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Compassion, Judgment, and Humility - a study of Galatians 6

Christ saved us in our sin, and so we must be gentle with others struggling through repentance.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 6

Because we have been saved by grace, and not by our own doing, all Christians should be gentle with those caught in sin, worried first about restoring them (because we too sin), but we must do so carefully and with an eye toward the good of the church. In all of our work, we must point the world to Jesus.

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. Galatians 6:10

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Self-Control

If “gentleness” is the ability to control one’s anger, then “self control” applies to the rest of it. Self control refers to our ability to keep our fleshly desires in check. Almost every passage we study includes at least one type of self control (and our next lesson in James will focus on this!).

Pretty As a Peacock!

Animal quiz: name animals who puff themselves up in order to attract a mate or establish dominance over a group. Peacock immediately comes to mind for me, but my favorite will always be the birds of paradise. Puffing one’s self up works in the animal kingdom.

Do some people try to do the same thing? Of course they do. We sometimes call this "acting like you're somebody". How and why do people do that? One of Paul’s points this week is that people who do that are in fact nothing. God looks into our hearts—our sins, our motivations, our goals. We cannot fool (or mock) God!

Self Help

There are a bunch of misdirected “self help” quotes out there (I put more below), mostly of the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” kind. What’s wrong with this advice?

Paul will have much to say about this.

This Week's Big Idea: Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?

In 1994, Dwight Carlson (MD) published Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? That was a day when compassion was pretty low in our country. His specific purpose was to explain that emotional problems and mental problems were not a sin, that some people suffered from emotional trauma (like any other trauma) and from mental disease. Today, many more Christians understand this. Back then, those people found blame and condemnation—they were told that they just needed to work harder to get over their problems. Rather than try to help, fellow church members simply took shots at them (if you’ve heard the phrase “kick them while they’re down”, that’s this). Carlson wanted church members to be more redemptive in their behavior toward one another. Paul would agree. Carlson’s book sparked another conversation that is more in line with our passage: in addition to “shooting” those suffering from emotional trauma; Christians also “shoot” those “suffering” under repentance.

1994 was not a year for compassion. The 80s and 90s saw some very high-profile moral failures (in our age of social media, I don’t think anything surprises us any more). Here are some that come to mind: In 1987, we discovered that Jim Bakker had forced sex on a secretary and was stealing thousands from his ministry. In 1991, we discovered that self-proclaimed expert on Satanism Mike Warnke made all of it up. Also in 1991, high-profile Pentecostal evangelist Tony Alamo suffered the first of many arrests for money laundering, tax evasion, and even child trafficking! The most famous one involves Jimmy Swaggart who, after demanding that a fellow minister step down for having several affairs, was caught with a prostitute. Rather than obey his Assemblies of God’s two-year suspension, he returned to his pulpit quickly, resulting in being defrocked. There were two big reactions—those who tried to defend these actions, and those who attacked them. Most Christians attacked. And attacked. And attacked.

It is important to acknowledge that sin has consequences. For a Christian leader to sin, someone who is held to a higher standard in the Bible, demands at the very least a loss of position and authority. And unfortunately, in the case of these high profile failures, there was a clear lack of responsibility taken. Some of these men tried to hide it, or excuse it, or say “it’s none of your business”. And that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Here’s the problem: we discovered that same vindictive, condemning attitude toward all Christians, leaders and laypeople, those unrepentant and repentant. If someone sinned, they were ostracized, gossiped about, punished, even no longer welcome. That’s when we realized that Carlson’s book applied not just to those who were suffering from emotional damage but also those who had sinned and were repenting. Christians demanded their proverbial pound of flesh from every “sinner” on the books (except themselves, of course). But there was no grace, no love, no path to restoration. Just condemnation.

What is the worst thing we can do for a Christian who has been caught in sin? Isolate him from the Christian support necessary for overcoming that sin. In other words, not only do churches “shoot their wounded”, but then they toss their bodies to the street! Is that the approach that Jesus showed to us? Is that how God dealt with us? Thank God no! The punitive measures mentioned by Jesus are for unrepentant sinners to drive them to repentance. Once that sinner has repented, grace and mercy must become the order of business.

Let me illustrate this with a story from an Amish community—a very strict denomination. One Amish man built a barn that was not within his community’s code, so he was shunned until he would rebuild his barn. (“Shunning” is how Jesus said to treat an unrepentant sinner in Matthew 18:17.) His son was so mad that he burned down several other barns in retaliation. The father realized that his own pride had led his son down that path, so he repented. The son, seeing his father’s change, turned himself in. Because they saw the repentance in the father and son, the entire community came to the trial—not to try to manipulate the outcome, but let the boy know that they would be there for him whatever the court decided.

