In all this talk of discipleship, the “one anothers” and creating a more tightly knit fellowship, there is a dilemma. It is a dilemma most of us who have been Christians for awhile have encountered in others, and in ourselves. Exactly how much do I tell others about my battles with sin?
We may struggle to identify where we are at on the continuum of transparency, but we know the extremes when we see them in others.
“Let it all hang out guy” tells you more than you wanted to know about his past and his present, too soon, and in too much detail. You end up saying “wow” a lot as he’s recounting his struggles, hurt, failures, and you’re just feel generally uncomfortable the whole time. You walk away trying to figure out if he was being genuine, and if maybe we are supposed to be open like that, or if he uses this in a selfish, attention-seeking way, perhaps just desperate for love, acceptance, and a co-dependent friend. But in the long run, you just think on all he revealed, and then go home and take a shower, because you feel dirty.
“At arms length guy” may talk to you, be a really pleasant person to be around, be nice, and always seems like he has it all together. You talk about spiritual things sometimes, but only as it relates to others. He’s well mannered and well behaved, so you figure he does have it all together, and his failures must consist of not reading his Bible enough, or not sharing the gospel boldly enough. But you have no idea….not this guy, but other guys like him have all the sudden had things blow up in their face with broken families, or secret sins revealed. Alas, you’ll never know, because he’s at arms length.
A model for transparency.
As we think about transparency, let’s take a look at Paul, talking to the Romans.
In Romans 7 we have something we don’t have elsewhere in Scripture. We have super-star apostle / missionary Paul talking about his personal, ongoing struggle with sin. Let’s look at how he shares about it with the Romans.
He’s talking to people he knows and loves.
A brief reading of Romans 1, 15, and 16 reveals Paul really knew these people. He loved them. He knew them by name. He speaks of them with affection and familiarity. He didn’t walk up to someone he didn’t know on the first Sunday at the Roman church and say, “I really have this tremendous struggle with coveting.” He knew them and had intimate, Christian fellowship with them.
Before we are going to be transparent with each other, it’s normally a good idea to know each other and love each other. That sounds obvious, but the person guilty of giving too much information, too quickly, doesn’t know or love their listener yet. They may be on the path to knowing and loving, but they just put it all out there first, and are saying “Will you know me and love me because I am needy….?”(and not a good, ‘when I am weak’ way).” On the other side of the coin, there are those who we feel like we know and love, but also feel like we know hardly anything about. They have it all together, so we just admire them, and keep a strong, acquaintance-style friendship going.
So lets start with knowing and loving each other, without rushing into baring our souls, but being willing to, when we know and love each other.
His struggle is both past and present tense.
When the commandment not to covet came, Paul saw he had a major coveting problem. Sin sprang to life, as he explains in Romans 7:9-11. But this isn’t just a “before Christ” problem. No Paul is not one of those guys who eagerly tells you about all of his B.C. hard drinkin’, hard livin’ days. His struggle is ongoing. Now. Present tense. Super-star apostle / missionary Paul has an ongoing fierce, yes, deadly, struggle with sin. In verse 19 he says “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. “ Present tense. There are allusions to slavery, war, and dead bodies to get his point across. No, this isn’t a man who regrets occasionally not praying for long enough. This is a man with a fierce past and present battle with sin.
He names the sin but spares us the details.
The sin he names is covetousness. There may be other sins in play, but he names one. Specifically. We could all learn from this. We live in a world of “mistakes” and therapy-speak. We would do well to name our sins as sins, and use the exact same words God uses for them. At the same time that Paul is extremely blunt about his sin problem, he spares us the details. Does Paul covet money? Women? Success? Fame? We don’t know. So we know the sin, but not the specifics.
If you’re in a discipleship relationship, and you’re trying to equip a brother or sister to better fight sin, it helps to know what they are fighting. Not just non-specific “struggles” or “failures.” Go ahead and name it. Greed. Lust. Selfishness. Bitterness. Envy. Hatred. Do this in your own life, and as you share life together. Name the sin, and then fight it. Ephesians 4:25-32 gives us a great list of “put-ons” and “put-offs” for sin. If you lie, speak the truth. If you steal, work. It doesn’t present some ethereal pseudo spiritual therapy-speak. It names the sin, spares the details, and gives the Spirit led alternative.
Sparing the details will certainly also help keep people comfortable in their relationships with you. Sometime details do need to be shared, but often that’s one on one. Who knows. Maybe a couple people in the Roman church did know exactly what Paul struggled with. But Paul doesn’t share that with the whole church.
He has hope after desperation.
After Paul paints a stark picture of the power and presence of indwelling sin, he exclaims “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:25) and in the next verse says the familiar words: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1). Our discipleship must conclude with hope. Hope because there is no condemnation, and we have the ability to walk by the Spirit, not the flesh, as he explains in Romans 8. At each interaction, make sure that hope is front and center, even when things look like they may get worse before they get better.
Be transparent in your discipleship relationships, because you know and love one another. Name your sin, not just the past ones, but the future ones, and then go to war against them. And always, always, have hope at the forefront of your discipleship.