This month, a lot of kids are starting their first semester of college. For many, college is a time to push the boundaries, especially if you’re from a somewhat “sheltered” home. Many Christian kids will witness some of their Christian friends morph into party animals this semester, and for some, this can be really disconcerting. You thought you knew them, and now they’re acting in a way that is completely uncharacteristic.
How should you respond if you have a Christian friend who is behaving in a way that contradicts his or her profession of faith? What do you, for instance, if you have a friend who jumps on the binge drinking band wagon? Before considering what you should do, remember a few things not to do:
First, don’t overreact. Just because your friend is behaving wildly this doesn’t mean he or she has abandoned belief in God and any sense of right and wrong. Though we shouldn’t presume God’s mercy, a lot of people do have wild seasons of life in college, get their act together later, and turn out to be decent people. Getting drunk in college is not tantamount to becoming an apostate. If you are overzealous about policing your friend’s behavior, you run the risk of not only souring the friendship, but also giving him or her the wrong impression of Christianity. Drunkenness is a sin, but it’s not the ultimate sin that eclipses all others. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, the sins of the flesh, such as drunkenness, are the “least bad” of all sins. The worst sins, Lewis said, are purely spiritual, such as pride or hatred. “There are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become,” Lewis said. “They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.”
Secondly, don’t under react. If your friends are drinking excessively on a regular basis, this should concern you. It’s easy in college to adopt an “I’ll have fun and ask for forgiveness later” mindset. The problem with this, though, is that if we ignore our conscience long enough, our consciences become seared. After our season of “sowing our wild oats” is over, our conscience may have ceased to trouble us at all. Prolonged disobedience of any sort hardens the heart to God, making repentance more difficult as time passes. Furthermore, college binge drinking can usher in a lifelong addiction to alcohol. When people choose repeatedly to drink in excess they may wake up one day realizing they’ve lost the ability to drink in moderation. In his 1539 sermon “On Soberness and Moderation against Gluttony and Drunkenness”, Martin Luther said, “Everybody should know that such a sin is contrary to his baptism and hinders his faith and his salvation. Therefore, if you wish to be a Christian, take care that you control yourself.”
Thirdly, don’t talk to other people about your friend’s sin. In the name of “sharing prayer requests”, a lot of gossip is exchanged between Christians. The Biblical model explained by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 is, if your brother sins against you, go to him in private and confront him about his sin. This is uncomfortable. As a high schooler, I was appalled at how many of my classmates reportedly went and got drunk on graduation night. Rather than actually go to any of them and share my concerns—a costly thing to do—I took the easy way out by merely writing a letter to the local newspaper (under a pseudonym), blasting my classmates. This gave me the self-satisfaction of feeling I’d done my “Christian duty” by standing up for morality while sparing me the trouble of having any unpleasant conversations or even finding out if the reports of my classmates’ drinking were, in fact, true. The letter boosted my own ego, but I highly doubt it edified anybody in my class. Learn from my 18-year-old self’s mistake and don’t do what I did.
If someone is throwing caution to the wind, making bad choices, and you only sort of know the person as a casual acquaintance, you don’t necessarily have the right to confront them about their drinking. A relationship must first be in place in order for the person to take you seriously. The focal point of such a conversation must be your friend’s welfare. Confronting a friend about his or her sin should be a heartbreaking experience. If you feel any sense of enjoyment about discussing your friend’s sin, you are probably not spiritually ready to have the conversation.
Before having such a conversation, pray. If the talk doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, don’t overreact. If your friend appears to have no ears to hear what you’re saying, that doesn’t mean your words won’t have an impact down the road. I can recall numerous occasions in high school when my youth pastor said something that, at the time, made no impression. In the year since, his words have blessed me.
Remember that you are not the Holy Spirit. You can reach out to your friend, but you can’t get in your friend’s heart and turn it in a different direction. Only God can do that. Love your friend, even if his or her choices continue to disappoint you. Help your friends understand that your love for them isn’t contingent on what they do or don’t do—and neither is God’s. Be patient and persistent. Don’t lost heart.
In closing, John Wesley’s words of wisdom on what confrontation between Christians ought to look like should be remembered:
“Avoid everything in look, gesture, word, and tone of voice, that savors of pride or self-sufficiency… Beware of the most distant approach to disdain, overbearing, or contempt. With equal care avoid all appearance of anger; and though you use great plainness of speech, yet let there be no reproach, no railing accusation, no token of any warmth but that of love. Above all, let there be no shadow of hate or ill-will, no bitterness or sourness of expression; but use the air and language of sweetness, as well as gentleness, that all may appear to flow from love in the heart. And yet this sweetness need not hinder your speaking in the most serious and solemn manner; as far as may be, in the very words of the oracles of God (for there are none like them,) and as under the eye of Him who is coming to judge the quick and dead.”