Back when I was getting a Ph.D, I used to walk through the sprawling quad to get to my classes. And inevitably, at least once a week during the spring, I’d pass a local man: short, balding, standing on a milk crate he’d dragged to the quad from who-knows-where. With a bullhorn in one hand and a posterboard of Bible verses in the other, he’d stand and shout at students passing by, calling them out for assumed sins.
Most Christians I know side-eye Bullhorn Guys. “Oh, those people,” we say, and wave them off, trying to disown them. “They’re–I don’t really know what they’re doing. Most of us aren’t like that.” And that’s true, inasmuch as most Christians I know are not willing to drag out a bullhorn and harangue bewildered students in the middle of the university quad.
But I do know a lot of Christians who are preoccupied with pointing out sin.
They see it everywhere. Here a sinner, there a sinner, everywhere a sinning sinner. The list of grievances is long, the list of offenders endless, and these Christians shake their heads and cluck their tongues. “For shame,” they say, “for shame,” and though they don’t have a bullhorn and their words are often gentler they have very little compunction about approaching non-believers or even believers to say something along the lines of, “Excuse me, I don’t know you, but you’re sinning. I mean–I love you because Jesus loves you, but you are sinning.”
They seem surprised when they get the same looks as Bullhorn Guy in the quad.
And that’s because they’re going about it all wrong. The Bible has a lot to say about sin. A lot of what it has to say, in fact, is that you need to keep your eye on your own before you worry yourself about other people’s. When it comes to what sin we should be looking at, ours is always the priority. Jesus can’t get much more explicit than He does in Matthew 7:1:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
In John 8:7, Jesus refuses to condemn a sinful woman and commands anyone without sin to throw the first stone at her. And this theme repeats throughout the New Testament: you have your hands full with your own sin, friend, so be careful condemning others.
“But Jesus called out sin in non-believers!” I’ve heard some protest. “That’s our job, too.” The flaw in this comparison is simply that we are not Jesus; He could call out sin precisely because He was sinless. He literally has the right to do so; you and I, fallen from righteousness and saved only by Christ’s mercy, don’t have the standing.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging sin for what it is. But too many times I think we believe that “acknowledging sin” means “bludgeoning people about their sin.” Certainly the Bible commands us, when believers fall into sin, that we are to reach out to them and gently help restore them. But before we do any of those things, we must truly come to terms with our own sin – continually and perpetually. Otherwise, the act of calling out sin in others becomes an implied statement of our superiority over them, of our standing as people pure enough to call out sin.
We must call out ourselves the way we would call out others before we call out others at all.
Which brings me back to Bullhorn Guy. Because I’ve never once seen a Bullhorn Guy stand up in the a grassy quad, grip his poster of Bible verses, and recite a list of his own sins before he started calling out others. I suspect if such an act was required, we’d see a lot less of Bullhorn Guy generally. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to condemn others; it’s far more difficult to acknowledge our own failings.
But as a safeguard against arrogance and superiority and gate-keeping, Christ asks us to do exactly that.