“Men must not be too curious in prying into the weaknesses of others. We should labour rather to see what they have that is for eternity, to incline our heart to love them, than into that weakness which the Spirit of God will in time consume, to estrange us. Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, whereas the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak” (Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, 33).
I have been reading Sibbes’ work on the mercy of Christ toward us. The book is an extended meditation on Isaiah 42.1-3. I have been reading it in my personal devotions, and I have been reminded by Christ’s persevering patience with me. How often have I been a smoking flax–a reed that does not give off heat nor light–yet the Lord does not view such paltry devotion as condemnable. Rather, he condescends and fans into flame that smoldering wick so that I can enjoy him more. What may seem like an endless cycle of failed attempts, he views the good.
Sibbes, here, challenges us to reflect the same merciful inclination in our dealings with others. How quick am I to write off someone who rubs me the wrong way. How sure I am that this person is weak in faith and in need of rebuke. How dead set on dealing out justice am I that I cannot see God’s mercy on display in my brother.
I am a curious fellow. Yet, Sibbes challenges the assumption that curiosity–the need to know the intricacies of someone’s sin or weaknesses–is not altogether noble. Rather, curiosity bends toward an inclination to judging again the one whom God has pronounced “not guilty” in his tribunal. The need to gather all pertinent information stems from a desire to sit in the dock and pronounce on others what I would not dare they know or pronounce on me.
Our tendency should be towards wanting to see the good in others, not digging up graves that have been long-sealed when this brother put his faith in the Christ.
“What about leaders?” someone may ask. “Aren’t they held to a different standard?” Surely the pastor will be held to a stricter judgment, that’s why he shouldn’t be too quick to assume the office (James 3.1). Yet, the judgment James speaks about is the Final Judgment performed by the Triune God. This is not an earthly tribunal, nor is it an ad hoc court set up in the figment of our own minds. Rather, God pleads with us to exercise judgment with mercy (James 2.13).
Surely, a leader who sins repeatedly must be rebuked. A leader who is unrepentant must be ousted. But the leader who sins, and seeks forgiveness, should be forgiven. We should not exact perfection, nor should we use a canon distinct from our own lives.
I fear that those who so quickly give in to curiosity will find that the proclivity toward mercy will show that they had not received mercy. Those who so quickly write off Scripture’s admonition to cover over sin with love will grope for this kindness and find it wanting toward them.
May we be quick to forgive and slow to condemn. May we entrust right judgment to God. And as we find ourselves in the already-not yet, may we admonish the unrepentant. As we live in the time between the times, may we proactively and persistently give mercy. A mercy that is imperfect, but perpetual. To the degree that we have received mercy, may we give such beautiful and resplendent mercy.