Determining Weakness, Wickedness, and Repentance
SIN is something that Christians hate—a falling short of Jehovah’s righteous standards. (Hebrews 1:9) Unhappily, all of us sin from time to time. All of us struggle with inherent weakness and imperfection. In most cases, though, if we confess our sins to Jehovah and earnestly try not to repeat them, we can approach him with a clean conscience. (Romans 7:21-24; 1 John 1:8, 9; 2:1, 2) We thank Jehovah that, on the basis of the ransom sacrifice, he accepts our sacred service despite our weaknesses.
If someone falls into serious sin because of fleshly weakness, he urgently needs shepherding in harmony with the procedure outlined at James 5:14-16: “Is there anyone [spiritually] sick among you? Let him call the older men of the congregation to him . . . If he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him. Therefore openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed.”
Hence, when a dedicated Christian commits gross sin, something more than personal confession to Jehovah is needed. The elders must take certain steps, since the cleanness or the peace of the congregation is threatened. (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 6:9, 10) Elders may have to determine: Is the individual repentant? What led up to the sin? Was it the result of an isolated moment of weakness? Was it a practice of sin? Such determination is not always simple or clear-cut and demands considerable discernment.
What, though, if the sin is because of pursuing a course of wrongdoing and wicked conduct? Then, the elders’ responsibility is clear. When directing the handling of a serious matter in the Corinthian congregation, the apostle Paul said: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (1 Corinthians 5:13) Wicked people have no place in the Christian congregation.
Weighing Weakness, Wickedness, and Repentance
How can elders know when someone is repentant?a This is not a simple question. Think, for example, of King David. He committed adultery and then, in effect, murder. Yet, Jehovah allowed him to keep living. (2 Samuel 11:2-24; 12:1-14) Then think of Ananias and Sapphira. They lyingly tried to deceive the apostles, hypocritically pretending to be more generous than they really were. Serious? Yes. As bad as murder and adultery? Hardly! Yet, Ananias and Sapphira paid with their lives.—Acts 5:1-11.
Why the different judgments? David fell into serious sin because of fleshly weakness. When confronted with what he had done, he repented, and Jehovah forgave him—although he was severely disciplined with regard to problems in his household. Ananias and Sapphira sinned in that they hypocritically lied, trying to deceive the Christian congregation and thus ‘play false to the holy spirit and to God.’ That turned out to be evidence of a wicked heart. Hence, they were judged more severely.
In both cases Jehovah made the judgment, and his judgment was correct because he can examine hearts. (Proverbs 17:3) Human elders cannot do that. So how can elders discern whether a serious sin is evidence of weakness more than of wickedness?
In fact, all sin is wicked, but not all sinners are wicked. Similar sins may be evidence of weakness in one person and wickedness in another. Indeed, sinning usually involves a measure of both weakness and wickedness on the part of the sinner. One determining factor is how the sinner views what he has done and what he intends to do about it. Does he show a repentant spirit? Elders need discernment to perceive this. How can they get that discernment? The apostle Paul promised Timothy: “Give constant thought to what I am saying; the Lord will really give you discernment in all things.” (2 Timothy 2:7) If elders humbly give “constant thought” to the inspired words of Paul and the other Bible writers, they will get the discernment needed to view properly those who sin in the congregation. Then, their decisions will reflect Jehovah’s thinking, not their own.—Proverbs 11:2; Matthew 18:18.
How is this done? One way is to examine how the Bible describes wicked people and see whether the description applies to the individual being dealt with.
Taking Responsibility and Repenting
The first humans who chose a course of wickedness were Adam and Eve. Despite being perfect and having full knowledge of Jehovah’s law, they rebelled against divine sovereignty. When Jehovah confronted them with what they had done, their reactions were worthy of note—Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent! (Genesis 3:12, 13) Compare this with the deep humility of David. When faced with his grave sins, he accepted responsibility and begged for forgiveness, saying: “I have sinned against Jehovah.”—2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51:4, 9, 10.
Elders do well to consider these two examples when handling cases of serious sin, especially on the part of an adult. Does the sinner—like David when he was convinced of his sin—forthrightly accept the blame and repentantly look to Jehovah for help and forgiveness, or does he seek to minimize what he has done, perhaps blaming someone else? True, the person who sins may wish to explain what led up to his acts, and there may be circumstances, either past or present, that elders may need to consider when deciding how to help him. (Compare Hosea 4:14.) But he should accept that he is the one who sinned and that he is responsible before Jehovah. Remember: “Jehovah is near to those that are broken at heart; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.”—Psalm 34:18.
Practicing What Is Bad
In the book of Psalms, there are many references to wicked people. Such scriptures can further help elders to discern whether a person is basically wicked or weak. For example, consider the inspired prayer of King David: “Do not draw me along with wicked people and with practicers of what is hurtful, those who are speaking peace with their companions but in whose hearts is what is bad.” (Psalm 28:3) Notice that wicked people are mentioned in parallel with “practicers of what is hurtful.” A person who sins because of fleshly weakness is likely to stop as soon as he comes to his senses. If, though, someone ‘practices’ what is bad so that it becomes a part of his life, this could be evidence of a wicked heart.
