Sometimes a strong rebuke is in order. The sin we see in the lives of those we love and lead is so serious that we must respond with intensity. This is the loving way to handle egregious departures from the truth.
But more often the sin is subtler, and the best way to respond is the path of an affirming challenge.
A Strong Rebuke
The occasional strong rebuke has biblical precedent. When Peter opposed Jesus’ path to the cross, the Savior responded with a passionate reprimand: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
And when Paul received word that his Galatian converts were trading trust in God’s grace for self-reliance, love prompted him to respond with severity. Their error was so grave that it was only fitting for him to spring into strong action. In Galatians 1:6, he straightforwardly tells them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” He later exclaims, “O foolish Galatians!” and asks, “Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1).
In both situations, the gospel was in the balance. Both were cross issues: Peter was trying to prevent Jesus from going to the cross; the Galatians were failing to trust the work that Jesus accomplished on their behalf at the cross. Firm and forceful rebukes were the only loving way to respond to such severe deviations.
An Affirming Challenge
But how are we to respond to those we love when their sin is less flagrant and doesn’t immediately threaten the vitality of the gospel in their lives?
In our cowardice and impatience we often fall out on one of two extremes: We either spinelessly default to flattery, or we discourage them with unnecessary sternness. However, there is another way—a gospel way—of an affirming challenge, a path which Paul beautifully models in 1 Thessalonians.
Throughout this epistle, he leaves no doubt about his love for his children in the faith at Thessalonica—this actually may be his most affectionate letter—but he also lovingly corrects some of his loved ones’ misconceptions and charges them to press on to greater Christlikeness.
Paul goes the extra mile to make plain his deep love for the Thessalonians throughout the letter. And he clearly wants the Thessalonians to know that he is pleased with their progress in the faith. Throughout chapter one, he commends the progress of their Christian walk. Their faith is strong and bearing fruit (1 Thessalonians 1:2–5), and the news of their great growth is spreading far and wide (1:7–8).
In chapters two and three, his affirmations are more subjective. He speaks of his affectionate desire for them (2:7–8), his intense delight in them (2:17–20), and his great celebration over hearing about their amazing strength in the face of persecution (2:14–16, 3:6–10).
However, his deep love for the Thessalonians and his newfound enthusiasm about their progress doesn’t blind his eyes to their shortcomings. He is well aware that they have not arrived at perfection, and he longs to come to them and “supply what is lacking” (3:10) in their Christian walk.
Because of his profound affection for them, Paul is not content to leave them in their deficiencies but wants to carefully spur them on to greater faith and love.
So instead of merely ordering them to turn away from the negative, he points them to the positive. Rather than highlighting their struggles, he turns their attention to what they are doing well and challenges them to excel even more in that area.
Notice his gentle touch in 1 Thessalonians 4:1: “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” In other words, “You’re doing well; keep it up. And keep growing!”
Paul takes the same approach in 4:10. He first graciously affirms their exemplary love and then challenges them “to do this more and more.”
Again in 5:11, he issues another affirming challenge: “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” In one stroke, he both affirms their interaction and challenges them to keep improving.
Similarly, he writes to the Romans, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder” (Romans 15:14–15).
Excel More and More
When we see issues that immediately threaten the potency of the gospel in the lives of those we love and lead, we should respond with strength and severity. This is the path of love. There is no room for toying with the gospel.
But more frequently the errors we see in others are less serious. So let us also aim to establish a pattern of loving encouragement and gentle care, handling less severe deviations with an affirming challenge.
May we not overlook the products of God’s grace in others’ lives by forgetting to affirm their progress in love as we challenge them to excel more and more.