an offense. (Then I promise I’ll share that other gold nugget from Sibbes.)
Let’s start by tackling one of the most straightforward statements on offense in the New Testament: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Just on the face of this phrase, it looks like Jesus broke a Spirit-inspired command. But these few words don’t tell the whole story. We need to examine their context to understand what Paul specifically means when he says to “give no offense.”
He makes this statement after spending three chapters instructing the Corinthians to “take care” that they not exercise their Christian freedoms (like eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols) in a way that “somehow become[s] a stumbling block to the weak,” thereby destroying another’s faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). And then, as examples of forgoing personal freedoms for the sake of love, Paul describes three ways he and Barnabas had set aside their apostolic “rights”:
They were careful not to offend others by what they ate or drank (1 Corinthians 9:4).
They refrained from getting married so as to maintain undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35; 9:5).
They made no demands on the Corinthian church to provide them financial and material ministry support, even though they had brought the gospel to the Corinthians at great cost to themselves (1 Corinthians 9:6–12).
And why did they deny themselves in these ways? Because, Paul says, “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).
And right there we see what Paul means by an offense to Jews, Gentiles, and Christians: anything that is an obstacle to faith in Jesus. At one place, he even says, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). The Greek word Paul uses here for stumble (skandalizō) is the same word Jesus uses when he warns us not to cause “little ones who believe in [him] to sin,” and to cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye if it causes us to sin (Matthew 18:6–9).
These texts (and many more) capture what the New Testament considers a true offense: saying or doing anything that would prevent others from coming to faith in Christ or persevering in their faith.
Painful Application of a ‘Sweet Balm’
Now we can return to our question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive — in the New Testament sense? Finally, it’s time to share that gold nugget from Richard Sibbes I promised:
We see that our Saviour multiplies woe upon woe when he has to deal with hard hearted hypocrites (Matthew 23:13), for hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad, and therefore usually their conversion is violent. A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls. A sharp reproof sometimes is a precious pearl and a sweet balm. (The Bruised Reed, 49)
I love Sibbes’s take on Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees. He didn’t lose his temper with them and unleash his pent-up frustration with offensive language. He was taking the sharp wedge of a hard rebuke to the hard knots of their hearts.
If, like me, you’re an inexperienced woodsman, you may wonder what a wedge has to do with a knot. Sibbes was quoting an old proverb everyone probably knew back when felling trees was a normal part of life and a sharp wedge was needed to break through a hard timber knot.
“Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. He applied a ‘sweet balm’ with painful reproof.”
The wedge wasn’t the real offense; the knots were the real offense. The scribes and Pharisees were putting obstacles in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12), obstacles that were preventing both them and others from entering the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13). It would have been a “cruel pity” for him to say nothing — or to say something soft. So Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. Or to use another image from Sibbes, he applied a “sweet balm” with painful reproof. And we can see the heart behind this reproof in the tears of Jesus’s lament that appear in the last three verses of the chapter (Matthew 23:37–39).
Hard Kindness of Christian Love
If we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle can we distill from Sibbes’s counsel above that can guide us when we encounter the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with some hard words?
Give no offense to anyone (1 Corinthians 10:32), unless it would be a greater kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4) to bring a hard word and an act of cruelty to withhold it.
This is why Nathan risked offending King David (2 Samuel 12); it’s why Paul risked offending Peter (Galatians 2:11–14); it’s why Jesus risked offending the scribes and Pharisees; and it’s why we are sometimes called to risk offending someone with a painful rebuke. In these cases, if our motive is love and our goal is to remove a stumbling block from someone’s path of faith, our hard words are not truly offensive. They are acts of love, the “faithful . . . wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). If our hearers find them to be “a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8), it may be due to the hard knots of unbelief in their hearts, rather than the sharp wedge of our words.
By Vaneetha Rendall Risner — 1 year ago
While I often shrink back when I think about future suffering, pain has consistently pulled me into the heart of Christ, an unforgettable place of mystery and wonder. As I share in Christ’s suffering, I find an unusual closeness to Jesus that offers a rare glimpse of his glory.
The apostle Paul talks about sharing in Christ’s sufferings, wanting to know him and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). That is, to know by experience, to know personally and intimately, not merely intellectually. Suffering brings an intimacy with God, a mysterious and sacred fellowship that cannot be captured in words.
Somehow, suffering can transport us into the throne room of God, where we feel the tenderness of his embrace, an otherworldly sense of joy, and a fellowship unlike anything else we’ve ever known. For a moment, an awareness of his presence can so completely envelop and overshadow our pain that we become immersed in fellowship with Jesus, unaware of anything around us. Knowing Christ this way has changed me. It’s impossible to forget that closeness, even after the suffering has passed. It has marked me.
