Are there really two sides to every story?

witness

It is ingrained in us to state – and believe – that there are two sides to every story.  We sympathize with our friends when they tell us their woes, but when we debrief in our hearts or with our spouses we typically caveat the story with “this is her perspective” or “I’ve only heard one side”.  We so value individuality and the lack of absolute truth that we have muddied the reality of actual events into a philosophical goulash in which people’s perspectives and logic are more important than what happened.

For instance:  a man stands in a street intersection, pulling a gun and aiming at an approaching driver.  The driver stops, the man opens the car door, throws the driver to the ground, speeds off in the car and shoots the driver as he speeds away.  The driver dies.

These are the cold, hard facts.  Now, we can add circumstances and perspectives that alter this story to make either party appear innocent or excusable.  Perhaps the driver stole the car from the gunman, and the gunman’s child was in the back seat.  Perhaps the gunman was fleeing from a robber and his gun accidentally discharged while he was getting into the car.  Perhaps the two were convicts who escaped prison and turned on each other the moment they cleared the prison walls and both were running for their freedom while trying to frame the other.  Perhaps one of the parties is mentally handicapped and did not understand the ramifications of his actions.

It is always good and helpful to gather as many facts as possible when evaluating a story and situation.  Circumstances can add dimension and understanding to an event and help us to rightly evaluate events and guilt.  This is one reason God gave clear instructions that whenever a case was brought to the court, it could only be tried on the account of two or more witnesses:

“A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”

– Deut 19.15

Where we often fail, however, is to allow the evidence of two or three witnesses to confirm an event.  We have become so softened to nuance that we desire everyone to not only have the opportunity to defend his actions, but to offer sympathy and alternatives to punishment.  We think that if we can understand why someone did something then we can help him change at the core level.  We believe that everyone is fundamentally good and we can help or rehabilitate them with the right understanding.  In short, we make excuses.

The Church has been given quite the opposite command, however.  We, as believers, have been taught clearly the reality of sin.  Lying.  Cheating.  Fornication.  Adultery.  Murder.  Stealing.  Idolatry.  Pride.  Gossip.  The list goes on and on, and even if we cannot quote the ten commandments or the deeds of the flesh which are listed in various places throughout Scripture, believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit to convict us when we indulge in sinful activities (John 16.8).  As harsh as it sounds, sin is black and white.  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Period.  Gossip and slander is sin.  Period.  There are times that we might find ourselves in a philosophical dilemma of self-defense or looking out for the greater good, but by in large our experience with sin is simply to gratify the flesh.  Most people do not lie, steal, or kill with pure motives.  And this is why God sets the standard for multiple witnesses:  to protect the accused and to hold accountable the accuser.

But since we understand the fact of sin and its consequence, the Church has been strongly commanded how to handle it:  accountability and church discipline.  These things go hand in hand.  It starts on the individual level:  If you see your brother or sister in sin, or if someone has sinned against you, you have been commanded to go to that person and confront him.

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

– Matt 18.15

Notice that this assumes fault.  Jesus does not say, “ask him what he was thinking” or “evaluate the circumstances”.  No.  Jesus says, “show him his fault”, and then the sinner has the opportunity to repent or continue into the discipline process.  There very well may come an explanation for why the sin was committed, but Jesus is not concerned with the logic or excuse.  Jesus is concerned with repentance and change.

Thus, if the one who sinned does not not listen, we take the next step:  take one or two people with you to confront him again:

“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.”

– Matt 18.16

Notice here, that this is not necessarily an ongoing sin.  Sometimes we think we should just get over a sin and utilize Church discipline for someone who continues in sin consistently.  But again, Jesus is concerned about our repentance and heart towards that sin.  If someone stole from another, the restitution of property is part of the repentance.  If someone cheated on his spouse, confession of the sin is part of the repentance.  If someone lied, gossiped or shamed another, apologizing and making right what was broken is part of the repentance.  If these things are refused – even if the sin or offense is over – we must take witnesses to confirm the event.  Because God is primarily concerned about our hearts and attitudes towards sin, and if we are unwilling to repent or confess sin, then we most likely are not saved.

If the offender still does not confess or repent, we take the next step:  go to the church at large:

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

– Matt 18.17

If someone can stand unrepentant in his sin when the entire church agrees that he has sinned, we are to remove him from our midst.  He has proven himself to not be a believer because he will not submit to God by confessing his sin and repenting from it.  Recognizing our sin and guilt is the first step on the path to salvation.  If we are not guilty and condemned, then we do not need a savior.  Thus if a person is choosing to embrace sin and his own autonomy over his life, He has not submitted to Jesus as Lord and is not a Christian.

