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He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope. (Matthew 12:19–21 ESV)

Isaiah’s farsighted words, spoken almost eight centuries before their fulfillment in Jesus, tell us a lot about God’s intentions in becoming man and tenting among us. In the most personal sense, God did not become man merely to do what many people believe mythological gods do when they show up on the street. He did not come to condemn people—they were already condemned. He did not come to awe people with his secret powers and handsome physique. He did not come to sample the local beer and understand the human experience.

His intentions were much more liberating, according to Isaiah. He intended to bring ultimate justice. To give hope to those who had all their lives lived in ignorance, fear and exclusion. And to do all this with a gentleness that would draw in the broken and wounded, which includes everyone who descended from Adam and Eve.

I am not convinced that this truth is proclaimed today with the level of understanding Matthew had when he applied Isaiah’s words to Jesus. I keep seeing stories of bruised reeds snapped off by the reform-minded church (i.e., the church committed to asking people to obey Jesus in their own strength) who somehow cannot see the damage they are doing. Or the stories of brokenness in a believer’s life that churches are unwilling or unprepared to rescue or restore.

One story that comes to mind is about a 70 year old believer. He and his wife were ‘pillars in the church,’ holding up an example to all about growing wiser with age, displaying how to maintain a long-term loving marriage and finishing well—except the story did not end that way.

The couple discovered the wife had cancer and in a few months, she was gone. He was overpowered by grief. To comfort his pain, he turned to alcohol. Before the year was out, he had become a violent, cursing alcoholic, the total opposite of the kindly, gentle person everyone in his church had known. They were shocked, and watched helplessly as he left the church.

I am struck by the ‘watched helplessly’ aspect of this story, because this kind of experience is all too common. People who have led in the church, who taught others how to follow Jesus, who faithfully trusted God with their lives, their businesses, their families, are suddenly blowing up their lives—or gradually straying away with the same devastating effects. And the church watches helplessly. I do not mean no one tries to intervene. Or that no one prays for this person to return to Jesus. Or that everyone turns their back on this bruised reed.

But sometimes they do turn their backs. Sometimes they throw the person under the bus. Sometimes ultimatums are given—“You cannot continue to serve in such and such a capacity until you have your life all together.” Sometimes the church uses shaming to try to get the person to turn around—“Do you realize that you are hurting the testimony of Jesus?” Sometimes it is begging—“Please consider what you are doing to yourself and the people who love you.” And these ‘sometimes’ are only after they have watched helplessly as the person becomes entangled in sin.

We belong to Jesus. He is the Head of the church—my church, your church. What does it mean for him not to break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering candle? For example, look at the way Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11—would your church have handled that situation the same way? Would you?

This blog series explores the tender side of transformation. I will not be shy about asking the hard questions, probing the difference between restoration and discipline, or humbly admitting my own failures to follow Jesus’ lead in handling people. I will look at the current practices of the church in light of recent events such as the accusations against Bill Hybels and also the Second Chance Church Perry Noble is launching in Anderson, SC. But these and other bruised reed issues will be observed through the filter of Jesus’ actions revealed in the Gospels.

Why? Because what we really believe is what we practice. If we believe that people who are caught in sin and do not immediately repent and turn will ‘burn,’ then judging or excluding people from our fellowship will be the endgame even if we do it regretfully. But…if we are convinced that the power to restore and redeem is at the heart of the gospel, we will not wait until those people are roadkill before we begin discipling them afresh in the transformational gospel which saves them.

Soon I will offer you a way to access the Unfinished Business Seminar that was developed to address this very issue. More to come next week.

-Steve Smith