The Sweetest Words We Never Want to Hear

Some of the sweetest graces I have enjoyed tasted bitter before they were ever sweet to me.

Anyone who follows Jesus will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2), but the bitter-then-sweet graces I have in mind are the times others confronted me when I was wandering into sin. I don’t remember all the specific conversations or circumstances, but I do remember each of the handful of people who have loved me enough to love me well in those moments.

Do you have friends like that? They’re hard to find. And we’re all sinfully prone to push them away, or keep them at arm’s distance, whenever we do find them. But we desperately need their love, however bitter it may feel at first. And we need to love others with the kind of humble courage and gentle boldness we receive from friends like them.

Because I’ve come to prize hard conversations that push me closer to Christ, I’ve learned to read the beginning of one of Paul’s letters a little more slowly.

(Not) Grace to You

Paul opens his letter to the Galatians like he opens almost every other letter: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . ” (Galatians 1:3). But what he says next sets Galatians apart from every other letter, “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” (Galatians 1:6).

In almost every letter, Paul begins by giving thanks to God for his readers:

  • To the Romans: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you . . . ” (Romans 1:8).
  • To the Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you . . . ” (Philippians 1:3).
  • Even to the Corinthians, with all of their problems: “I give thanks to my God always for you . . . ” (1 Corinthians 1:4).

But to the Galatians: “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” (Galatians 1:6). Not a joyful word of deep gratitude. No pleasantries or small talk, but a sudden, strong word of rebuke. The transition is jarring. “Grace to you” may seem to instantly flip to “No grace to you” — in only three verses.

Wading Pools of Comfort

Is Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Was he lying about grace, knowing full well he was about to charge into severe warning and bold confrontation? Did he really want the Galatians to experience grace?

If we don’t recognize love in the gravity and severity of Paul’s letter, we’ve settled for splashing in a wading pool of comfort when we could be learning to sail on the ocean of real grace. Paul raises the stakes, and changes his tone, in an effort to pry their eyes open to the miles of grace washing up on the shore at their feet. They have no idea they are drowning in the wading pool, and that true comfort lies with Christ out on the waves.

Like a lifeguard along the narrow path to life, Paul raises his voice hoping to save the ones he loves. He dives into their crisis to pull as many as he can to safety. True grace throws itself in front of hell for the wandering. That’s what loving rebuke is: a massive blinking road sign in front of never-ending danger.

Not All Grace Feels Like Grace

Some of the most precious grace feels harsh in the moment. But it will not seem harsh when we rehearse the same scene in heaven. “Turn back from your sin, or you will go to hell!” will be some of the sweetest words we’ve ever heard. Hearing those words in eternity, we would trade a thousand compliments for one correction spoken in love.

When someone confronts you about something you said, or did, or didn’t do, or about some other potential area of weakness or failure in your life — and everything in you wants to ignore them, or argue with them, or make excuses — what if, instead, you stopped and searched their words for grace? What if you gave yourself space to ask if they are seeing something in you that you cannot see? What if you slowed down enough to hear and test what God might really be saying through this friend?

Correction may not look like grace, feel like grace, or sound like grace, but it may just prove to be some of the sweetest grace you’ve tasted.

Deserting Grace

Don’t miss one more seed of grace in Paul’s strong rebuke:

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 — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6–7)

He writes with boldness and severity because he is watching people walk away from grace. He is not withdrawing or withholding grace; he’s calling wandering believers back to grace. They have “fallen away from grace,” (Galatians 5:4), and he’s trying to lift them back on their feet again. He even signs his letter of correction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Galatians 6:18).

If someone in your life is willing to say the hard thing to you in love, they are not robbing you of grace. They may be the only one courageous enough to offer you the real grace you need. They are stepping out in faith, often risking their own time and comfort, to bear your burdens and bring you back into the sweetness of the light — the sweetness of confession, repentance, reconciliation, and Christlikeness.

Ask God to give you eyes to see the beauty of grace in loving rebuke, and to prize friends who love you enough to say the hard thing. Then ask him to make you that kind of friend for someone else.