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The Art and Care of Correction among Friends

The Art and Care of Correction Among Friends

New Testament sanctification typically happens in corporate contexts, not in isolation. It is appropriate to say that you can do many things by yourself, but sanctification is not one of those things; it’s not possible to image the Trinity by living apart from the community of faith. The apostle Paul mainly wrote to local churches, teaching those communities how to do mutual, reciprocal life together. One of the vital keys to robust community life is understanding the value and appropriateness of corrective care.

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Maturing Communities

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come” (Luke 17:1).

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:16a).

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any (sin), you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).

According to Paul’s sanctification theology, people were a primary means of grace in helping each other grow in Christian maturity. The primary roadblock to personal growth and relational harmony are the sins we commit against each other. Let me illustrate. Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on an audio recording? Were you surprised at what you were hearing? No one else was surprised, right?

You were the last to know what everyone else already knew, which is why you don’t want to undervalue the opinions of others about you. A rich man is an individual who has mature Christian friends who are willing to help him grow into spiritual manhood. He understands how sin is unavoidable. He makes it easy for his friends to care for him by insisting that they be honest with their assessments.

All in the Family

The family is one of these fallen communities where sanctification can happen. It would be a frustrating experience to expect our children not to sin. Thus, we want to provide better goals that provide a context for them to succeed and fail while responding in godly ways to both inevitabilities. We want to encourage, motivate, and celebrate with them when they succeed, and we want to comfort, confront, and help them when they sin.

What better place for children to sin than in a family community where the parents equip them for life? A healthy community embraces the positive and negative aspects of people’s lives while coming together to train one another mutually. The bad news is that we are sinners who live with other sinners in a fallen world. The good news is that the gospel is the perfect solution for sinners in a fallen world. We’re not in heaven yet; the implication is straightforward if you’re a Christian: you are not entirely sanctified. From a Christian worldview, you understand complete sanctification happens when you step into eternity.

Our “incomplete salvation” generates two possible responses to the doctrine of sin. We can deny that sinfulness exists in our lives, or we can embrace sin’s sobering reality by aggressively fighting against it in the context of friends who are doing similarly for the Lord’s fame. The sobering reality is that the time between God’s salvation and our eternal destiny is a “progressively sanctified kind of life.”

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The Types of People

Occasionally, someone will say, “the gospel is for our salvation, and the gospel is for our sanctification.” I firmly believe this statement and would further assert that this belief is necessary for any Christian to live victoriously. Of course, one of the critical implications is that sin is always lurking in the shadows. There would be no need for the gospel if there were no sin.

If Adam had not fallen (Genesis 3:6), there would be no need for a redeemer (Genesis 3:15). Thus, Christ came to save us from ourselves. The rub generally comes from how we live between the time of God’s regeneration and when He takes us to heaven. There are three broad categories of people who struggle with the “sin is present with us” idea. They are the deniers, avoiders, and the fearful. Let’s take a look at each one by turns.

The Deniers

These Christians say that sin does not exist once you become a Christian. They say, “I am dead to sin.” This perspective is a product of legalism. Legalists try hard to separate themselves from sin. They misinterpret John’s perspective on worldliness by teaching that worldliness is in the world instead of being in the heart (1 John 2:15-16). For the “deniers” to be faithful to their theology, they have to ignore, re-categorize, or justify their sin. This posture is not tenable because it leads to personal frustration and relational conflict. It also dulls the conscience, the internal moral thermostat that signals to us that something is wrong. Once the conscience goes hard, the believer is flying blind (Hebrews 3:7-8).

The Avoiders

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

This group puts their fingers in their ears and screams, “Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na,” ad infinitum. They are probably sincere and want to live for Christ but struggle dealing with personal failure head-on. Perhaps they have a bad taste from past authoritarian, conditional relationships. Maybe their shaping influences have too much power over them, just enough to train them to avoid personal challenges. Sadly, they are stricken with the same sin as the deniers. The avoiders generally go from conflict to conflict, rarely resolving their issues. To be an avoider, you also have to re-categorize, ignore, and rationalize your sin away. The result is the same as the deniers, a hardened internal moral thermostat (Hebrews 4:7).

