After years of navigating a relationship that was hurtful and frustrating, my friend said, “I just wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.” She had been hoping that their hurtful actions and words were not as they seemed; hoping that there were more love and grace than shown. In trying to understand how she had been hurt, a mentor said, “you had been giving them the benefit of the doubt, but you should have been giving them the benefit of grace.” She should have addressed their actions, asked questions to know the truth, and moved towards them, towards understanding, reconciliation, and a deeper experience of God’s grace for both of them.
I always thought giving someone the benefit of the doubt was a kindness. Trusting other’s motives and expecting honesty in spite of words or actions that might indicate otherwise felt honorable. I thought I was playing the trusting and loyal friend, but for such a noble position to take, I found myself surprised by the fruit that this cultural idiom began to bear: sin ignored, others getting hurt, bitterness hardening my heart—all in the name of giving the benefit of the doubt. I thought I was being gracious, but I was acting in a self-protective way, not wanting to endure the discomfort of confrontation or move toward a friend in love. Believers do not extend the benefit of the doubt hoping that a brother or sister in Christ will turn out to be the best version of themselves, we confront one another to extend the benefit of grace.
Messengers of reconciliation
Grace is the currency of the gospel, and yet, there are mockeries of gospel grace that exist all around us. Be kind. You do you. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But none of these sayings do anything to move us towards another in the way that the grace of God compels us to. To extend the benefit of grace to another believer means rather than overlooking concerning behavior, comments, or situations with the assumption that your brother or sister in Christ probably didn’t mean what they said or did, we move towards them in the confidence of the gospel and with the promise of grace.
Reconciliation is what the Bible is all about—it tells the story of humans being made in God’s image to be in relationship with Him, sin entering the world and that relationship becoming estranged, and God’s promise to restore harmony with himself being fulfilled in Jesus, who reconciles humanity to God.
But we are not simply receivers of reconciliation, in Christ we become messengers of reconciliation, extending the benefit of the grace to those around us (2 Cor 5:19). Through the work of Christ, we have been reconciled to God—our sins are no longer held against us and we are counted friends of God. As reconciled ones we become reconcilers, bringing that which was separated back together. To be in Christ means that we participate in the fullness of His life and take up the mantle of His ministry so that his grace might extend to others through His Spirit (2 Cor 4:10, Eph 4:32). Jesus, the reconciler, who desired our holiness and righteousness so much that he died so we could have it, makes his appeal through us, inviting others into his abounding grace and propelling fellow believers onward in his upward call.
Dealing with sin and conflict is part of living in a not-yet-fully-restored world. But rather than shying away from confrontation, believers are ambassadors of the gospel, equipped with the resources and power we need to move towards others with grace. But we also have the responsibility to do so. Jesus tells us explicitly that if your brother has sinned against you, go to him and tell him his fault. Don’t talk about it with other people or let it fester, go to him in the confidence of the gospel and be reconciled to him (Matt 18:15-20). Though this should always be done in humility, it must be done.
When I worked in campus ministry, I watched friend groups slowly deteriorate over unnamed transgressions. Students would tell me that someone had hurt them, but they didn’t want to bring it up because they weren’t perfect either. They would often think they should “remove the plank from their own eye before attempting to remove the speck from a friend’s,” invoking it as a reason for not going to their sister in Christ to pursue reconciliation (Matt 7:1-5). But in that passage Jesus is teaching us about judgment—we should not be haughty, judgmental people when we pursue the holiness of our brother or sister. What Jesus desires is that both the speck in your eye and the plank in mine would be removed in humility so that we might see Him clearly, be restored to one another, and be a witness to our community of how the gospel empowers reconciliation.
But more often than not, we retreat into cultural norms extending the benefit of the doubt rather than moving towards one another in love. This not only divides us from our brothers and sisters but witnesses to a watching world that we are no different than them when it comes to how we handle conflict. Our individualistic culture calls for toleration, but we are not called to “tolerate” the sin of others, we are called to reconcile. We have experienced reconciliation in Christ, and we must be people who embody the beautiful gift of grace for others.
Me, You, and Jesus
David is renowned as one of the great Kings of Israel, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), but David’s life was interrupted and changed by his friend’s call to repent and receive the grace of God (2 Sam 12). After raping Bethsheba and having her husband killed, Nathan goes to David to confront him about his sin, demonstrating to us the power and necessity of extending the benefit of grace.
Firstly, God sent Nathan to David. This shows us that God chooses to use other believers in our lives to speak the truth in love, call out sin, and extend grace and forgiveness. As ambassadors of the gospel, we actually have the power to represent Christ to our brothers and sisters in Christ (Jas 5:16) and it is God’s will to use us (2 Cor 5:20). Moving toward one another with the gospel is what it means to be messengers of reconciliation.
But for much of the western church, this feels far too personal and much too exposing for our individualistic faith. We want “me and Jesus,” but God calls us to “you, me, and Jesus.” There is no going it alone in Christ. We are part of Christ’s body, and we have a responsibility to one another to call each other out in love and with the full hope and assurance of the gospel. When we are tempted to butt out and extend the benefit of the doubt, hoping that our sister will just “figure it out,” we are going against what God teaches us in his word. Abel actually was his brother’s keeper (Gen 4:9), we are commanded to restore our brothers and sisters in Christ with gentleness and humility (Gal 6:1-2), it is our calling to build up the body out of love and reverence for Christ (Eph 5). God uses us, his messengers of reconciliation, to join him in his supernatural work of leading his children to repentance. Let’s say yes to our calling and choose to address our concerns for our brother or sister rather than ignoring them.
After David sees and comprehends his sin, as a minister of reconciliation, Nathan immediately reminds him of past grace that God already showed him but also promises him present and future grace because David is part of the covenant family of God. Nathan reminds David of who he is; chosen by God, forgiven, and loved in spite of his sin. When we confront someone in grace, we do not call out sin for the purpose of guilt , we extend grace and challenge them to be who they already are in Christ—redeemed, holy saints who are empowered to walk in righteousness (Rom 6:16-18).
Finally, it is Nathan’s extending of grace that inspires Psalm 51, the most foundational and beautiful Psalm on repentance we have. In it, David earnestly repents for his sin, but he also leads Israel and every future believer in how to respond to sin saying that through his experience he will teach other transgressors God’s ways and sinners will return to him (Ps 51:13). David gives language to corporate confession, leading the people of God into repentance with the beautiful assurance of grace.
Imagine that Nathan had left David alone thinking, what I heard probably isn’t true, or at least it’s not the whole truth. David loves the Lord, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Nathan’s willingness to be a minister of reconciliation not only grew him in obedience to God but led David to repentance and a deeper understanding of God’s wonderful grace. This is the power of extending grace to one another. In Christ, we have the promises of the gospel, the power of the Spirit, and the assurance that God extends the benefit of grace to every single sin.