Excerpted from A Godward Life, Book One and A Godward Life, Book Two, 1999 by John Piper
Can Christians Be Held Hostage by the Sins of the Beloved?
When Is Mercy Merry and When Does It Mourn?
The Sins of those we love can be as painful as the labor of childbearing. I have seen women who labored so long and hard that blood vessels broke in their faces, only to be relieved by a cesarean delivery. Paul groaned over the imperfections of his spiritual children. "My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you... I am perplexed about you" (Galatians 4:19-20).
Not only that, we know that Jesus himself wept over the sins of Jerusalem: "When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it" (Luke 19:41). Yes, and even the Holy Spirit can be grieved by our sinful speech: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths... Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:29-30, RSV).
But here's a question: Should the sins of others hold us hostage in the prison of sorrow? In one sense, sorrow over another person's sins is a mark of compassion and love. We long for them to be holy and pure in heart, because "the pure in heart…will see God" (Matthew 5:8). So our sadness is evidence of longing that others would know the fullness of joy that comes with righteousness and peace: "The kingdom of God is... righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Surely, then, this sadness of ours is a form of love.
On the other hand, there is something very wrong, it seems, if sinning people have power to steal our joy by their own sinful choices. This is, in fact, a kind of blackmail. "If you claim to love us, you must pay for our sin with a broken heart." Well, yes... and no. God does not put the strings of our hearts in the hands of sinners. He puts them in the hands of Jesus, who loves sinners. And this Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (John 15:11).
The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem's sinfulness rejoiced over the sovereign hand of God in choosing who would see and who would remain blind: "[Jesus] rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, 'I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants'" (Luke 10:21). In other words, even in his weeping over Jerusalem, there was an unshakable joy in the purposes of God being worked out in the world. Jerusalem could not blackmail Jesus with her backsliding.
Similarly, Jesus gives us that same unshakable joy: "Your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22, RSV). No one can take us hostage by sin and steal our joy, demanding a ransom of Christian misery. No one can blackmail the saints of God with bad behavior and threaten to nullify our love if we will not pay up with the sacrifice of our joy. If our joy is lost, Christ is belittled, and what then has love to offer the beloved sinner?
How then shall we love sinners? Shall we be indifferent to their sin and peril? No. Let us not be content with sins, but let us be content with God in relation to sinners. Can you distinguish between being content in circumstances but not being content with circumstances? Can you imagine weeping over a wayward son and resting in the sovereign goodness of God who does all things well (Mark 7:37)?
May God give us the solid joy of Christ, even as we mourn over those who will not share it but cannot steal it. For God "accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will," and he is good (Ephesians 1:11, RSV; Psalm 100:5).