From the Desert Fathers:
A brother asked the abba Poemen, saying, “If I should see my brother’s fault, is it good to hide it? The old man said to him, “In what hour we do cover up our brother’s sins, God shall cover ours: and in what hour we do betray our brother’s shames, in like manner God shall betray our own.”
Recent comments have raised the perennial question of our responsibility towards others – particularly with regard to their sins. Should we rebuke and exhort them (as is encouraged in certain places in the Scriptures), or do we look the other way and simply pray?
It is always dangerous to suggest one answer that fits every situation because not all things are the same. Nevertheless there are some general principles that are worth considering:
First, the primary passages in Scripture that speak of exhorting or rebuking are not directed towards everyone, but to pastors and elders of the Church. The democratization of Christianity (in so many ways) has tended to forget that not everything written in the Scripture is meant for everyone. When St. Paul gives advice to Timothy or Titus, he is advising fellow Apostles and Bishops of the Church. We can glean wisdom from hearing his advice to them – but not every Christian is Timothy or Titus.
Second, actually discerning sin is a very difficult thing – for we are not told that God judges from without, but from within. Who knows the heart of another?
Third, when is the right time to speak to someone else concerning their sin? For some this may seem simple or obvious, but not if we are seeing rightly. The purpose of every word to another believer, particularly regarding matters such as sin and righteousness should be solely for their salvation. The time for correction is easily as important as the word itself. We may be correct in our judgment but only crush another with our righteousness. The Scriptures say: “A word in due season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)
For some it would seem that certain sins rise to the level of demanding rebuke – perhaps this is true. I do not think I could stand idly by and watch a child be abused (nor should any of us). There is also a place for gentle correction of false doctrine and beliefs.
But even as a confessor, I tremble with fear at the responsibility that is taken up when I begin to rebuke or exhort another. My Archbishop (whom I have heard address the subject of confession on numerous occasions) always says, “A priest should have less to say than a penitent.” There are obvious exceptions to this – but correction is a fearful thing. A priest is not a psychologist nor a lawyer, but “only a witness, bearing testimony of all things you shall say.” Thus I am not responsible to analyze the sins of another, nor to issue hard legal rulings. My task as a confessor is to hear the sins of a penitent and to pronounce the forgiveness of God. If a word should occur to me, then it can be offered, again with fear and trembling.
Salvation is a dynamic work in the soul. It cannot be achieved by the law (“the letter kills,” St. Paul tells us), nor can it be wrought without the cooperation of our free will (however feeble it might be). Finding the right word, a “word in due season,” is a wondrous thing – a great gift from God. It is a word that carries healing of the soul and true salvation.
The Archimandrite Zacharias, one of the elders at the Monastery of St. John in Essex, serves as one of two confessors in that community. When I was visiting there, I saw him hearing confessions for nearly the whole of a weekend as pilgrims by the bus load came in from London. I have heard him speak and read his writings. He is certainly among the better confessors that I know. His words on confession and offering advice are deeply sobering. With his years of monastic experience and discipleship under Elder Sophrony, he still hesitates to speak or does so with great fear.
On the other hand, the Church and Scripture have much to say about the dangers inherent in judging another. The saying from the Desert Fathers quoted at the beginning of this post is typical of what is found in the Fathers. Which is easier – to judge someone and offer advice – or to refrain from judging and pray? The very difficulty involved should tell us much of what we should consider. Anyone who has read a little can offer advice or correct another – but not necessarily to their salvation. I am aware of far more occasions when such conversations have resulted in damaged relationships and fractures in the Church. Do we trust our priest enough to let him carry out his ministry of reconciliation, or shall we all pitch in and help?
Being troubled about the sins of another is itself something to take to confession – not as a means of informing the priest and asking him to fix someone else – but because our own souls are troubled and damaged by our judgments. In general, a priest cannot discuss with you the sins of someone else. If he is their confessor as well, should he speak of what he is bound to keep secret?
Perhaps my most general thought is that we should marvel at the mystery of salvation and recognize how glorious and even secret such a work is. We are commanded not to judge because it is not given to us to judge, except by the Spirit of God, and thus always as a gift and a treasure – one that can only be received with great humility. Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.
[After the resurrection, Peter spoke with the risen Lord who told him to “Feed my sheep.”] Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.