“Suffering brings an intimacy with God, a mysterious and sacred fellowship that cannot be captured in words.”
Admittedly, I still don’t welcome the suffering that draws me that close, often preferring to know about Christ’s sufferings intellectually rather than through experience. Even in the midst of it, I’m begging for relief, wanting the pain to go away. But as I submit to him through suffering, something shifts in me. My heart becomes more aligned with his. My union with Christ, a reality for every believer, melts into sweet communion in my pain.
Meeting Christ in Suffering
Jesus fully understands me, but I can understand only the mere edges of him. Yet as I identify with his suffering and yield more fully to him in my sorrow, I possess more of him.
Whatever you are dealing with, you can find your suffering in Christ’s. He knows what it’s like to hunger and thirst, to endure sleepless nights and exhausting days, to experience agonizing pain, and to pour himself out for others who are hostile in return. His cousin was murdered, his family misunderstood him, his hometown rejected him, and he watched as a sword pierced his mother’s soul. People used Jesus, flattered him, criticized him, lied about him, betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, humiliated him, whipped him, and watched him die an excruciating death.
So where can you identify with him in your suffering? If you have ever been betrayed by a friend, someone you loved and trusted, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering. Or if you have ever begged God to remove your anguish, and God denied your desperate request, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering. Or if you have experienced tormenting, all-consuming physical pain with no relief, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering.
There is no suffering we can experience that our Lord cannot relate to. And as we experience a portion of what he did and yield to him in it, we find a precious intimacy with him.
When the Worst Pain Comes
Joni Eareckson Tada understands this sacred experience, as she lives with crushing pain on top of her quadriplegia. In her latest inspiring book, Songs of Suffering, she tells of a friend who has become my friend as well. Barbara Brand, who has MS and brain lesions that cause excruciating pain in her head, gets regular injections into her skull and neck (about forty at a time) just to relieve the uncontrollable pain and nausea. Barbara, who is mostly bedridden, says of these injections,
Whenever the needles sink deep into my head, the extreme pain brings into sharp focus Jesus and his crown of thorns. The image calms my heart, but best of all, it binds me to his love. I picture my Savior yielding to the spike-like barbs, wholly embracing his own suffering to rescue me. So when needles plunge into my skull, my heart is cheered knowing that he is beckoning me into a deeper sanctum of sharing in his sufferings. Wonder of wonders, in some small measure, lowly me gets to identify with and enter his grief. The Bible tells me to be an imitator of God, so I get to imitate Jesus and his glad willingness to submit to the Father’s s terrible, yet wonderful, will. It’s the only way I can, through Christ, do everything. Even these awful injections. (115)
“As I submit to him through suffering, something shifts in me. My heart becomes more aligned with his.”
This is sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. We want to know that Jesus understands our suffering, which he does, but there is an even deeper fellowship when we understand a little of his. And when we can, like Barbara, imitate Jesus and his glad willingness to submit to God, we experience a profound kinship with him.
Not Only in Suffering
As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we also share in his comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5), not a thin set of platitudes that make us feel better in the moment, but an explicable fellowship that carries a sturdy peace. The weightier the suffering, the greater the comfort, the richer the fellowship, and ultimately the deeper the joy. And that joy will only increase when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:13).
Furthermore, the more we share in Jesus’s sufferings, the more we understand the power of his resurrection, and the more we can see his glory. Suffering can open our eyes to God’s glory — we see and experience it rather than learn what glory means intellectually. And as we behold God’s glory, we are being changed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), becoming more like him. Even more mysteriously and astonishingly, sharing in Christ’s sufferings means we will one day share in his glory, a glory that will make today’s sorrows seem light and momentary (Romans 8:17–18; 2 Corinthians 4:17).
If you are in a season of deep pain and loss, you have a particular opportunity to know the Lord Jesus more deeply. To know him by experience and not just academically. While we can know more about Jesus through Bible study, small groups, books, and sermons, some of the richest dimensions of our relationship with him will be forged through suffering. That relationship bound through sorrow offers not only comfort and communion, but also a glimpse of glory that will transform our faith, make us more like him, and prepare us for the unspeakable glories that await in eternity.
By Carolyn Mahaney — 6 months ago
We don’t seek out disillusionment, but sooner or later, it finds us.
