The famous writer Mark Twain is to have said, “I am not troubled by the things in the Bible which I do not understand, but I am troubled by those things which I do understand and which I find very difficult to measure up to.”
You might resonate with Twain’s perspective. As much as Christians love to read the inspiring words in the Bible (especially those spoken by Jesus), some of the words are harsh and force us into contemplation.
Any exploration of biblical accountability must consider how we should confront others. Two incidents from the life of Jesus will shed light on how we should utilize challenging words.
First, in Luke 11, Jesus is in an accountability showdown with the Pharisees. Throughout his ministry, these religious leaders watched his every move to discover opportunities to critique his actions. Even when they invited him to a meal, as they did so here, they did not do so as friends. Meal invitations from the Pharisees were not meant to be joyous celebrations; they were intended to do Jesus harm. If he did not adopt their interpretation of the Law, they would pounce on his actions.
The Bible reveals that Jesus did not wash himself before the meal. This kind of washing wasn’t for hygiene purposes but was a ceremonial display of piety before other dinner guests. When the confronted about this, Jesus responded to his accusers.
“Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
It would be a stretch to call Jesus’ response polite; calling people greedy, wicked, and foolish isn’t a cordial response. But lack of politeness is not a sin. We see that Jesus’ harshest words were always directed at the religious leaders, those who should have known better. He wanted them to know that the way they treat “the least of these” was far more important than displays of religious zeal.
In this vein, our second example is taken from John 8. Here the Pharisees created another test for Jesus. Cruelly, it involved a woman caught in the act of adultery. Parenthetically, the teachers of the law were unable (unwilling?) to bring the other participant of adultery before Jesus.
When reminding Jesus that the law demanded death by stoning for this crime, he invited the blameless in the crowd to take the initiative to throw the first stone. As the Pharisees realized their hypocrisy and embarrassingly walked away, Jesus found himself alone with the woman. He graciously encouraged her to, “go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
This too was accountability but notice the different in tone. Jesus always adjusted his words of correction depending on the recipient. He seemingly lived out the Christian adage to “comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable.”
We must always consider the posture of the person who needs to be challenged before offering our critique. Christian love means telling the truth, even when it’s painful. But the way in which we speak the truth is equally important.
To determine these challenging words, we should ask God. We read in Proverbs 2:3-5,
“Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”