Recently, I got an email from a casual acquaintance. Among other things, he mentioned that he’d been terminated from his position with a Christian ministry. From such a distance—of both location and relationship—it was impossible for me to understand the issues that contributed to his situation. Was he wrongly terminated? Or was he the guilty one? I simply couldn’t know.
And yet our correspondence required me to reply. I could hardly ignore what was obviously an important and life-changing matter for him. What could I say?
Frequently in the church and maybe especially in ministry, we’re told about a challenging situation and invited to make a response. And often we know only one small part of the whole story. A person gives what seems to be an extended (and possibly biased) list of wrongs someone else has done. Another person only tells part of the story to avoid exposing someone else’s sin.
Proverbs warns against making a quick judgment without information:
The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Prov. 18:17)
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)
Sometimes we’re able to pursue the subject and gain a fuller picture. If both parties are within our circles, we can get more information, assist them to pursue biblical conflict resolution, and offer help to everyone involved. But, as with my out-of-work acquaintance, some situations and relationships will never disclose the full story, perhaps rightly so. There are times when we shouldn’t be privy to all of the details.
So what can you say—over email or coffee or Sunday’s fellowship lunch—when you cannot have the whole story?
Sin makes us sorrowful. If there’s sin in a situation, no matter whose sin it is, you can truthfully say you’re sorry. A church member loses his job because his Christian convictions are distasteful to his employer? Then say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” A church member loses his job because he failed to show up three shifts in a row? Then, too, you can say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” We can rightly express sorrow for sin and suffering even if we don’t fully understand how it came to be.
If there’s sin in a situation, no matter whose sin it is, you can truthfully say you’re sorry.
Maybe, as in the case of the email I received, the best reply is “Thank you for your years of service.” Maybe it’s “Thank you for being such a good friend to her in this hard time” or “Thank you for being concerned.” Sometimes, all you can say is “Thank you for being willing to share that with me.” Though we may not know enough to comment on the situation, we can find something about the person or relationship for which we can express gratitude.
Our Lord knows the whole story even when we don’t, and we can pray with humility and confidence for him to work. Together, we can ask him to vindicate the righteous, convict the sinning, reconcile the estranged, and exalt his Son. Prayer is also a great equalizer—forcing each of us to admit our limitations and to cry out in dependence on our sovereign God. When we don’t know the whole story, we can together ask for help.
And that’s something to which we can all say, “Amen.”
Read more from Megan Hill in her kids’ book about a girl who learns that the church is ready to help: Meg Is Not Alone (Crossway/TGC Kids, November 2022).