People who love each other correct each other. “Honey, you are driving too fast.” “Baby, I know you can do better than a B minus.” “Come on, man. Play some defense!”
A Christian cultivates kind manners and bites his tongue rather than utter a harsh word. But someone who never corrects anyone about anything is either a coward or—worse—just doesn’t care.
Every case of fraternal correction has two points-of-view: the one who corrects and the one who stands corrected. Let’s start by considering the correcting point-of-view.
For correction to prove effective, it must proceed from truth and from justice. When the Lord Jesus gave instructions regarding fraternal correction, He outlined three steps. The three steps are intimately connected with each other. But, when things go well, everything gets settled at the first step.
Step One involves private discussion. A teenage girl pulls her sister aside at school and says, “Listen, I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your friends. But you are wearing my shirt, and you never asked me if you could. You should have asked me.”
Quiet. Private. A beautiful example of kind, loving fraternal correction. Assuming the accusation is true.
But what if someone tries falsely to correct another? For example, “Where are you going with those keys, dad? I’m using the car this afternoon!”
Dad replies, “Ah, wait a minute. Let’s take a look here at the calendar on the fridge. Right here, I wrote, ‘Dad driving to church for confession.’ No dice, child. But come along with me and confess that you tried to pull a fast one on your father.”
Step Two invokes witnesses, third parties who can and will vindicate the truth of the complaint.
When my duty demands that I correct someone, I hope I can do it privately. I hope I won’t have to invoke the witness of third parties. But I stand ready and able to invoke witnesses if necessary, because the truth is on my side.
On the other hand, if my grievance is shaky and subjective, and I could never go to Step Two, because I couldn’t count on anyone to back me up in my complaint, then I probably shouldn’t go to Step One, either. No one gets tuned-out more quickly than an idle nagger.
Okay, what about the point-of-view of the correctee? I will not bore you with a string of bromides about how the road to success lays paved with humble readiness to listen to criticism. We know perfectly well that it does.
How about a deeper question: How do we teach ourselves to listen to correction, without getting defensive? This may be the greatest challenge of life. Giving good correction requires enormous love and maturity. Taking correction requires even more.
You know what? The answer is: the doctrine of original sin. We can teach ourselves to be humble and correctable by meditating on sin and redemption.
What makes me good? Does it impress God that I know how to cut my own hair? Does He have special rewards lined up for me for my impeccable grammar? In high school, I knocked-down buzzer-beating, game-winning jumpshots not once, not twice, but, like, three or four times. Does that make me a worthwhile human being? What about my above-average teeth?
The more we push the question, What makes me good?—the more absurd our pretenses appear. Almighty God laid the foundations of heaven and earth. He knit each of us together from nothing. He makes the sun rise and set. Our little monuments to ourselves do not impress Him.
The sacrifice of His Son impresses God. The self-offering of the innocent Lamb pleases Him. Whatever justice, whatever righteousness, whatever holiness we have—Christ gives it to us. A free, unmerited gift.
If my righteousness comes from Christ, then I can listen to someone who loves me tell me that my artistic skills stink, and I won’t get defensive. Someone could say to me, “Father, you couldn’t sink a putt to save your life!”—I won’t have a breakdown. No problem. I can take it.
Christ gives me justice; He gives me goodness. The Father loves me in Christ whether or not I can spell, or dance, or hit a backhand. Christ provides the bedrock of who I am.
So if someone tells me—like my mom, for instance—‘Mark, you are driving too fast!’—I can face the truth and slow down.
We can all do better. Hopefully someone will love us enough to offer some helpful suggestions for improvement. And hopefully we will love ourselves in Christ enough to listen.