Fighting sin alongside our brothers and sisters is one of the highest – and most unnatural – callings to a Christian. It feels natural to me to confront my sister who has wronged me. It feels less natural to me to confront my sister because I’m concerned about her spending habits or laziness. It feels less natural to me to have friends point out to me that I have been gossiping. When those issues are brought up, it so often makes me feel that there is enmity between a friend and me.
I recently studied Joshua with some women at my church, and as we were discussing chapter 22, I weighed my own understanding of confrontation against the Scripture and found that these perceptions of enmity between my friends and me when sin is brought up are a result of my deficiency in understanding Biblical confrontation.
In my experiences with confrontation – whether I’m the confronter, confrontee, or unfortunate bystander – I must admit that, on the part of the confrontee, there is far too much assuming that nothing has been done wrong. Usually what follows is the confronter feeling the need to continue to fight against her friend. It’s a mess. I didn’t quite realize how messy it usually is, though, until I read Joshua 22.
To give some context, Israel is in the midst of conquering Canaan, and Joshua has handed out land allotments to the twelve tribes. Most of the tribes lived west of the Jordan, but the Reubenites, Gadites, and a half-tribe of Manasseh were given allotments on the east side. As these three tribes were returning to their land from battle, they decided to build an altar.
“And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size. And the people of Israel heard it said, ‘Behold the people of Reuben and the people of God and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.’ And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.” (Joshua 22:10-12)
The Eastern tribes built an altar, and the whole assembly of the people of Israel was ready to make war- why? Because they perceived that the Eastern tribes were in sin! For years, starting from the exodus from Egypt to the wandering in the wilderness and the conquering of Canaan, the Israelites had several occasions of their disobedience resulting in their destruction. These experiences meant that, at this point in time, the nation was mercifully sensitive to sin in their midst. Indeed, they were so afraid of disobedience that the whole nation gathered to confront these Eastern tribes that seemed to be in Sin.
“And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, ‘Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, “What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord?… But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God.”‘” (22:15-16, 19)
This part gets me every time. The Western tribes were so afraid that their brothers were wrongfully building an altar, so desperate to keep their brothers from sinning, that they offered to sacrifice parts of their own possession for the sake of Israel’s righteousness. This passage causes me to reflect on the times I’ve confronted perceived sin in the lives of my sisters. How often are those conversations the fruit of such desperation to keep them safe from sin that I would joyfully inconvenience myself to help them? Do I actually see sin as dangerous to others or to myself? Do I actually desire to join my sisters in their battles against sin? Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s usually the posture of my heart. Usually, the message I’m communicating to them is, “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but you might want to get it together.” I am deeply challenged by Israel’s treatment of their brothers in this passage, and the Eastern tribes’ response is just as radical!
“Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, ‘The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows; let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, do not spare us today for building an altar to turn away from following the Lord….No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel?'” (22:21-24)
They weren’t in sin! The Eastern tribes explain to the rest of Israel that they are building on an altar so generations to come know that the tribes on either side of the Jordan are one nation and that the Lord is their God; they were not breaching the faith by building a pagan altar. Here’s the kicker though- they are not angry at the wrongful accusation! They say, “If it was in rebellion… do not spare us today for building an altar.” These three tribes are just as aware as the other nine of the danger of sin and ask that justice is delivered if indeed sin is present. Again, how often do I respond like that when potential sin in my life is confronted? Do I see sin as dangerous enough that I am just as alarmed when it is pointed out as my friends are? Am I grateful to them when they point it out and offer to fight with me? No. Usually, my heart response is, “How dare you accuse me of such things?”
As my friends and I discussed this passage, we realized that our understanding of confrontation was deficient because our theology of sin was deficient. I know in my head that Jesus saved me from my sin, but that doesn’t mean very much to me if I don’t think I’m very sinful. Unfortunately, I let my perception of my sin diminish the magnitude of the gospel instead of allowing the magnitude of the gospel to correct my imprecise perceptions of my sin. If Christ’s blood- the most valuable currency in the universe- was the cost of my reconciliation, then sin is a big deal.
It is a fruit of the Spirit to be able to see sin for what it is. So the next time you see sin in a friend’s life, remember that he is in danger and that you are called to help him. Next time a friend confronts sin in your life, remember that she is sacrificially warning you of danger and wants to help you. Together, you can “run with endurance the race marked out for us.” (Heb 12:1)