In the last article, I introduced the ministry situation of a youth group member—let’s call him Joel—who has begun to date and have sex with an unbeliever. And I advocated for an approach to the Bible that is sensitive to its nature as an unfolding story of God’s redemption centering on Jesus Christ. But how we read Scripture is only one side of the ministry equation. To apply the Bible to our contemporary lives, we need to wisely “read” (understand) people as well. Here we follow the Bible’s lead, because in it God speaks his redemptive word to his people as saints, sufferers, and sinners.
Why is it important to highlight these aspects of our identity as believers? They describe our experience before Jesus returns to consummate his kingdom. Another way of saying this is that each person—including Joel—is wrestling in some way with two problems. The first is the problem of identity and purpose: who am I and what in the world should I be doing? (This corresponds to God’s address to us as saints.) The second is the problem of evil: evil from outside ourselves (which corresponds to our experience as sufferers) and evil from within ourselves (which corresponds to our experience as sinners). Let’s look at each of these briefly.
Scripture often explicitly reminds God’s people of their true identity as image bearers (Gen 1:26) and chosen, forgiven, and redeemed children (Eph 1:3–14; Gal 4:6–7). Perhaps Joel has forgotten his high privilege and calling, that he has been set apart for his own good and God’s glory. Perhaps he needs you to recount the many ways God has worked in his life over the years growing up in a Christian family.
The Bible also addresses our experiences as sufferers. The Israelites in the wilderness, the psalmists crying for God to show himself faithful, the prophets lamenting during the exile, the groaning of God’s children as we wait for the day when there will be no pain. Suffering is part of the warp and woof of life this side of glory. Are you attentive to Joel’s suffering? What if you knew that he had been snubbed repeatedly by the most popular girl in the church? Or that his parents were in the middle of a messy divorce? Wouldn’t that shape your overall approach to him?
Of course, Scripture also addresses our experience as sinners. As Christians, we continue to struggle with the downward pull of sin in our lives. Throughout the Bible, God calls his people to repentance and faith, to turn from empty ways of living and to walk in his righteous ways. There is no doubt Joel is in sin, and loving ministry to him must explore the heart motives that underlie his actions (Luke 6:43–45) and must involve a call to repentance. To ignore that fact is to say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer 6:14).
We need to be attentive to Joel’s experience as a saint, sufferer, and sinner. All three aspects of his experience are important, although we may be tempted to zero in on his sin to the exclusion of everything else. But God approaches his people in multifaceted ways; his redemptive words confirm Joel’s identity as a chosen child of God, comfort him in the midst of suffering, and confront the ways he is turning away from God.
This blog is adapted from the book CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet (New Growth Press, 2009).