Now that’s a Christian response to a fellow Christian falling into sin. Encourage them toward repentance, and when they repent, be there for them as they experience the consequences. There are some great (and challenging) truths you will find in this passage, and I think this “shoot your wounded” mentality is important to overcome. When our Christian brethren fall (and they will), don’t just condemn them—be there to forgive, love, and support them when they repent and struggle back to their lives.

Our Context in Galatians

Paul has finished his case that the Galatians should not follow the false Judaizer teachers, but rather they should stay firmly within God’s grace. At the end of the letter, he shows them what a life of grace looks like. Importantly, he answers several charges. A life of grace is not one of license, one of being namby-pamby, one that excuses wrongdoing! No, a life of grace is one that tries to live as Jesus did. The fruit of the Spirit David is preaching this week is “self control”; well, Paul would describe this life as “Spirit control”. Indeed, the best self control is learning how to let the Spirit control, right?


Part 1: Guards (Galatians 6:1-5)

Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.

Look, we are all going to sin. Self-righteousness is a trap because eventually our own sin will be found out. The spiritual response to someone else’s sin is restoration. Mature Christians worry more about how we can help redeem someone from their sin than how to punish a sinner. In other words, our focus should be on that person’s future; we trust that God will bring about the appropriate kind of punishment. Paul gives us some important guidelines:

  1. We must be gentle. Think about it—when you have been found in sin, what attitude works best confronting you? For me personally, yelling and finger-pointing just turns into noise. But when someone I trust lovingly pulls me aside to say “think about what you’re doing”, that gets my attention. And when I am in the throes of repentance, that gentle encouragement to stay on course goes a lot further than a bunch of shouting. But,

  2. we have to be careful when helping somebody in sin. Bringing somebody to repentance can be messy. Sometimes we have to go and rescue them (surely you’ve heard a story of a dad physically removing his son from a drug house, or his daughter from a sex house). But when it comes to that, we have to be very careful that we don’t find ourselves falling into the same sin. We can’t go in pridefully, “I would never commit that sin, so I’m not worried”—no, when it comes to sin, there are a bunch of them all together, and the sin that gets you will be the one you’re not looking for.

It is important to note that the word “overtaken” has a sense of surprise in it. The word “wrongdoing” literally means a “false step”. In other words, Paul is talking about the person who didn’t necessarily mean to fall into sin rather than someone who deliberately, persistently has gone back into sin. The “hardened sinner” needs just as much love and grace as anyone else, but the truth is that it is much harder for that person to come to repentance. It is also important to note that “restore” has to do only with that person; it’s sometimes a medical term, “mending broken bones”. In other words, Paul wants us to help that person come back to health so that they can work to restore their relationships. Paul isn’t saying anything about restoring their previous life. He isn’t saying anything about putting them back into their position of leadership; he isn’t saying that the family has to welcome him back with open arms. No, there are consequences to sin. And there is no one-size-fits-all response to sin (which is why Paul didn’t go there). The only thing Paul is saying is that as an outsider, our goal must always be restoring a sinner to spiritual health and helping that person down the right path. That’s what “carry one another’s burdens” means—we acknowledge that someone else’s sin will affect us, and we accept that without grudge. Why? Because no one of us is above any other. It is never beneath a Christian to help someone, no matter how “unimportant” we think they are. Why? Because Jesus stooped down to help us—and we are very much “beneath” Jesus. That’s Paul’s irrefutable argument to the person who’s attitude toward anyone caught in sin is “good riddance”: Jesus didn’t say “good riddance” to us in our sin. If we get puffed up in how important we are, how we don’t have time to help someone in sin, or how we need to tear someone else down in order to build ourselves up, then we have lost sight of what we really are: a speck in the universe. The only thing that makes us special is the fact that God made us and God loves us. When we realize how everything we have done that is good is from God, then we can “take pride” in our lives, because we see how God has used us for the good of many, not just for the good of ourselves. [Note that Paul transitions with a warning: do not presume on other people’s grace and support. Just as today, some people took advantage of others’ mercy and help.]

End with a scenario: two people are moving on the same day: a good friend who is moving into a bigger house, and someone in your church who is moving because he was caught in sin and lost his job. What would you be most likely to do? What do you think Paul would tell you to do? What do you think you should do?


