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Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 4: The Enemy is Us

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:10-11 NIV

On the phone was a friend whose sin had just been found out. His marriage was about to go down. His relationship to his church was in tatters. His relationship with God was nowhere in sight. As I absorbed all that he told me, I recognized immediately that my role in all this was to see him restored. No need for me to condemn him, as his sin had already done so.

He was one of the bruised reeds who produce drama for the church, tax its counseling resources, and cause us to bring up the question of church discipline. On their side, bruised reeds are not sure if they will ever be acceptable again. Yet Jesus has not changed his mind about them. What they are really up against is the failure of the rest of us who make up the church to trust Jesus’ gospel and the Spirit’s power more than our desire to express outrage at their behavior.

John snaps a picture of this problem when a group of highly moral religious leaders publically marched a woman before Jesus. Their motives were certainly mixed, as was true in all these kinds of confrontations that Jesus faced. But Jesus was a rabbi, after all—someone who was supposed to interpret the Torah and explain how God’s laws were to be legally applied in life situations. And what a situation! The woman had been caught in the very act of adultery. She was a mess—and in one. Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 commanded that she be put to death.

You know this story. Jesus put it to the delegation, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7 NIV) Then they all left, starting with the oldest. And you know why, too. Jesus had penetrated their defenses and revealed their lack of empathy for this woman because they thought she was worthless next to them. They were of a superior morality. They would never do what she did. But Jesus knew each one had already failed at living a ‘moral’ life—had to have failed because every one of them were affected by the Fall. If nothing else, their treatment of the woman showed how deluded they were about themselves.

Miroslav Volf, Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, explains that “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the sinner from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” There is something penetrating about his words. It is impossible to understand and forgive someone who has messed up, to restore such a person when I exclude myself from the possibility that ”There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Fellow believers have said to me that they could not even image themselves doing ‘such and such’ sins. They were repulsed by the very idea that someone might suggest they would even be vulnerable to such acts. I am sure that they would, if pressed, explain that, of course, they were not perfect. But the gospel means little to those who believe that they only struggle with minor peccadilloes. This kind of thinking is what distorts Jesus’ message when we are confronted with people whose choices have exploded their lives. Instead, we find ourselves thinking, “Bring them before Jesus and let him condemn them. Better yet, let’s skip the part of bringing them to Jesus and just get on with the condemnation.”

Jesus would never in a million lifetimes act out either the sexual adventure of the woman or the arrogant condemnation of the religiously blind. After her accusers had left the scene, he asked the woman was there anyone left to condemn her. “No one,” she replied. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This is pretty bold of Jesus. How does he know she is really sorry for what she had done? What makes him believe she will not do it again? Neither of these questions were asked. Instead, Jesus treats her as a daughter. She is worth the cross to him.

To head off a possible objection that I am applying Jesus’ words here to people who already believe when she was obviously lost, just remember that Jesus is always consistent. His treatment of this woman is no different in substance than his treatment of Peter who denied him. We are much kinder to the lost in need of a savior than we are to ourselves. The mindset is that it’s easier for a lost person to come to Christ than for a messed up believer to be restored. The lost can be immediately forgiven and used by God, but the saved have a long, penitent row to hoe.

All of us should be humbly grateful for Jesus’ forgiveness. We are all on this journey together. Our failure to recognize our own brokenness prevents us from identifying with and having compassion on the Peters among us. But forgiveness and compassion is there in Jesus for every one of us bruised reeds who needs a second chance.


-Steve Smith