How to Keep People From Sinning
Hint: You really can't. So, then what?
I’m a preacher/pastor, and my job description is to keep people from doing what they obviously want to do. I’ve often felt like a police officer at a rock concert charged with keeping the concertgoers from smoking pot. Everywhere I turn, people are lighting up, and the air is so sweet that I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony.
With a job description like mine, I hardly ever get invited to parties (at least, not the good ones). Sometimes I feel like a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at a wedding. I tell the guests that I’m trying to help and that God anointed me to reach out to them, but they simply don’t care.
Preachers are supposed to keep people from sinning. I haven’t been very successful so far. And I’ve been trying for 40 years.
There are times when I feel like I’m standing by the sheer edge of a high cliff that people frequently approach. “Be careful,” I tell them. “It’s a long way down, and coming to a stop at the bottom will be quite unpleasant.” They look at me. They sometimes even thank me.
Then they jump.
But I keep at it. “Hey,” I say to the next group that approaches the cliff, “not too long ago, I saw people go off that cliff; if you’ll bend over and look, you can see the bloody mess they made.” Like everybody else, they seem grateful for my concern. They may even say something about my compassion and wisdom.
Then they jump. It happens again and again.
Frankly, I’m tired of it. In fact, I’ve given up standing by this stupid cliff. I’m tired of being people’s mother. I’m tired of trying to prevent the unpreventable. I’m tired of talking to people who don’t want to listen. And I’m tired of pointing out the obvious.
Let me tell you. Human beings have an undeniable proclivity to sin—to jump off the cliff. We’re drawn to it. We love it (at least for a while). No matter who tries to keep us from doing it or how much pain it will cause, we are irresistibly drawn to that cliff. Maybe we want to fly. Could it be that we have a masochistic streak in our DNA? Could it be that our default position is jumping off cliffs? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, we do jump, we do get hurt, and—if we survive—we then climb back up the cliff and jump again.
With my apologies to my fellow teachers and preachers, I’m going to pull back the curtain and tell you some of the techniques we use to try to keep people from sinning.
1. Manipulate with guilt
You would be surprised at how far a “How could you?” or “After all that Jesus has done for you!” will go if it is said with sincerity and passion. It’s even better and more effective if you can attach a Bible verse to it. Last week, I heard about a preacher who said that heaven wasn’t going to be a happy place for some Christians. “When you look back and see how many opportunities you missed and how often you failed when you could have succeeded, it will be depressing.” Now, that’s over the top. Okay, okay, I did some guilt manipulation over the years, but at least I left heaven alone. It’s almost like this preacher is not content with making people miserable on Earth. He has to mess with heaven too.
2. “Encourage” with comparisons to how much better others have done
It’s sort of like the rooster who found a gigantic eagle’s egg. He rolled it into the chicken coop and said, “Ladies, I don’t want you to think I’m complaining, but I did want you to know what the competition is doing.”
3. Tell stories of heroes of the faith who persevered and were faithful in the hard places
“If they can do it, God will give you the grace to do it too!” It’s very important that, when motivating with biography, you not tell the whole story. You have to leave out the sin, the doubts and the failures. Only reference the victories.
4. Use the carrot-and-stick technique
This is one of the best techniques there is. The carrot is heaven, of course, and the stick is hell. After someone becomes a Christian, the hell thing doesn’t work very well, but there is always Hebrews 12:8 (“If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are legitimate children and not sons”). It’s a simple matter of telling your congregation that while they probably won’t go to hell for their sins, God will break their legs if they get out of line. A few attention-grabbing words like “cancer,” “financial ruin,” and “leprosy” help.
5. Throw out the “follow me as I follow Christ” thing
The trick here is to never let them see you sweat. You have to look spiritual, speak spiritual and act spiritual when people are around. If they catch you in an guarded moment, the gig is up. But it’s doable. I was able to pull it off for a whole lot of years.
The impossible task of human flying lessons
I know, I know, there is a lot more to being a preacher and a pastor than keeping people from sinning, but if you become obsessed with sin prevention, it begins to take over everything you do and teach. Pretty soon you become a police officer, and the crime is sin. You spend your time trying to discern what is and what isn’t sin, you emphasize “sin prevention” by teaching how to avoid sin and stay pure, and you create a disciplinary process whereby sin is punished in the name of Jesus and “for their own good.”
It’s a problem, you know? If you can’t fly and have been charged with teaching others how to fly—who also can’t and never will be able to fly—you have to be very good at creating a façade. And not only that, the problem is compounded when you believe that the master flyer (God) has commissioned you to do it.
Being a preacher and a pastor is like that. And it will kill you if you let it. Trying to teach people not to sin and, at the same time, finding out that they are still sinning is not a fulfilling task. Neither is trying to cover up that you have your own sins too (maybe bigger than your students’/parishioners’).
But, can we talk?
That stuff is sick. And that’s our problem. Simply put, we’re in serious trouble in the Church. It isn’t because we are sinners or because we don’t know enough, pray enough or read the Bible enough. Our problem isn’t about being more faithful or not living a supernatural life of victory. Our problem isn’t going to be fixed with more programs, better methods of evangelism and stewardship, or discipline. Our problem isn’t spiritual formation or that we aren’t missional.
Our problem is that we have taken the best news ever given to the world, run it through a “religious” grid and made something unpalatable out of it. In short, we’ve taken the Good News and made it bad news. And if you listen carefully, you can hear old Slew Foot (that would be the devil) laughing.
But what if your sins weren’t even the issue? What if the issue were living your life with someone who loved you without condition or condemnation? What if the Christian faith wasn’t about getting better at all?
I’ll tell you, that’s what I’ve come to know is true. And I’d encourage you to think about that.
This article is excerpted from Steven’s most recent book, Three Free Sins: The Reason We’re So Bad Is That We’re Trying So Hard to Be Good. Reprinted by permission of Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.