Correction and Love

“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition…” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” (Galatians 6:1).

“My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

The common thread in these three passages is correction. Unfortunately, our society has a growing distaste for the idea of correction, especially when it comes to spiritual things. People are often quick to equate correction, or even just disagreement, with hatred. And so, the thinking goes, if I say you’re wrong, it means I hate you. On the other hand, if I love you, it means I won’t ever say you’re wrong. This sloppy, irrational thinking has worked its way into our everyday lingo: whatever anyone says about this or that public figure gets tagged as either “love” (meaning fawning praise and adoration) or “hate” (meaning any criticism, no matter how small, how kind, or how accurate). The same labels appear frequently on Facebook and Twitter. People don’t have “critics” or “detractors” anymore, just “haters.”

Those claiming to follow Jesus are not immune to such thinking. Some religious groups have all but abandoned evangelism for fear of being “culturally insensitive” — they’re more worried about being viewed as “haters” than they are about people’s souls. Closer to home, when a brother or sister goes astray, there will usually be a few folks in the local church who act as though any serious effort to confront that person and win them back somehow shows a lack of love.

That is not our heavenly Father’s attitude. “For whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12). Like any good father, God corrects His children out of love. And He says that our willingness to correct the erring is a measure of our love for them. “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed” (Proverbs 27:5). Furthermore, God shows that people of right heart will receive correction as an act of love, not hate. That was David’s attitude: “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; It is oil upon the head; Do not let my head refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).

When God’s word tells us to correct those who oppose the truth, to restore those who go astray, it implies this kind of love. As Paul told Timothy, we correct them so that “they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:26). The phrase “come to their senses” pictures someone recovering from drunkenness. If you have ever experienced the emotional turmoil of trying to help a friend out of that condition, then you know that nothing less than love will make it happen. That is what correction involves.

The same verse uses the picture of an animal caught in a snare. It evokes pity and compassion. Yes, those who oppose the gospel are responsible and guilty; but they are also victims of Satan. Just as compassion may move us to free an animal from a trap, it is love for people’s souls that motivates us to correct them.

“But Jeff, we shouldn’t correct people in an unloving way.” No, of course we shouldn’t. God tells us to do it with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:25; Galatians 6:1). But gentleness (the word denotes exercising strength with self-control and humility) doesn’t mean being so vague, tentative, or fearful that we fail to get the message of correction across to someone who needs it.

Was it unloving for Peter to show the crowd at Pentecost that they had crucified the Messiah, and to warn them, “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:22-36,40)? Was it unloving for Paul and Barnabas to tell the people of Lystra to “turn from these vain things [idols] to a living God” (Acts 14:15)? Was it unloving when Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26)? Was it unloving when Paul confronted Peter about his open hypocrisy (Galatians 2:14)? No. And neither are our efforts when we kindly and patiently try to help someone else find the right path.