One of the most loving things you can do for someone is tell them when they’re wrong.
While it’s tough enough to embrace the blessing of rebuke when you find yourself the recipient of some corrective word, the work that can be even more difficult is initiating that awkward moment, and carrying through, on loving someone enough to call them out. “If it is hard to accept a rebuke, even a private one,” says Don Carson, “it is harder still to administer one in loving humility” (Matthew, 456).
But however difficult it may be, if we really believe that we all are sinners, and that unchecked sin leads to pain and misery and eternal destruction, love will constrain us to give the gift of loving reproof. In the spirit of seeking to provide reproof in “loving humility,” here are seven steps toward correction that is truly Christian.
1. Check your own log first.
The words of Jesus are a good place to begin. Often the subtle expressions of sin we see in others catch our eye because they find resonance in our own hearts. Our indwelling pride is quick to alert us to pride in others. Unconquered greed in our hearts notices others’ love for stuff. A slip of the tongue to which we’re also prone gets our notice in someone else.
So, a first step when encountering sin in others is following Jesus’s clear directive: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). And remember the charge of Galatians 6:1 when helping to restore a brother: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
What, then, do we do when we find the speck of someone else’s sin in us as well? Does it mean that the opportunity to help a brother has passed, because we have enough work to do on ourselves? It may. But hopefully not. Before approaching them about their sin, renew your own repentance in your tendencies to the same temptation, and then come to your brother with fresh humility, and empathy, as a fellow combatant of that sin.
2. Seek to sympathize.
Whether you’ve “been there” and can empathize with their specific sin or not, pray for sympathy and seek to mind what we might consider the Golden Rule of Rebuke: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).
Which, on the one hand, should confirm that when we observe something in a brother that warrants correction, the loving thing is not just to let it slide, but bring it to their attention. Isn’t that what the most sanctified part of you would want as well? And, on the other hand, that leads us to do so with a certain posture and demeanor — “loving humility.”
As much as you’re able, put yourself in their shoes, and consider how to remind them of foundational gospel truths as you seek to open their eyes to some further reality relating to their remaining sin. Consider the manner in which you’d want to be approached with such an observation, and give extra effort to make sure it comes off as a word of brotherly correction, not condemnation. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
3. Pray for restoration.
Having checked your own log and sought sympathy, pray for them before confronting them. Pray about the moment you confront them, that you would give it sufficient gospel preface, that they would receive your loving correction, and that if they resist in the moment, God would soon soften their heart to the degree that your observation is true. Also pray for loving courage to gently hold your ground and not immediately backtrack if they snap back or their inner lawyer immediately objects.
Pray and speak toward restoration, not merely righting wrongs and appeasing your own judicial sentiment. Whether it’s the formal process of Matthew 18:15–17 in response to some egregious error or misstep, or the informal everyday exhortations of Hebrews 3:12–13 for life in community, all biblical correction aims at restoration (Luke 17:3–4; 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15; James 5:19–20).
4. Be quick.
Pray for their restoration, but don’t wait there too long on your knees. Hebrews encourages us to be quick and regular — “every day.” Don’t let manifestly sinful patterns fester. Perhaps, don’t even let the sun go down.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)
Providing a corrective word in loving humility is not only for words and actions that are dead wrong or borderline blasphemous, but when we become aware of some seeming trajectory of evil or falsity. The ideal is that we live in such honest and regular community — and speak without delay and receive it with gospel-conditioned thick skin — that mild, gentle words of rebuke and correction are commonplace, that sin is regularly nipped in the bud, rather than given time and encouragement to grow into the tall nasty weed it will become.
5. Be kind.
What makes a corrective word to be truly Christian is not only explicit reminders of gospel truths, but also a tone and demeanor that matches our Master. There is a place for gravity and severity in response to extreme callousness of heart, but most often, in the kind of regular correction we’re to be providing for each other, it is the gentle pattern of “the Lord’s servant” that outlines our course:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)
In one sense, any righteous rebuke is a kindness. “Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness; let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5). But it is all the more a gift when such a kindness is given kindly.
As much as vestiges of sin in us would make our hands harsh with fellow sinners, the Spirit works another pattern in us as we walk in light of the gospel. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
6. Be clear and specific.
But your kindness may send the wrong message if it is not matched with clarity. When we’ve checked our log, sought sympathy, prayed for restoration, and have been quick and kind in addressing the sin, we now should be empowered not to tiptoe around what’s really caught our attention, but to be frank and direct.
Before approaching someone with a corrective word, get it clear in your own mind what you’re observing and how it may be harmful. You may even want to scratch a few key words or phrases or sentences on paper to make sure it’s objective enough to communicate and not too mired in your own subjective sense. Have specific examples ready. Pray for, and then take up, the apostle Paul’s love of clarity and “open statement of the truth” (2 Corinthians 4:2). His prayer in Colossians 4:4 is about transparency in speaking the gospel, but it relates as well to correcting our brother: “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.”
7. Follow up.
Finally, plan some way to follow up. If they receive it well, follow up with an email or call or text, and commend that evidence of grace in their life. If they don’t respond well, follow up with some further expression of love for them, perhaps a reminder that you have nothing to gain but their good, that you’re very happy to be wrong if the correction is pretty subjective, and that you’re praying for them as they consider your observation.
“Love constrains us to give the gift of loving correction.”
Providing regular, gracious words of correction can seem like such a small thing in community life. It’s so easy just to let little sins go and mind your own business. But the long-term effect of such active grace, administered in loving humility, can have eternal implications. “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20).
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.