Aside: Why Christian Counselors Should Be Trained and Certified

Christian counselors should be licensed just as secular counselors, but there is a reason why a Christian counselor should also be trained in a seminary setting (a number of seminaries have degrees in Christian counseling). Most of us, when we counsel a friend, are going to be dealing with things familiar to us—adjusting to a new job; dealing with a rebellious child; even if we have not been divorced, we may know enough about it to be able to help a friend who is going through it. But the sinful side of humanity gets very dark very quick. When I was in seminary, I took a counseling class. We talked about sex addictions. Suicidal thoughts. The illegal drug world. Self mutilation. And worse. I realized (1) that I am not qualified to speak like a professional on a number of things that real people go through. Not knowing how to handle it, I would probably do more harm than good if I didn’t take that person to a professional counselor. And (2), helping someone through a dark sin requires that the counselor “get messy”. Those times can get ugly because it requires the counselor to dive deep into that sin with the person in order to help him out of it—not every Christian is strong enough to do that without falling into sin himself (which is exactly Paul’s point here). In other words, it is okay for us to say that someone needs professional Christian counseling. Paul would agree. And it's also important for us to make sure that any counselor we recommend is trained and certified -- not just by a state board but also by a Christian board.


Part 2: Stewards (Galatians 6:6-10)

Let the one who is taught the word share all his good things with the teacher. Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows he will also reap, because the one who sows to his flesh will reap destruction from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.

This next verse seems off-topic, like Paul is just concluding his letter with a series of parting statements. But Paul is actually giving them an example of what “carrying your own load” looks like. There are some Christians who believe that pastors should have to work for their own living and then serve the church for free (like most church members). That’s not what Paul meant. Rather, a pastor works hard on behalf of the church, and so that church should support its pastor. A question exists whether the “God is not mocked” statement goes with this or with the following verses. I think it goes with both. A person who fails to support his pastor is probably stingy or self-gratifying. God knows the truth. That same person will be one who indulges his fleshly desires, and the result will be not good.

Just as a mature, spiritual Christian realizes that his best response to sin is to help the sinner toward repentance and spiritual restoration, that same Christian realizes that he should be generous with all of God’s many gifts and blessings—not just with the repentant sinner, not just with the church’s spiritual leader, but with everything. Ask your class: “which crop is more likely to produce a big harvest: one where many seeds were sown, or one where few seeds were sown?” When Paul talks about “doing good” and “working for good”, that’s what he means. We don’t work hard so we can puff ourselves up and compare ourselves to other Christians who may not be as productive as us. We work hard to sow a spiritual crop so that one day others may reap the spiritual harvest.

Why might Paul tell them not to get tired of doing good? Well, why do you get tired of doing good? It’s usually when we don’t see the fruit—when we don’t think our work is accomplishing anything. Paul tells them not to give up because God will bring the harvest at the proper time. We don’t have God’s perspective. Think of times in your life when you found out years later that work you did (maybe as a children’s teacher) made a difference. Or maybe you remember an investment someone made in your life that “paid off” years later. We are to work tirelessly for the good of one another, and especially for those in our church. That’s not to be selfish; that’s because people in our church may not have anyone else. Remember that in Paul’s day, there was no Social Security; people only had family members to take care of them in need. If someone was truly in need, they would go into slavery, prison, or just starve.


Part 3: Proclaims (Galatians 6:14-15)

But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.

Paul offers one last exhortation to summarize his whole letter: everything comes back to the cross of Christ. In the cross is found grace and forgiveness—therefore we should not be so foolish as to work for our salvation. In the cross, God Himself stepped down into the muck to save worthless sinners, so we should see every person around us as infinitely valuable and worth every effort of good. In the cross, we were released from the law and given the Spirit by which we could live for God, and so we must take on God’s priorities and motives. In the cross, God provided a path to salvation for every human being, and so we must recognize all humans as our equal before God.

Essentially, circumcision is purely external (just like the physical act of baptism). What matters is not whether or not you have been circumcised but whether or not you have been made new by the Spirit. (Note: what is different about baptism is that we are supposed to do that as believers as an act of obedience, unlike circumcision which parents do to their children; baptism does not save us, but it is an important step of obedience to Christ.)

So, in summary, understand (1) why we deal gently with sinners, (2) why we don’t think too highly of ourselves, (3) why we still work hard to carry our own load and share our good things, and (4) why the cross of Christ changes the way we look at people and ourselves. If you get these truths, you understand the letter to Galatians and some important nuances of the Christian life. Pray for one another that they will support and protect one another and reach out to the world.


Closing Thoughts: More Unhelpful Self-Help

I believe that the reason Americans have trouble understanding Paul is that we have a “poster” approach to hard work and pulling your own weight. It’s a “virtue” to out-work one another, and it’s a “virtue” to condemn those who don’t. Paul says there’s no place for that in the church. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others at all—that leads us to getting a big head as well as becoming judgmental (both of which are unacceptable for Christians—the very kind of sin Paul warns us about!). Yes, Christians need to work hard and do what we can to help the whole community, but we don’t need to be looking over everyone else’s shoulders and judging what they’re doing, and we certainly don’t need to find our identity in our work production! Our identity is always found in Christ, and Christ is the same Savior of us all. Live by these posters, and you'll miss the point of Jesus.


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