When I only hear one side of an argument I usually find myself agreeing with the person whos talking to me. They seem totally sincere and lay out their case carefully and I have no reason to doubt that theyre telling me the truth, so I tend to accept their conclusions, which, if they happen to be upset with another person or group of people, leaves me feeling the same way. I pick up their offense and make it my own. This kind of transfer happens all the time, and all of us are vulnerable to being drawn in. No one is trying to be unfair, but the verdict seems so clear. What other conclusion can we reach? That is, until the other person gets to present their side. Then, almost always, we find were hearing new information that the first person didnt give us, but which changes the picture rather dramatically. What at first appeared so obvious, now looks more complicated, or in some cases, radically different. Solomon warned us about this. He said, The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him (Pr 18:17). Hes warning us that its always wise to hear both sides of an argument before making a judgment. And I think all of us would agree. Of course we should. Its only fair. But in practice we often dont, because its awkward to tell someone we arent ready to join them in their judgment against another person and it takes courage to tell someone else whats been said about them. People might get angry, and we dont want to create an even bigger problem. So we quietly remind ourselves theres probably another side to this story
but we remain silent, or maybe we choose the easier path, which is to ignore justice and embrace our friends anger.
What were watching take place in this courtroom in Caesarea is Roman law at work. Their law insisted that a citizen had a right to answer accusers. No one could go to a judge and get a decision based on only their side of the story. If they accused someone of something, that person had the right to hear those charges, from them, and then to defend themselves. Only after hearing both sides would a judge or jury make a decision.
We could read through this section of Acts and easily miss this basic, but profound, truth: a person has a right to answer their accusers. It was sad to watch how unjustly Paul was treated in Israels religious court. That judge ordered him to be struck in the mouth after he made his first statement (Ac 23:2). But he was a disgracefully corrupt man who didnt care about truth. By contrast, Felix, the Roman governor, let Paul speak without interruption, and in doing so was simply practicing justice. The lesson for us today is to do the same, and to remember that justice isnt reserved for courts of law. It should be at work every time we hear a bad report about someone else. We too should withhold judgment until we hear the other side.
Paul and his accusers (Ac 23:25-24:15) DBS (Sun-Sat)
The human mind
When people tell us their side, are they intentionally trying to tell us only part of the story? No, not unless they have something to hide. Usually people are telling us what they remember, and what they felt. Have you ever noticed when someone asks you about a discussion you had with someone else that you find yourself relating, almost entirely, what you said to them, not what they said to you? Its because thats what we remember. If someone asks, Well, what did they say? we often discover we cant really recall their words, we just have a vague impression of what they said. This is the way the human mind functions, and its why one person can almost never be a totally reliable witness to a discussion. We didnt really listen to what they were saying, we were simply waiting for them to stop talking, so we could talk. Only that person can give a fair explanation of what they said and what they meant, because even if we listen to their words, we may have misunderstood what they were trying to communicate. Communication often requires clarification. We need the chance to ask, Is this what I heard you say? Humans have always been this way, which is why most cultures develop some sort of procedure that allows both sides to be heard. And, of course, the God of the Bible who prizes justice so highly, and is Himself perfectly just, has done the same.
Listen to Abraham Genesis 18:22-25
Listen to Moses Leviticus 19:15-18; Deuteronomy 19:15-21
Listen to Jesus
If your brother sins, go accuse him between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother, but if he does not hear you, take with you one or two so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be made to stand upright. And if he ignores them, tell the church, and if he ignores the church, let him be to you as the gentile and tax collector (my translation).
In this statement our Lord gives us a clear process to follow, which is respectful and designed to give a person whos willing to be corrected the opportunity to do so in private. The idea is we dont talk to other people about the person until we first talk to the person. Its meant to protect them from gossip. And Jesus even provides for the possibility that we may be wrong in our assessment, which is why two witnesses, others whove seen the same problem, are brought into the process. Theyre there to reinforce the fact that there really is a problem.
