Grace for Sin and for Suffering

May 18, 2015

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Bill Smith


Here’s a problem that we’re all familiar with in ministry to people: how do you deal with a person who has been badly sinned against, but is now acting out in response? Our elders and staff regularly encounter this in conflicts between husbands and wives, but it’s easy to find in any conflict, particularly when there’s a power differential in the relationship.

Part of the challenge for my congregational leaders is that our local culture, both in our church and our surrounding community, tends to be strongly sympathetic towards people who are mistreated. Now in its place, sympathy is a great thing (when modeled after Christ’s version in Hebrews 4:15).

When unbalanced, however, sympathy can easily downplay, minimize, or excuse another’s actions and attitudes on the basis of what happened to them. In that environment, any attempt to help another be responsible or accountable when they’ve been harmed, sounds harsh. It sounds as if you’re not giving to others the kind of grace that Christ gave to you.

The Power of Words

Our leaders are especially sensitive to that criticism, so I wanted to help them develop categories that would guide them as they ministered to people who had been hurt by others. I began by drawing their attention to the power of words, noting that when someone is wronged we tend to call them a victim or label them as having had a traumatic experience. Technically there is nothing wrong with those words or categories. When used within a biblical framework, they can be descriptively helpful.

The problem is that in my context, they’re often not defined biblically. Instead they’re given their popular definitions that tend to view them as exclusive categories such that:

  • When you’re a victim, you cannot simultaneously be a perpetrator, or
  • When you’ve been traumatized, you cannot have an emotionally healthy response.

Those underlying, unrecognized assumptions ignore an important aspect of the Scripture’s understanding of humans that we are always both actors and acted upon. When you translate that truth into a fallen world, that means every one of us knows what it is to sin and to suffer.

Now God’s grace is so amazing that it comes to both those who sin and to those who suffer, but it does so in different ways that addresses the differing needs of the sinner and the sufferer. That distinction, however, gets lost when you blur the boundaries between sin and suffering, or worse, when you excuse a person’s sin because of their suffering. When that happens, you no longer know what grace looks like in that situation, and you needlessly compound or prolong the effects of brokenness.

Grace for Suffering and for Sin

Having laid that foundation, I then walked us through the chart below to flesh out how grace looks different in several categories of spiritual care. For instance, grace always impels you to move toward someone who has been affected by a fallen world. But your Initial Care for the Person has different intentions with different hopes depending on whether they’ve sinned or suffered.

Later, Initial Care gives way to longer term care and it’s helpful to recognize that the Person’s Ongoing Struggles are likely to be different and will require them to adopt different aspects of Gospel Identity for themselves. Not surprising, as the more word-based approaches to ministry differ, so too do the diaconal, or deed-based approaches to address the Physical Care for the Person.

I also find it helpful to think outside the individual, both to the Care Team’s Attitude toward the one they’re helping as well as how that person now Engages with Others.

The following chart is clearly not exhaustive nor does it develop a counseling method. Instead, I was trying to demonstrate that the same desire to show grace must express itself differently depending on whether you’re engaging someone who has sinned or someone who has suffered.

Sufferer Sinner
Initial Care for Person Comfort: Call sufferer to endure patiently. Confront: Call sinner to repent (not exhaustive or complete, but an initial, frank admission of wrong doing).
Person’s Ongoing Struggles Shame: “I am defined by what someone did to me.” Guilt: “I am defined by what I have done.”
Gospel Identity “I am defined by who I am related to. I am a child of the King. Jesus is my Brother.” “I am definited by what Jesus has done for me. My sin does not separate me from Him now or for eternity.”
Physical Care for the Person Restore what’s been lost if possible. Relieve burdens generated by the person’s sin as, or if, appropriate.
Attitude of Care Team Sympathize with shared experience of living in a broken world. Sympathize with being similarly tempted.
Engagement with Others Provide protection from others who have harmed them. Set boundaries on them in order to protect others from them.


Living in a fallen world provides countless opportunities to live out the grace of God with others, but one-dimensional grace that cannot distinguish between sin and suffering, is not His kind of grace. Jesus was able to heal and feed people, without that inhibiting Him from rebuking the Pharisees and Peter (who was also one of the ones He had fed).

You can and must offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name as well as strive to turn someone from actively engaging in rebellion. Both are undeserved instances of God’s kindness to someone in trouble, but they are not interchangeable kindnesses.

Join the Conversation

How does the chart assist you to minister grace uniquely to the person facing suffering and the person fighting besetting sin?