This unwelcome visitor showed up at my door years ago when a slander storm wreaked havoc on our family and ministry. The slander destroyed godly reputations, severed Christian fellowship, and laid waste to years of fruitful ministry. It felt like a lifetime of serving God had all been for naught, and I sank into despair. Over the next several years, I would pray and hope for good. But as false accusations continued to swirl and devastate, I wondered if it was worth praying since God didn’t seem to answer.
“While God wasn’t changing my circumstances, he was using my circumstances to change me.”
But God was answering my prayers. Even though I didn’t perceive it initially, the good I had been hoping for was happening inside my heart. While God wasn’t changing my circumstances, he was using my circumstances to change me. Through a study of the book of Ecclesiastes, God graciously freed me from my despair and helped me find peace and joy in the middle of our storm.
Busy with an Unhappy Business
Our painful circumstances had blindsided me, yet I shouldn’t have been so surprised. We were not experiencing something unusual or unique. God already said that this is the way life truly is. As Ecclesiastes 1:13 tells us, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” Perhaps this is not a verse you have underlined in your Bible. But if we carefully consider it, this divinely inspired text will transform our perspective of life’s hardships and heartaches.
Ecclesiastes 1:13 informs us that everyone in this life will “be busy with” “an unhappy business.” Now, we women know busy. Every day we are busy with something: school, friends, family obligations, household tasks, job responsibilities, church commitments, community outreach, and the list goes on. However, many of us don’t count on being busy with an unhappy business. Yet as Ecclesiastes makes clear, “unhappy business” is a regularly scheduled event on life’s calendar. That’s why we should be ready for it.
When we expect an unhappy business, we are not caught off guard or disillusioned when it turns up. However, if we ignore the fact that it is coming, we will resent its arrival every time. And resenting and resisting our unhappy business will only blind us from seeing who gives it to us in the first place.
God, the Giver
If Ecclesiastes 1:13 simply taught that we will be busy with an unhappy business, then we all would despair. But thankfully, this verse also contains these words: “God has given.” God is the giver of every painful and perplexing experience in this life. What sweet, comforting words. Whatever our difficulty — fill in the blank — God has given it to us.
“God is the giver of every painful and perplexing experience in this life.”
I needed to embrace this truth in my difficult circumstances. I was struggling with bitterness toward those who were sinning against my family. But when I began to own that, ultimately, God was the giver of my unhappy business, I was then able to get my eyes off others and repent of my bitterness. The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wisely said, “Whoever brings an affliction to us, it is God that sends it.”
Knowing that God sends our affliction changes everything. Rather than bitterly begrudging our trouble, we can humbly accept it. That’s because we know the Sender. He is good and does good (Psalm 119:68). He promises never to leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13). He pledges to help us (Psalm 46:1) and to comfort us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). And he causes all our unhappy business to work together for our good (Romans 8:28).
Trusting vs. Trying to Understand
While we can be sure that God is up to good in our unhappy business, we don’t always perceive it. Time and again, right when I thought I was finally seeing the good that God was creating in our baffling circumstances, it would all collapse. What is God doing? I asked, wracking my brain. The harder I tried to understand, the more frustrated I became. Once more, I found help in the book of Ecclesiastes. We read in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
We discover from this verse that God gives us the desire to know what he is doing: “He has put eternity into man’s heart.” Yet he also limits our understanding: “[Man] cannot find out what God has done.” In other words, God has ordained our longing to understand and our inability to do so.
Now, we must not conclude from this that God is being unreasonable and unkind. On the contrary, God is graciously teaching us to trust him. While we may be unable to figure out what God is doing, we can learn to trust him anyway. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “The Christian . . . trusts [God] where he cannot trace him.” And of all the reasons we have for trusting our God, there is none more glorious and guaranteeing than this: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
Hope in God Alone
At times, we think we are trusting God when we are not. Such was the case for me. As the slanderous onslaught continued, I realized I wasn’t hoping in God. Instead, I was hoping for a particular outcome. Whenever the desired outcome failed to materialize, I would despair. I needed to set my hope on God, regardless of the result. Much of our misery in trouble is due to misplaced hope — hoping in something or someone other than God himself. But quiet confidence in God alone generates stability and delight amid all the unhappy business of life.
We should trust God like Sarah and the other “holy women who hoped in God” — women whom the apostle Peter commends as examples for us to follow (1 Peter 3:5). We know from reading the Old Testament that disillusionment called upon these women. Yet they were not surprised by the visit. They knew God was the giver of their unhappy business. And they trusted in his sovereign goodness even when life didn’t make sense. They did not place their hope in changed circumstances but fixed their hope on God and him alone. By God’s grace, we can go and do likewise, no matter how busy we are with life’s unhappy business.