David mentioned another characteristic of wickedness in that verse. Like Ananias and Sapphira, the wicked person speaks good things with his mouth but has bad things in his heart. He may be a hypocrite—like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who ‘outwardly indeed appeared righteous to men but inside were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Matthew 23:28; Luke 11:39) Jehovah hates hypocrisy. (Proverbs 6:16-19) If someone hypocritically tries to deny his serious sins even when speaking with the judicial committee, or grudgingly admits only what is already known by others, refusing to confess fully, this could well be evidence of a wicked heart.
Haughty Disregard for Jehovah
Other things that characterize a wicked person are outlined in Psalm 10. There we read: “In his haughtiness the wicked one hotly pursues the afflicted one; . . . he has disrespected Jehovah.” (Psalm 10:2, 3) How are we to view a dedicated Christian who is haughty and disrespects Jehovah? Surely, these are wicked mental attitudes. A person who sins out of weakness will, once he realizes his sin or has it drawn to his attention, repent and strive hard to turn his life around. (2 Corinthians 7:10, 11) In contrast, if a man sins because of a fundamental disrespect for Jehovah, what will stop him from returning again and again to his sinful course? If he is haughty despite being counseled in a spirit of mildness, how can he have the humility needed to repent sincerely and truly?
Consider now David’s words a little later in the same psalm: “Why is it that the wicked one has disrespected God? He has said in his heart: ‘You will not require an accounting.’” (Psalm 10:13) In the setting of the Christian congregation, the wicked man knows the difference between right and wrong, but he does not hesitate to do wrong if he thinks he can get away with it. As long as there is no fear of exposure, he gives full rein to his sinful inclinations. Unlike David, if his sins do come to light, he will scheme to avoid discipline. Such a man is highly disrespectful of Jehovah. “There is no dread of God in front of his eyes. . . . What is bad he does not reject.”—Psalm 36:1, 4.
Usually, more than one person is affected by a sin. For example, an adulterer sins against God; he victimizes his wife and children; if his partner in sin is married, he victimizes her family; and he stains the good name of the congregation. How does he view all of that? Does he show heartfelt sorrow along with genuine repentance? Or does he manifest the spirit described in Psalm 94: “All the practicers of what is hurtful keep bragging about themselves. Your people, O Jehovah, they keep crushing, and your inheritance they keep afflicting. The widow and the alien resident they kill, and the fatherless boys they murder. And they keep saying: ‘Jah does not see; and the God of Jacob does not understand it’”?—Psalm 94:4-7.
Likely, the sins handled in a congregation will not involve murder and killing. Yet the spirit manifested here—the spirit of being ready to victimize others for personal benefit—may become obvious as the elders investigate wrongdoing. This too is arrogance, the mark of a wicked man. (Proverbs 21:4) It is totally the opposite of the spirit of a true Christian, who is willing to sacrifice himself for his brother.—John 15:12, 13.
Applying Godly Principles
These few guidelines are not intended to set rules. They do, however, give an idea of some things that Jehovah views as truly wicked. Is there a refusal to accept responsibility for the wrong committed? Has the one who sinned brazenly ignored previous counsel on this very matter? Is there an entrenched practice of serious wrongdoing? Does the wrongdoer manifest a blatant disregard for Jehovah’s law? Has he made calculating efforts to conceal the wrong, perhaps corrupting others at the same time? (Jude 4) Do such efforts only intensify when the wrong comes to light? Does the wrongdoer show total disregard for the harm he has done to others and to Jehovah’s name? What about his attitude? After kindly Scriptural counsel is given, is he haughty or arrogant? Does he lack a heartfelt desire to avoid repeating the wrong? If the elders perceive such things, which strongly indicate a lack of repentance, they may conclude that the sins committed give evidence of wickedness rather than merely weakness of the flesh.
Even when dealing with a person who seems to have wicked inclinations, elders do not cease to exhort him to pursue righteousness. (Hebrews 3:12) Wicked individuals may repent and change. If that were not the case, why did Jehovah urge the Israelites: “Let the wicked man leave his way, and the harmful man his thoughts; and let him return to Jehovah, who will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will forgive in a large way”? (Isaiah 55:7) Perhaps, during a judicial hearing, the elders will perceive a marked change in his heart condition as reflected in a repentant bearing and attitude.
Even at the time of disfellowshipping an individual, the elders, as shepherds, will urge him to repent and try to make his way back into Jehovah’s favor. Remember the “wicked man” in Corinth. Evidently he changed his way, and Paul later recommended his reinstatement. (2 Corinthians 2:7, 8) Consider also King Manasseh. He was very wicked indeed, but when he finally repented, Jehovah accepted his repentance.—2 Kings 21:10-16; 2 Chronicles 33:9, 13, 19.
True, there is a sin that will not be forgiven—sin against the holy spirit. (Hebrews 10:26, 27) Jehovah alone determines who has committed that sin. Humans have no authority to do so. The responsibility of the elders is to keep the congregation clean and to help to restore repentant sinners. If they do so with discernment and humility, letting their decisions reflect Jehovah’s wisdom, then Jehovah will bless this aspect of their shepherding.
a For further information, see The Watchtower of September 1, 1981, pages 24-6; Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, pages 772-4.
[Picture on page 29]
Ananias and Sapphira hypocritically played false to the holy spirit, showing wickedness of heart