Judgments are being passed on people all the time, and not simply in courtrooms. Most trials take place in private conversations. Charges are made, supporting evidence produced, and verdicts are announced. But sadly, these usually take place without the defendant being present, without them being given the chance to defend themselves. They may never even be told that a trial took place, and that they were found guilty. This is as unjust as a one-sided trial in a courtroom, and it can be far more damaging. Theres nothing we can do to stop people who arent disciples of Jesus from conducting these little trials. Its just a tragic part of life. But they should not be accepted as a normal part of life by those who follow Jesus. We are called to be just. Listen to the prophet Micah:
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness (mercy), and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8).
Listen to Paul
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you will not be tempted. Bear one anothers burdens, and thereby fulfill the Law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2).
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses... I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality (1Ti 5:19, 21).
What should we do if a friend or acquaintance tells us something troubling about another individual and puts that person in a bad light? We need to kindly, gently, tell them that it sounds like they need to go and have an honest conversation with that person. If they refuse, and people usually provide good excuses, tell them you disagree with the way theyre handling it and encourage them to avoid telling their version to others until they get a chance to talk to the person theyre accusing. If they wont stop, but insist on continuing to accuse that person, at some point theyll cross a line and move into the realm of gossip.
Gossip is basically telling my side of a story to one person after another without allowing the person Im talking about to defend themselves. Probably unintentionally, Im spreading a partial truth about someone, and if Im deeply angry, I may even be hoping that by spreading this information, I can force them out of our community (family, friends, church, job, etc). To use Pauls language, Im becoming factious which means Im actively working to separate people from each other. In Titus 3:10 Paul writes, Reject a factious man after a first and second warning. Hes telling Titus that he must not let those who are dividing believers from one another to go unchallenged.
In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul gives us a very powerful formula for preserving unity. He says, We are to grow up and become like Christ by... speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). This statement contains three important elements:
1) First, speak. I must go and talk to the person.
2) Second, truth. I must speak only things that are true about them, and about myself.
3) Third, love. The goal of this conversation is to heal our relationship, to reconcile, not to verbally punish someone or win an argument. So, love controls how I say things and why. And, it also empowers me to listen.
When we speak the truth in love, were not trying to condemn someone, were trying to expose things that are hidden to the light so they can be handled biblically and removed (confessed, repented of, forgiven, explained...). The mature disciple will always start the conversation by facing the truth about themselves. Seldom are there misunderstandings in which both parties have not sinned, at least, in the way they reacted. And then, hopefully, the other person will do the same.
The goal is to remove the barriers between us, not by ignoring issues, or falsely taking all the blame, but by both parties listening carefully, removing misunderstandings, repenting where our behavior or attitude did not please the Lord, and then truly forgiving when apologies are sincerely offered.
You might think that this is good medicine for us, this hearing both sides of an argument, but that God Himself, since He knows all things, wouldnt bother with this step. Yet, thats not what happens. Every day accusations are being made against you and me. Everyday Satan appears in heavens courtroom and exposes our sin, but Gods response isnt to reject the devils charges by saying, Thats not true! because, sadly, it is true. But our heavenly Father, in a manner similar to this Roman governor who sat in judgment of Paul, turns and nods His head, not toward us, but toward our Lawyer, and He argues our case for us. Listen:
Who will bring a charge against Gods elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us (Ro 8:33-34). All Jesus needs to say is, I took that sin and died for it. This one has put their faith in Me, and belongs to Me, and is righteous. Arent we grateful God listens to both sides! Shouldnt we do the same?
1) Have you ever been the subject of gossip where people were saying things about you behind your back? What were some of the feelings you experienced? Did you ever get a chance to tell your side of the story?
2) Think of the last time you sat down and spoke the truth in love with somebody. Without disclosing names or someone elses failures, what did you learn from that encounter about yourself? Was the relationship restored?