Most often our sin problem is in the area I call “refined” sins. These are the sins of nice people, sins that we can regularly commit and still retain our positions as elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and yes, even full-time Christian workers.
What are some of these “refined” sins? As I looked at my own life, one of the first that came to mind was the tendency to judge others and to speak critically of them to other people. That this sin came to mind so quickly surprised me, because I don’t think of myself as a critical or judgmental person. Perhaps that is part of the problem. This seems to be such an acceptable vice among believers that we don’t even recognize it unless it is flagrant—and always in someone else.
We need to take seriously Jesus’ warning about a critical spirit in Matthew 7:3: “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?” We need to learn to back off from judging others and leave that to God, as the apostle Paul instructed us when he said, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). A judgmental spirit is too often a vice of committed Christians. We need to recognize it as the sin it really is.
A judgmental spirit usually reflects itself in speech that is critical of others. It was with dismay that I realized some months ago that I needed to begin praying David’s prayer:
Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
As the Holy Spirit began working on me in this area, I was surprised to realize how often I was saying something critical of another brother or sister in Christ.
Closely akin to judgmental speech is gossip, that endless recounting and passing on of the sins and misfortunes of others. We seem to get a perverse delight out of being the bearer of bad news about other people. Solomon warned us about gossip when he said,
He who covers over an offense
but whoever repeats the matter
separates close friends. (Proverbs 17:9)
A gossip betrays a confidence;
so avoid a man who talks too much.
Do we take Solomon seriously, or more accurately, do we take the Holy Spirit seriously—for, after all, Solomon wrote under His inspiration and guidance?
The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). The word unwholesome covers any type of speech that tends to tear down another person, either spoken to or about that person. And Paul’s prohibition against this type of negative speech is absolute: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (emphasis added).
How would we respond if someone said, “Well, I’m really not a thief, but I do steal occasionally,” or “I’m not an adulterer, but I sometimes have an affair”? We would find such an attitude ridiculous and unacceptable for a believer. We know God’s prohibitions against stealing and adultery are absolute. But all too often we allow ourselves to think this way about our speech. We engage in gossip and criticism, though we wouldn’t want to be known as a gossip or a critical person.
The Scriptures do not allow for any gossip or criticism, or any other form of unwholesome speech, even if what we say is true. We are simply not to say anything about someone else that we wouldn’t want to eventually reach that person’s ear.
Even criticism addressed to someone should be given only with the goal of benefiting that person. It should never be given out of a spirit of impatience or irritability, or with a desire to belittle the individual. Only honest criticism given from a heart of love in a spirit of humility can qualify as that which builds up the other person.
Which of us, then, does not offend frequently with our tongue? The real problem, however, is not our tongues but our hearts. Jesus said, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). So it would not be sufficient to win control over our tongues, even if we could. We must recognize the sin in our hearts.
What are some other “refined” sins that we can commit and still be respectable among our Christian friends? Some of the more common ones are in the area of interpersonal relationships. These would include resentment, bitterness, an unforgiving spirit, impatience, and irritability It is very instructive that it is in the context of interpersonal relationships that Paul wrote his warning, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 430). Now, all sin grieves God, and Paul could have inserted that warning in the context of sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3-5) or lying and stealing (Ephesians 4:25, 28). But he places it in the context of sins we commit with hardly any sense of shame or guilt. The message should be clear. God is grieved over our “refined” sins just as He is grieved over sexual immorality or dishonesty. I am not suggesting that being irritable at one’s spouse is as serious as something like adultery I am saying that being irritable at one’s spouse is sin, and that all sin grieves God and should grieve us.
One of our problems with these so-called refined sins is that we have become too comfortable with the whole concept of sin. Because we do sin so frequently we learn to coexist with it as long as it doesn’t get too out of control or scandalous. We forget, or perhaps have never learned, how seriously God regards all sin.