The Fearful

This group knows they sin, but they don’t want anyone to discover what’s wrong with them. Transparency is a frightening proposition for them. To be vulnerable about their struggles is not a “best-case scenario,” which manifests self-righteousness—a greater than/better than attitude. Many times these people come from discouraging and condemning relational communities. For example, they may have had harsh dads or were part of a legalistic religious culture. They love “grace” but over-react to it by denying the truthfulness of their sinfulness. It is hard for them to juxtapose sin and grace the way Paul did (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Feisty, Optimistic Relationships

To say we have no sin is to say we do not need the gospel. This posture is a dangerous and heretical position for any believer to take. To mock and devalue the gospel by avoiding, denying, or responding fearfully to the actual sin in our post-salvation experience is not tenable for the humble believer who wants to be feisty and optimistic about God’s ability to overcome what’s wrong with us.

Jesus did not come for the “healthy,” which brings us to the value and beauty of small contexts of friends who are serious about transformation. Sanctification is a community event, a shared life between fellow sinners who the grace of God has saved. A small group of relationships that embraces the reality of sin and the potential of conflict will position itself to resolve its disputes in ways that glorify God.

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Art and Care of Correction

An elderly lady from our church approached me about a complaint that she had with a friend. Her buddy was an “irritant.” She wanted me to do something about it. I’ll never forget her reaction when I told her that in the spirit of Matthew 18:15-17, she needed to go and confront her friend. She was terrified. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped slightly, and she whispered something like, “I can’t do that.” The thought of confronting another person about their sin is one of the more difficult things for Christians to do.

I understand. I struggle with my obligation to others and obedience before God to confront folks. Because of the inevitableness of saved sinners sinning against one another, there will always be opportunities to honor God by carefully and lovingly confronting others. As I told my dear friend, this is not primarily about bringing correction to her friend; it is about honoring our heavenly Father. She needed to “step up to the plate” and honor God in a challenging situation by saying a few fearful things.

A few days later, my dear friend came back beaming. She obeyed the “go” imperative of Matthew 18, and God surprised her with the grace of a restored friendship. Those two old ladies remained friends and deepened their affection and care for each other. There were a few things we can learn from this lady’s obedience to God and extended favor to her friend. Let me share them with you.

Five Confrontational Tips

Affection: You should not confront a person with whom you do not have affection, at least affection in the sense they, like you, are in God’s image. If you confront a person that you do not “carry in your heart,” there is a possibility you will not confront them carefully or lovingly. Paul had this kind of affection for the Corinthian church, which was the preface to his confrontational letter (1 Corinthians 1:1-9). You can feel Paul’s affection for the Corinthians. He genuinely loved them. My elderly friend loved her friend, which was why it went so well.

Thanksgiving: Paul said he spent time before God, thanking Him for them (1 Corinthians 1:4). Are you thankful for the person you are about to correct? Does the person know you are grateful to God for them? Gratitude to God for the person you are about to correct will make a massive difference in how you go about correcting them. Your friend will be able to discern your gratitude for them; you cannot hide a bad attitude.

Patience: One of the gospel’s implications is God’s patience with stubborn people. Typically when I am impatient with an individual, I am asking them to change in an area I have somewhat mastered. Perhaps I have spent the past five, ten, or fifteen years applying grace to that particular area of my life. If this kind of self-righteousness grips your soul, you must “preach the gospel” to yourself by reminding yourself how patient God continues to be with you.

Encouragement: Always begin your time of correction by encouraging the person. Even Paul was able to speak about evidence of grace in the Corinthians. Most assuredly, they have done something right. Identify proof of God’s gracious activity in their lives and let them know about it. Are the people you generally correct more aware of your correction or your encouragement? The Lord loves the people that He corrects. He confronts in a context of love (Hebrews 12:6). What is the primary setting in which you correct people?

