Backslidden, Wandered, Lost, Unsaved, Hooligan, Bad Influence, Disappointment, Black Sheep. You name it, I was called it. The choices I had made in my late teens/early twenties set me apart from those I had previously called dear. I was now different, stained, tainted. And nobody knew what to do with me.
You see, in high school, I had been my parent’s pride and joy. I did everything right. I was the leader of the leadership team in our church’s youth group, I was on the front page of the local newspaper for praising the Lord at my school’s flagpole, and my friends and I were so innocent that we spent our free time together purposefully playing leapfrog and hand-clapping games.
But a year after graduation I decided that I needed a change, and I moved to a small remote town on the Northern California coast. It didn’t take long before the separation from my Christian community took its toll, and I began to slide. At first, it was missing church on occasion, and then it was long walks on a beach with a cute boy. After almost a year, I had dabbled in both alcohol and marijuana and my virginity was long gone (and I was not yet 20).
Great, Now It’s Awkward
There are a lot of different directions I could go at this point, but I’ll leave those for another day and another post. Today, I want to talk about how I was treated during this time in my life, and how maybe you can be different for those in your life that have gone a different direction as well.
Twenty years later, and having since reconciled with Christ, my perspective is a bit different. I am now on the other side of this tricky exchange, struggling with how to maintain relationships with friends and loved ones who have walked away. There is no denying that it is an awkward thing. You once saw the world from the same lens, and all of a sudden that is turned upside down. It’s hard to know what to do and what to say. The words you would once use to encourage, now feel uncomfortable, and you’re not sure if prayer would be accepted.
So, what is right? How do we bridge the gap that has grown in our black sheep relationships?
The first thing to know, is that its not your job to close the gap. If they’ve walked away from the Lord, then the gap is theirs. Please don’t try to close it by going to their side of the chasm. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t sit visibly on your side, reminding them of your presence. Draw your loved ones closer to you, don’t chase after them.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Galatians 6:1
Be Careful Not to Judge a Black Sheep
This is harder than it sounds. When I was out doing my own thing, the judgy eyes were infuriating and would shut me down quicker than anything else, and yet this is one area that I now struggle with the most. Sometimes I feel that there is no greater hypocrite than the woman I see in the mirror.
It is so easy to watch the prodigal son from afar, and to condemn him (or her) for the poor choices they’ve made. Its easy to sit back at Dad’s house feeling good about your own choice to stay close to home. But if you know the parable (Luke 15:11-32), the second son is the one in the end who is in the wrong by his feelings of anger, jealousy, and resentment. Staying close to home doesn’t exempt you from making poor choices.
How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
It is important to remember that in God’s economy, not one of us is closer to heaven than the next. Not one of us can earn or buy our way in with good behavior or church attendance.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. Romans 3:10
Accept a Black Sheep in Love
Once you’ve remembered that you’re in no place to judge, you can now accept your friend with open loving arms. I had two friends that didn’t walk away from me. They loved me well, and made sure that I knew that they were available should I need them. I knew where they stood on my choices, and they did not back down, but because they still accepted me as a friend, I felt valued. I have no doubt that that they prayed for me, regularly. And I, in turn, now pray for my friends who have gone a different way.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
When a person is made to feel like an outcast, they will do everything in their power to avoid that feeling again. If that feeling originates from your response to them, you will be the thing that they will avoid going forward. Down the road, if and when they do decide to return to the Lord, you will not be the one they seek out.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Do Not Let a Black Sheep Go
Relationship is so important. If we don’t stay close to those who have stepped off the path, we won’t be in a position of trust to speak the truth in love. God’s instruction is clear, we are to not give up on those we care about, we are called to go after them and bring them back.
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20
There is a right way and a wrong way to go about this. Sometime in that first couple of years, I had a friend take me a on a hike and proceeded to quote scripture at me, letting me know the error of my ways. The problem was that, although I’m sure his heart was in the right place, it was an awkward exchange being as we didn’t know each other very well. And I knew the scripture better than he did, so I responded (in full arrogance) by correcting his memorization. We didn’t hang out after that.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:1-2
It May Take Awhile
Have patience. It may take some time. From the moment I made that first choice of disobedience, to the day I got down on my knees in repentance, 15 years had passed. That is a long time for those who stood by, watching and waiting. The situation for some may feel hopeless to you. I know that I have to constantly remind myself how long it took for me to come around when I’m praying for others who seem lost.
But God is good. And although it might not seem like your prayers are being heard, He is actively working on the hearts of your loved ones. Don’t give up on them. He hasn’t.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25
Keep a Black Sheep Accountable
What about when your friend does reach out? What do you do then?? DON’T DROP THE BALL!!!
A handful of years down my road of poor choices, I was actually on staff at a local church’s high school youth group. (This was during a short stint in time when I was trying to turn my life around.) I met a(nother) cute boy and had slid easily into bed with him. Struggling with my sin, I reached out to another woman on staff and opened up to her. Her response was “bummer”. That was it. No form of prayer or accountability was offered.
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. James 4:17
The next week, in the middle of a youth group pool party, I walked out without saying goodbye. Unfortunately, the youth pastor didn’t call me inquiring about my absence until 6 months later, and by then it was too late. That was the beginning of a 10 year stretch during which I didn’t step foot into church once. I was angry, and so disappointed.
Please do not leave a friend hanging if they are reaching out for help. Leave no doubt of your love for them by showing Christ’s love to them. I won’t lie, this takes work, and it takes effort.
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:13
Stick It Out
It may be easy to walk away. Your loved one may actually attempt to push you away. If this is the case, you may need to love from afar. But prayer is not nothing. It is actually the biggest something that you can do.
A journal is a great way to keep track of those you care for and want to remember in prayer regularly. Not Consumed (Affiliate Link) has a fantastic physical prayer journal that you can order and have shipped. The journal not only has a daily prayer section, it also has sections that are more specific to praying for those long-term requests. If you’d rather print and make your own journal specific to your needs, check out the many designs in my Etsy shop, StillWatersbyAmy. Either way you go, both are great options and can help facilitate the lifting up of others to Christ.
Hang in there. The friendship road may be hard in these situations, but you are not alone, and it will be worth it in the end.