What Shall This Man Do?


From the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked the abba Poemen, saying, “If I should see my brother’s fault, is it good to hide it? The old man said to him, “In what hour we do cover up our brother’s sins, God shall cover ours: and in what hour we do betray our brother’s shames, in like manner God shall betray our own.”

Recent comments have raised the perennial question of our responsibility towards others – particularly with regard to their sins. Should we rebuke and exhort them (as is encouraged in certain places in the Scriptures), or do we look the other way and simply pray?

It is always dangerous to suggest one answer that fits every situation because not all things are the same. Nevertheless there are some general principles that are worth considering:

First, the primary passages in Scripture that speak of exhorting or rebuking are not directed towards everyone, but to pastors and elders of the Church. The democratization of Christianity (in so many ways) has tended to forget that not everything written in the Scripture is meant for everyone. When St. Paul gives advice to Timothy or Titus, he is advising fellow Apostles and Bishops of the Church. We can glean wisdom from hearing his advice to them – but not every Christian is Timothy or Titus.

Second, actually discerning sin is a very difficult thing – for we are not told that God judges from without, but from within. Who knows the heart of another?

Third, when is the right time to speak to someone else concerning their sin? For some this may seem simple or obvious, but not if we are seeing rightly. The purpose of every word to another believer, particularly regarding matters such as sin and righteousness should be solely for their salvation. The time for correction is easily as important as the word itself. We may be correct in our judgment but only crush another with our righteousness. The Scriptures say: “A word in due season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)

For some it would seem that certain sins rise to the level of demanding rebuke – perhaps this is true. I do not think I could stand idly by and watch a child be abused (nor should any of us). There is also a place for gentle correction of false doctrine and beliefs.

But even as a confessor, I tremble with fear at the responsibility that is taken up when I begin to rebuke or exhort another. My Archbishop (whom I have heard address the subject of confession on numerous occasions) always says, “A priest should have less to say than a penitent.” There are obvious exceptions to this – but correction is a fearful thing. A priest is not a psychologist nor a lawyer, but “only a witness, bearing testimony of all things you shall say.” Thus I am not responsible to analyze the sins of another, nor to issue hard legal rulings. My task as a confessor is to hear the sins of a penitent and to pronounce the forgiveness of God. If a word should occur to me, then it can be offered, again with fear and trembling.

Salvation is a dynamic work in the soul. It cannot be achieved by the law (“the letter kills,” St. Paul tells us), nor can it be wrought without the cooperation of our free will (however feeble it might be). Finding the right word, a “word in due season,” is a wondrous thing – a great gift from God. It is a word that carries healing of the soul and true salvation.

The Archimandrite Zacharias, one of the elders at the Monastery of St. John in Essex, serves as one of two confessors in that community. When I was visiting there, I saw him hearing confessions for nearly the whole of a weekend as pilgrims by the bus load came in from London. I have heard him speak and read his writings. He is certainly among the better confessors that I know. His words on confession and offering advice are deeply sobering. With his years of monastic experience and discipleship under Elder Sophrony, he still hesitates to speak or does so with great fear.

On the other hand, the Church and Scripture have much to say about the dangers inherent in judging another. The saying from the Desert Fathers quoted at the beginning of this post is typical of what is found in the Fathers. Which is easier – to judge someone and offer advice – or to refrain from judging and pray? The very difficulty involved should tell us much of what we should consider. Anyone who has read a little can offer advice or correct another – but not necessarily to their salvation. I am aware of far more occasions when such conversations have resulted in damaged relationships and fractures in the Church. Do we trust our priest enough to let him carry out his ministry of reconciliation, or shall we all pitch in and help?

Being troubled about the sins of another is itself something to take to confession – not as a means of informing the priest and asking him to fix someone else – but because our own souls are troubled and damaged by our judgments. In general, a priest cannot discuss with you the sins of someone else. If he is their confessor as well, should he speak of what he is bound to keep secret?

Perhaps my most general thought is that we should marvel at the mystery of salvation and recognize how glorious and even secret such a work is. We are commanded not to judge because it is not given to us to judge, except by the Spirit of God, and thus always as a gift and a treasure – one that can only be received with great humility. Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

[After the resurrection, Peter spoke with the risen Lord who told him to “Feed my sheep.”]  Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






9 responses to “What Shall This Man Do?”

  1. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    “in what hour we do betray our brother’s shames, in like manner God shall betray our own.”

    How should we understand statements that make God sound spiteful, like whatever we do towards others He will do to us? I understand the general principles here but if not understood correctly could this not lead to a faulty or skewed view of God? It almost sounds similar to “an eye for an eye”

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    It also sounds similar to “but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). You are correct that God is not spiteful and that such statements can be easily misunderstood. I think the right understanding is that what we do to others, we also do to ourselves, whether we know it or not. God only wills our salvation, not our destruction. Thus He commands us to forgive and not to judge, etc.

  3. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Wonderful, Father! Thank you so much.

  4. clary Avatar

    Concerning me, when I go to confession I always welcome any help I can get. There is one priest I liked the most because he would tell me what virtue to develop in order not to fall in the same sin again, sometimes we have no idea what to do.

  5. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr. Stephen,

    Do you have any knowledge or insights into why this type of language was used? Does it read differently in Greek? Could it be that when these things were written, people would naturally understand the meaning, knowing that they were truely responsible for there own actions? Thanks.

  6. luciasclay Avatar

    How detailed are confessions ? Especially if they cover many decades. Does one attempt to recall and confess everything one has ever done in detail or does one simply ask a general confession on the many sins one has committed. Particularly in the case of one baptised by a church at schism who later is several decades later accepted and chrismated into orthodoxy.

    In my case were I to try and confess all the things I recall I would keep a priest busy for a very very long time. And yet I’m sure that I would fail to recall quite a lot more.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s common sort of expression in Scripture, though the interpretation I’ve offered is also Traditional. The Greek is pretty much the same as it sounds in English. The traditional interpretation (Orthodox) is that everything God does, He does for our salvation. Thus even His not forgiving is not an act of punishment but an act to bring us to repentance and salvation. The same would be true in the sayings the Desert Fathers.


    Confessions vary from time to time. It depends on the need, etc. It is good to make a “life confession” from time to time, though it is very time consuming. There are some excellent writings on confession and the like by Met. Jonah. If you go to the website for the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (google) it will have many of his writings. I encourage anyone to read them.

    It is not unusual for a catechumen to make a “life” confession before Chrismation. It can even be done in several sessions. Again, it depends on how your local priest directs you.

  8. selena Avatar

    Thank you for this post. I realise that I am extremely judgmental of others.

    I wonder, though, how one does parenting without being judgmental. What kind of judgment is required for parents?

    I am hoping to become Orthodox soon. However the thought of making a life confession fills me with horror. All Catholics and Orthodox people say to me “Don’t worry, the priest has heard it all before” but that doesn’t seem to make it feel any easier to me. Also they assure me that most penitents sweat and sob during their first life confession… yikes! I can see that it would be an amazingly cathartic event.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Parents obviously have a responsibility to make judgments and decisions about their children. But, we do so again with much prayer. Seeking to guide them, correct them, but not crush them. Love and prayer and a tender heart, refraining from anger as much as is possible.

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