A friend described to me how her church did marriage counseling: the married couple had been told to come up with a list of “evidences of grace” that they saw in each other’s lives.
We were to say them out loud in front of each other and the elders meeting with us. They were, after all, constantly reminding us that Scripture called us to “believe the best” of each other, and this exercise was meant to help us do that.
I went first. Wanting them to see that I wasn’t bitter and really did love my husband, I came up with a long list of everything I could think of:
- he works full time to provide for us
- he takes us to church each Sunday
- he attends Bible studies, prayer meetings, and service days every week
- he meets with an accountability group
- he prays with the kids and leads in family devotions
- he supports me staying at home with our children
- he encourages me to go to women’s Bible studies
This satisfied them: they smiled, praising me for coming up with such a list. I was clearly following God’s call to believe the best and clearly inviting God’s grace to work in our marriage.
Next, it was my husband’s turn. He said he couldn’t think of any evidences of grace in my life. He had never seen any evidence, throughout our whole marriage, that I loved Christ. My Christianity was an act, he told them, a sham.
The leaders sighed and shook their heads; and in that moment, to my shaking relief across the table, they defended me. No, they said. She goes to church and Bible study regularly. She has accountability partners. She teaches the children about the Lord. We are not questioning her salvation.
I was so thankful they stood up for me in that moment. They knew I was sincere. They knew I loved him–and the Lord.
Surely that meant they would take my other list seriously, the one I had shared with them on that first trembling phone call in the middle of a dark parking lot at night?
That list was different. It included the ways my husband was mistreating us at home. Things like:
- denying me access to our bank accounts
- refusing to fix safety hazards in the home
- not allowing us to eat until he gave permission
- denying us heat and air conditioning
- physically injuring our young children
Did he lead devotions still? Yes. Did he pray with us? Yes. But something was seriously wrong, despite the “evidences of grace.”
In future meetings, the elders continued to defend my salvation, but they also defended his — and they continued to bring up the fruit they saw in his life — which for them mostly boiled down to attendance. Attendance at prayer nights. Attendance at accountability group. Attendance at his job. . . . .
As I continued to email them the “other lists,” they told me I was speaking evil of my husband (James 4:11), biting and devouring (Galatians 5:15), exaggerating, and telling falsehoods.
They had me study the concept of telling the truth throughout Scripture. They asked me classic “Biblical counseling” questions, like “What are you wanting and not getting that would cause you to sin and lie about your husband?”
Meanwhile, my husband was given books on God’s love, as they felt he was a believer who was deeply discouraged and needing to be reminded of how loved he was by the Lord.
I think he wept there at the church that first day in front of them, after we shared our evidences of grace. Brother, they said with relieved smiles and a firm shake of the hand, thank you for your humility.
Unfortunately, after we prayed and left, I was provided with more items to add to my “other list.”
I’m guessing many readers here could add their own stories of abusers who showed what this church called “evidences of grace.” One man I know of who was selling his children for sex at the same time was an impressive example in his church. If his wife had gone for marriage counseling (which she didn’t, because she was too controlled), the list of “evidences of grace” she could have given would have bowled you over. She would have rightly said her husband . . .
- Is a deacon/elder
- Teaches adult Sunday school
- Leads singing and sings in the choir and sings special music
- Preaches sometimes
- Helps with VBS
- Helps with bus ministry
- Helps in youth group
- Leads in kids’ programs
- Works in the nursery
- Helps clean the church building
- Participates in church work days
- Plays basketball, volleyball, and other sports with the young people after services
- Reads the Bible to his family
But what was really going on with the person who did so many impressive-looking activities? Second Corinthians 11:13-15 describes it well.
For these false apostles are deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And it is no marvel, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers transform themselves as ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their works.
My friend’s church used the term “evidences of grace” to describe a list they wanted to see kept, a series of hoops they wanted their church members to jump through. (I’ve talked about the fruitlessness of that life here.)
But the “evidences of grace” the Scriptures talk about are called the “fruit of the Spirit,” and are described in Galatians 5. There you’ll find nothing about keeping a list or jumping through any church-declared hoops.
Instead, it’s about character qualities, with a person’s integrity showing in his character rather than simply in his activities. (As I’ve described before, a person deserves to have a reputation that matches his character.) The primary character quality described here is love.
Yes, it’s true that Jesus said “By their fruits you shall know them,” referencing false prophets in Matthew 7.
Keep yourselves also from the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. So that by their fruits ye shall know them.
So a person’s character does show in his actions, right?
But we can’t look only at the public actions or the actions that some might cite as evidence of “godliness.” There also has to be a willingness to acknowledge private actions and actions that indicate gross hypocrisy.
After all, those false prophets Jesus talked about had those “evidences of grace” in their lives too. They tithed. They prayed in public. They knew the law and could probably recite it backwards in their sleep.
But Jesus called them wolves, because of that “other list.”
If Christians want to protect the most vulnerable of God’s people, they must be willing to give serious prayerful consideration to accusations of gross hypocrisy in the lives of church attenders—even the lives of their most “exemplary” church members and leaders. The God of grace wants the wolves exposed.