Think the Best: Philippians 1:6 teaches that God will complete what He began with His children. God is a finisher! Are you more prone to be discouraged or complain about an unchanging Christian, or are you more prone to rest and trust God to finish what He has begun? In the heat of the moment, it is imperative that you “preach the gospel” to yourself. It may seem bleak, they may be irritating, and change seems such a long way off, but God is a finisher. Can you rest and trust in His excellent work in the life of the person you are correcting?

Correction Is Speck Fishing

What are you more aware of when you think about correcting another person? Are you more aware of your sin or theirs? How you answer these two questions will practically affect the person you are attempting to adjust. Christ appealed that when it comes to addressing the corruption of others, you must approach them with the awareness that there is a log in our eyes but only a speck in theirs. He could not be more explicit in Matthew 7:3-5. And trust me, this is so easy to forget.

Paul seemed never to forget he was the worst sinner that he knew (1 Timothy 1:15). Though Paul did not wallow in “what he was,” he never wanted to forget who he was before the Lord found him. This thinking is counter-intuitive for the self-righteous, self-esteeming Christian. For Paul, it was a healthy way to think. This theological point was a key component for him when correcting others. He was acutely aware of who the biggest sinner was. Rarely was he harsh, unkind, or uncharitable to those who needed his admonition.

One of the questions that I have asked my counselees is, “Who do you think the biggest (or worst) sinner is in the office, from my perspective?” I know the correct answer to that question will guard my heart regarding how I think about myself and them. It will also mitigate temptations to sin, i.e., unkindness, harshness, uncharitable judgments, condescension, impatience, and general rudeness. Sadly, I have committed these sins with those I have served. I get the “log and speck dynamic” reversed each time I sin these ways. A practical way to adjust my heart biblically is by sharing the following with my friends.

What I’m about to say is from my perspective, not yours. I do not know what all you have done, but this is what I have done: I put Christ on the cross. No matter what you have done, you have not done anything close to the sin I have committed against my Lord.

Making It Practical

If they are humble, they will want to “argue” the point by saying that they are a worse sinner than I am. That is a “healthy argument” for two Christians to have. If you have this perspective settled in your soul, these four additional tips will serve you if you make them part of how you correct others.

Heart Exam: Make sure your motives are right. You must have their best interests in mind (Philippians 2:3-4). If you are not others-centered in your correction, you can assume that your correction will not go well for you or them.

Missing Stuff: You’re not omniscient. There have been too many times when I believed I had all the data needed to correct a person, only to find out afterward that I did not know the whole truth. You and I are not God. Assume you don’t know everything there is to know about a situation.

Ask Questions: A wise man will ask questions rather than assume he already knows everything when correcting someone. Here are some sample questions that approach the person with the “log in your eye” rather than telling the person he has the log in his.

  • I heard you say (fill in the blank). Is that correct?
  • Is that what I heard? Tell me what I am missing?
  • You know that I can miss things from time to time. Will you help me fill in the blanks so I can understand better?
  • The other day I heard you say (fill in the blank), and it sounded a bit harsh from my perspective, but I probably misunderstood. What am I missing? Can you help me with this?

Be Confessional: If the confronting person is humble enough to share his struggles, he releases the confronted from the fear of transparency. Let them know what they already know about you. Once they know you struggle, they will likely tell you their challenges. If you come across as having it all together, it will inhibit them from sharing openly. With specificity, share appropriately how you are flawed and watch them relax and open up right before your eyes.

Call to Action

If you plan to correct others, hoping they will listen to your correction and respond by confessing their sin, you must lead by being what you want them to become. To do that well, here is your homework.

  1. Will you go back through and highlight each question I have asked, and then answer prayerfully, reflectively, and transparently?
  2. Will you share your answers with a friend, even a friend you plan to confront?

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