But what about “his side” of the story?  Most people can make themselves sound innocent or present themselves as the victims in their circumstances.  It has become common place to say that situations like divorce are always two sided.  But the simple reality is, that is just not true, always.  Yes, it is true that no person is perfect.  No marriage is perfect.  No friendship is perfect.  But one person’s imperfection or sin never warrants another person’s sin.

Philosophy aside, consider this:  A gay man marries a Christian woman because he thinks marriage will change who he is and hopes that her faith will wear off on him.  He never tells her of his disposition, and lives a life of turmoil until he can no longer handle it and eventually divorces her and gives in to the homosexual lifestyle.  Is the woman perfect?  No.  Of course not.  She might lash out at him for being unwilling to be physically intimate with her.  She might get angry or bitter because they will never have children.  She might get angry or bitter when she realizes the fact that he deceived her.  Is there something more she could have done to save the relationship or marriage?  Is she at fault for the divorce?

No.

This is not a two-sided event.  Sure, the man can paint a sad picture to make his friends feel badly for him: that he has spent so much of his life confined by society, that he is finally being true to himself, and that his wife was a terrible person anyway…but the fact of the matter is he sinned.  He deceived his wife, he entered into a covenant with her and did not keep it, and he divorced her for unbiblical reasons.  This is not a two-sided event.  Her sins of anger, bitterness, and just normal life failures do not justify his sin, and there is nothing she could have done to save the marriage.

It takes three people (God, husband and wife) to make a marriage work and one to break it.

Rape.  Child molestation.  Deception.  Gossip.  These things are never excusable because of the other person’s sin.  The old adage is true:  You can only control yourself.  If someone sins against you, you do not then have the freedom to turn around and sin against them.  The wife is indeed guilty of the sin of bitterness, and should seek to love her husband.  If he has been unfaithful to her or divorces her, the Bible says that she is free to move on and remarry because she is not guilty in the divorce – but anger, bitterness, gossip and sins of the like are not excusable and she must confess and repent from them (1 Cor 6-7).

Consider Jesus.  He came to the Earth declaring Himself to be God.  It was because “He made Himself equal with God” that the pharisees and Jews were trying to kill Him (John 5.18).  If we consider their side of the story, it would be extremely convincing.  God had given a promise to Abraham to make the Jews a great nation who would inherit the land of Israel.  They had lived in the land and then were sent into captivity because they had not kept God’s Law.  The very foundation of the Law was to have no other gods or idols, and to only worship God.  To claim deity is blasphemy, punishable by death (Lev 24.16).  Yes, they did not understand Jesus, yes they were wary of His power, but they were weighing Jesus’ claims against the Law and found Him guilty.

Unfortunately for them, Jesus is God and therefore was neither lying nor blaspheming and therefore not guilty of death.

So do they get a pass?  Can they justify themselves by explaining their side of the story?  No. Jesus pronounces terrible judgment on them (Matt 23).  Their sin is not justified or excused just because they thought they were obeying the Law.  They sinned.  Perhaps the most terrible of all sins.  And yet our logic would offer them a chance to defend themselves.

We need to get real about sin.  Yes, we need to remember that the voice of two or three witnesses is vital to avoid false incrimination and to help establish the facts, but we also need to validate the person who has suffered injustice.  We need to get real about confronting sin, but we also need to get real about moving on from sin.  If a person confesses and repents from his sin when confronted, then it is over.  Jesus says that person “has been won”.  Paul says that we should address these conversations carefully because of our own tendency to fall and sin:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”

– Gal 6.1

The reality is, we are all going to sin.  We will all need someone to point out sin in our lives throughout our entire lives.  And our love for one another should help us to confess and move on from those sins without permanently damaging our reputation or standing.  Peter was blessed to preach at Pentecost and lead thousands of people to faith just days after he denied Jesus.  God hates sin, and so should we.  God identifies sin, and so should we.  God honors repentance, and so should we.  God does not keep a record of wrong, and neither should we (1 Cor 13).

We might find that we are tempted to believe that there are “two sides” to every story, but sin is sin and one person’s sin never justifies another’s.  We are all responsible to confess and repent of our own personal sin, even if we have been sinned against.  Why?  Because our sin is ultimately an offense against God, and He judges sin with the harshest judgment.  And while our actions may cause an offense to another person, they never justify another person sinning against us.

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