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Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 10: What if they are not listening?

But if they will not listen…If they still refuse to listen…if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:16-17 (NIV)

What do you do when someone puts up sound-proof walls around themselves to protect against hearing the truth? …When “I did not do that,” or “I am right no matter what you say,” are their mottos for resisting restoration?

It happens. Believers deploying smoke screens to excuse their behavior. Believers’ thinking affected by deadly sin choices which have them acting and believing irrationally. Or believers presenting an aggressive offense as their defense, pointing fingers and seeking to turn the truth on its head to make themselves the ones who are right.

What do you do when they will not listen? The plain reading of Jesus’ words is that such a person is to be treated as a ‘tax collector’ or ‘pagan’. In biblical times, this meant ending fellowship, not just on a Sunday morning, but also in your daily life. This concerned ‘table fellowship’. Table fellowship meant eating together, being treated as family, keeping each other’s back. Paul shared this directive to the Corinth church over an unrepentant believer among them:  “Do not even eat with such people.” 1 Corinthians 5:11 (NIV).

A tough decision. So it is not something that you should do quickly or lightly; because this is not about public shaming to try to manipulate the person into backing down. It is not about punishing someone for being stupid and needing more time to gain understanding of inner issues. This signals the death of a relationship. You are essentially letting the person go out of the church and out of your life. It is a breech in fellowship that only God can repair by bringing that person to repentance through allowing him or her to experience misery and ruin he or she did not expect.

Only once in my ministry did I have to go the distance on this teaching of Jesus. A broken relationship resulting in acrimonious accusations and public humiliation that led to intervention and spiritual counseling long before it reached toxicity. One of the participants submitted to counsel and stepped back from ministry until God’s healing was evident to the church. But the other person involved was not interested in healing the rift. Believers sought to speak into the person’s life, but nothing changed.

Finally, it had to be taken to the church. I did not do this during a morning worship time, but invited the congregation to come to a special family time where the facts as we knew them were laid out and the implications were discussed. It was painfully sad. It did not feel like a win.

There is no satisfaction in the failure of a bruised reed to confess sin and be restored—to watch people walk away from being reconciled. But Jesus did make it clear that this can happen. There will always be people who will not listen, who believe that they are so right that they can defy the urgings of the church to reconsider their beliefs.

There is a word for this—hardheartedness. Matthew records Jesus tackling this issue in this gospel’s next chapter, when Jesus has to deal with the question of the right to divorce for all causes or just a specific cause. He tells his questioners that the law they were fervently debating was given because of men’s hard hearts (Matthew 19:8). Hardheartedness, by Jesus’ definition, is not confusion or disagreement. It is not merely the pull of an addictive lifestyle. It is a heart that rejects surrendering to God’s reign over itself. It is following a destructive path that will bring judgment from Him.

  • It is the heart that says I will not confess that wrong I have done—ever.
  • It is the heart that says I do not agree with what God is asking me to do—I have rights, after all.
  • It is the heart that says I am right—no matter what anyone else believes.

Jesus wept over Jerusalem for this reason. Its people, especially its leaders, had hard hearts towards those God had sent to warn them. He foresaw the future judgment that would come upon the city.

What do you do with a bruised reed who will not listen?

You have to give them up in the end. Not before you have done all you can to prevent him or her from being broken. Not in a way that suggests that you will be glad when God’s judgment falls and that you plan to dance on their grave. There is no joy, but weeping, when bruised reeds tell you to ‘talk to the hand’.

This is a reminder to us that we cannot fix people. We can love them. We can invest in them through personal relationship and giving wise spiritual counsel. But they will only be made whole by the grace of God, not by our best efforts, our most passionate arguments. And so, sometimes the only thing we can do it let them go down the path they have chosen, as sad as this is to us.

More to come . . .


-Steve Smith