In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain famously said to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is his well-being any concern of mine? Of course, that was after he had already killed Abel.
There are times where we must be willing to help those who we know are living or acting in a way contrary to the gospel, contrary to the teachings of Christ. But there’s often a certain resistance to that, and we’ll say, “well, someone has to be the bad guy and tell them.” Yet this correction, this admonishing of the sinner, is not bad, but a good thing. Because it is a desire to help someone avoid and remove sin from their lives, and grow in the love of God and neighbor. So how is this done?
Before I attempt to answer that, something I must first make clear; We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We all call God Father. Therefore, we all have an implicit responsibility toward one another. There is no reason for someone to feel alone in this church, there is no reason that there isn’t someone at this parish where you can share your joys, your sadness, to give help, or to receive help from. If you are on the receiving end, accept it openly and graciously.
Now, that does not mean that you are asked to be able to take care of every single person here, or even to make yourself available to each and every person who asks. That also doesn’t mean that you go around pointing out every mistake or sin that you see others make. It does mean that we ought to be willing to give direction and correction toward those who may sin against you, or to those we see living in a way contrary to Christ, especially toward people close to us. This is called fraternal correction, and it is based upon love for the other.
Because all of us should be working toward the same goal, and all of us should want each of us to remain on the right path. To continue to grow in the life of Christ, to grow in virtue and holiness, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to grow in love and charity toward one another. To love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do no harm to one another.
So with all of that said, how do we go about the often uncomfortable process of telling someone “hey, what you’re doing is wrong.” No one likes to be told that, but it is often important to hear it. Some may get angry at you for trying to correct them. That may be so, but if you are concerned about their well-being, it is charitable to admonish them, and uncharitable to say nothing and let them remain in their ways.
Jesus gives a basic outline in the gospel. The easiest is to try and solve the issue one on one. No need to complicate matters if you don’t need to. If that doesn’t work bring a few others to support you, to say, “look, it’s not just me, we all feel this way about this action of yours.” It could also be that maybe you aren’t sure what to say, but you know others who could speak better than you. If that doesn’t work, Jesus says to bring the matter to the church, someone who has authority on the matter. And if even that doesn’t work, then you have done all that you can do. You made your efforts, but one’s decisions are their own. Of course you keep praying for such an individual, and you continue to hope that even if they didn’t listen to you now, perhaps they will come around in the future.
That’s the basic procedure, but what about the actual approach? But there are certain things that ought to be done in any situation, no matter the person.
First, pray about it. If someone is acting in a way that you think is contrary to the gospel and may need your response, bring that to God. Discern what your course of action should be, whether it should be you or someone else to say something. Or maybe it is something on your end. Either case, pray about it first.
Second, to approach them in humility. Recognizing that you yourself are a sinner, who could probably use some correction of your own. Never approach someone with a sense of self-righteousness, or a sense of moral superiority. Now sometimes we feel that we have no right to correct others because of our own failings and sins. This can especially be the case when the sin we are calling someone out on is something we ourselves do. Nevertheless,
For example, I am a sinner, yet I tell people how they ought to act and behave all the time, in fact, I’m doing it right now. But its not out of moral superiority, but from my responsibility as pastor of this community. And I tell you, the vast majority of what I say to all of you are things that I myself need to hear or be reminded of.
The third is to be considerate when speaking to them, choosing your words carefully. Part of that is going to depend on the person you’re talking to. Their personality, temperament, even who’s the one talking to them. Knowing this person is going to make a difference. Sometimes you have to have either a direct or soft approach. In either case, you are not there to condemn, but you do want to make your concerns plainly known, why you are bringing them up, as well as potential consequences.
Finally, all of this should be done out of genuine love for the person. No one wants to see a loved one go down the wrong path, and you desire the true good of the other. And if they do not listen, then to still love them anyway.
Remember, the lesson here isn’t about if the person will respond well to your correction, though you would hope so. Its about you being willing to speak up. Its about you expressing your love and concern for others. Its about all of us understanding our responsibilities toward each other, mindful that we all seek the same goal, growing in our love of God, our love of each other, and helping one another toward our common journey to eternal life.