Faithful are the wounds of a friend
One of the more dreaded aspects of the Christian life, for most believers, is confronting those in error. Few things, however, are more needed. Whether their error is theological or moral, we are called to confront in such a way as to win them back to the truth. Hence the teaching of the Proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Prov. 27:6) They are faithful for they are useful for helping the person, lost in error, return to the Lord.
Scripture is filled with guidelines for how to conduct such a correction of those in error. One of my favorite passages on the subject was given to me as a personal charge by a close friend before he left Uptown Church to work in the mission field. Knowing my willingness to confront, and my often heavy-handiness in doing so, he pointed me toward gentleness. “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:24-26, NIV-1984)
As the world plunges ever more deeply into error, morally and theologically, it is good to understand God’s desire for us to meet and correct error. This passage outlines an approach which is good not only for the assertive but for the naturally gentle as well. It recognizes the reality that error is not just objectively wrong information or behavior. Rather, the error we must correct is embodied in a person. This passage accounts for the reality that all people are made in the image of God and so owed respect and that none enjoys being personally attacked. Hence it outlines the goal of Christian correction: not the winning of an argument, but the repentance of the person, the winning of the person, back to, or to, Christ. This requires, not their defeat at our merciless logic, but their willing, heart-acquiescence to God’s truth.
This passage tells us explicitly 1) what we are not to be in correcting others, 2) what we are to be, and 3) what is our objective. All three are essential for effective correction.
What we must not be in correcting those in error
We must not be quarrelsome. While we may indeed enjoin debate, we must not do so in a quarrelsome way. When we quarrel, our heat and passion rises, we stop listening and rather only assert our position.
We must not be resentful. The ESV translates this: patiently enduring evil. The assumption is that we will be unfairly attacked by those we must correct. Rather than returning attack in kind, we are to be patient. Attacked, we must not attack in return but show patience and endurance.
What we must be in correcting those in error
The Lord’s servant. Addressed with this title we must realize that we are not our own but we, having been bought with a price, are called to represent another. We do not fight for our dignity, but for the victory of the Lord, so we must engage according to his standards in such a way that we reflect well on him.
Kind to everyone. Our basic demeanor must be gentle and kind, even when we are attacked we answer softly. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1) Treating them with kindness and gentleness deescalates the debate to a conversation and allows for the one blinded by untruth to slowly open their eyes. It is the Lord’s kindness that leads us to repentance, not his harshness. (Rom. 2:4)
Able to teach. Notice that it does not say, able to argue. We are born with our argument gene intact. We learn to argue with our siblings, our parents and our friends. But our calling is to teach those in err, not argue with them. Teaching asks questions; arguing only makes assertions. Teaching evaluates the other’s position looking for truth amidst error; arguing allows no truth on the other side. Teaching looks for openness in the other; arguing bangs away at closed ears. Teaching finds a way to communicate truth that is winsome; arguing finds a way to make truth loathsome. Arguing is blind ambition striving for victory; teaching is reasonable love reaching for the hearer.
Gently instructing. Arguing—quarreling—connotes a certain measure of harshness and stridency. We are called to gentleness. Again, we learn harshness by our fallen nature. The child who screams and hardens his body in anger toward his unwilling parents, needs no instruction. Gentleness, on the other hand, is a grace of the Holy Spirit which he grants as we seek it. Our gentleness allows the truth to come through a channel which is well attuned to the human heart: a fatherly, motherly gentleness that soothes the too-hot temper of the other. Gentleness is a balm to the angry, argumentative soul that quiets its temper and allows it a cool repose. The hearer recognizes the tone of an ally, a helper and wants to accept the lesson offered in gentle affection.
The results toward which we aim in correcting those in error
Their God-given repentance. This is so important to understand as our goal. We do not look for a simple change of opinion or assimilation of new information. There is, when one is led astray, a deeper spiritual problem that must be addressed. Having embraced error they are not primarily in opposition to us, but to God. When a person is wrong before God the only way to become right is through repentance, a turning in the whole person from error to the truth of God. This we cannot effect, neither can the one in error, on their own. It is God who must grant repentance, which means we must be praying that God might actually change their heart, will and mind to embrace truth.
A knowledge of the truth. Having repented from the wrong-hearted disposition which prefers to embrace error, then the person is able to accept and absorb the simple knowledge of the truth. Notice how many steps have preceded this however. All that the servant of the Lord has not done and been careful to do, the God-granted repentance. Then finally the goal we might have wanted to achieve with our very first word is found: they embrace the truth. Not really our truth even, but God’s.
They will come to their senses, escaping from the devil and serving his will. These three hang together. The human mind requires truth to function well, the devil offers us lies in order to disable our ability to reason, thus rendering us more susceptible to his subversion. With God-given repentance the one in error is set free from the enchantment of the devil’s lies, they see the error of their ways for what they are: “How could I have been so foolish to be deceived?” Waking from the bewitchment, their eyes are open. The veil lifted they see their own error for what it truly is, the devil’s work. They return to the fold of God and his truth. They wake and look at you, too, with new eyes seeing the truth: Faithful are the wounds of a friend.
Here we are taught the fine art of Christian correction. We must neither avoid correcting those in error, nor attack them with heavy blows. We are to be patient, kind and gentle, carefully choosing our words to best engage the hearer, so that they may see the truth in such a way that their hearts are turned toward God. This is our call. We will find much need in the days ahead to be winsome in correction. Let us be those faithful friends whose wounds bring life.
Author: Rev. Dr. Tom Hawkes
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