It’s hard to watch people we love sabotage themselves.
Early on in my recovery journey, I had a friend who either could not or would not follow the path of honesty and candor that is necessary for healing from any kind of addiction. He couldn’t be honest with himself. And that meant that he couldn’t be honest with us—his friends, his community. And so, as you might imagine, we had to watch the consequences play out in slow-motion. He curved in on himself and closed himself off. He burned bridges and wounded people he loved in the process. And this set him on a path, crashing and burning, towards a place of isolation and brokenness that can only be described as a kind of living death. I was heartbroken. And frankly, I was completely at a loss to know what to do. What do you do when someone you care about is destroying themself?
In general we humans aren’t great at dealing with other people’s problems, brokenness, and sin. Particularly when we see someone we love on a path of self-destruction that creates waves of hurt that damage us and others. Usually we tend towards one of two extremes. Sometimes we entangle ourselves and get overly involved. This can manifest as judgmental meddling, nosy gossip, and unhelpful criticism. But I think more often it shows up as worry, anxiety, or even guilt over the destructive choices that others have made. On the other hand, maybe we look at the problems of the people in our lives, say to ourselves, “That’s none of my business,” and simply move on, letting them wreak whatever havoc they want on their lives. We might adopt a policy of laissez faire detachment and completely step away from any sense of concern.
Both of these are completely understandable. Honestly I fall into both—sometimes with the same person! But neither of these paths is entirely healthy. When I judge or meddle or fret over someone, it’s usually motivated by a desire to control or some drive to meet (or avoid) my own emotional needs by focusing on the issues of somebody I love. And on the other hand, when I detach and say “it’s none of my business,” it’s usually out of a desire to insulate myself—to shield myself from the vulnerability that comes with love. And while both of those drives are perfectly normal, they’re not in line with the joy and freedom—the salvation—that God is working out in our hearts through the constant movement of grace. They’re the ways we’re used to coping with others’ problems and sins. But they’re ways of coping that turn us in on ourselves and away from communion with God and each other.
But, as he so reliably does, Jesus offers us a different way today. He calls us onto a new path of relating to the brokenness of others: the Way of the Gospel—the Way of Love. We could see Jesus’ words in the Gospel today as mere instructions for the Church about systems of justice and ecclesiastical discipline. But I think they’re more fundamentally about the genuine mutual love that Paul’s been reflecting on for the past few weeks in our readings from Romans. Yes, Jesus tells the disciples how to deal procedurally with conflicts in the Church. But deeper than that, he shows us a third way—between the extremes of over-functioning on the one hand and “minding our own business” on the other.
Paul reminds that we owe each other love—that the royal law of liberty Jesus calls us to obey is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Driven by this commandment to love one another, we can no longer say, “It’s none of my business,” and just walk away. The welfare of others is our business whether we like it or not. If another member of the Church sins against us, their destructive wrongdoing very much involves us. And even if their sin is not against us directly, because we are all members of one Body of Christ, what damages one of us harms the whole body.
We do owe it to our loved ones to want abundant life for them. We owe it to them to hope and long for their wholeness and healing—for them to turn away from the path of destruction and wasting away. We owe it to them to lovingly warn them; to gently point out the faults and destruction we’ve seen and been touched by; and to exhort our loved ones to choose to live. This mutual concern is a central piece of following the Way of the Gospel.
But this Way of Love—of mutual concern—is not a path of meddling or controlling or gawking or nagging. Jesus isn’t calling us to enmesh ourselves in other people’s brokenness as though we were capable of saving them ourselves. The Way of Love Jesus calls us onto today is simply to echo the same words we hear from God’s mouth through Scripture, day after day, week after week: “Turn back. Turn back. Turn back and live.”
The Way of Love is to look at the people who sin against us and to see them simply as fellow sinners, as beloved sheep of God’s hand that keep wandering away. The Way of Love is to earnestly desire, not their downfall or their shame, but their renewal—the same salvation that we hope for and walk towards as we answer the same call that we echo to them: “Turn back. Turn back. Turn back and live.”
Their business is ours and ours is theirs, not because we are superior or have it all together,not because we can or should save them, but because we, like them, are all wandering sheep being called back to health and wholeness and the promise of new life. And so we have a responsibility to remind our loved ones. We owe it to our loved ones and the neighbors who wound us to love them by gently reminding them of the word that goes forth from God’s mouth, warning all of us and calling us to turn back and live.
They might not listen. They might not heed the call. They might not be prepared to turn back— to leave self-destruction behind and be reconciled. But this is how Jesus teaches us to respond even when our loved ones who wound us refuse to listen. The Way of Love Jesus calls us to follow stays the same. It isn’t agonizing trying to make them repent, nor is it pretending that their brokenness is “none of our business.” The Way of the Gospel—our debt of mutual love—is simply to be sentinels, to be signposts, to be lighthouses, burning with the mutual love we owe to our neighbors. It is to gently point them back to wholeness and health, and to echo God’s call to all his wandering sheep: “Turn back. Turn back and reconcile. Turn back and live.”