Giving correction, especially in our contemporary “live and let live” American culture may seem extremely difficult — especially if you have the “I really love you” pastor’s heart that I talked about earlier. In the first church I was in, they definitely gave correction, and the stories seemed astonishing to me. I thought to myself “How do you know when to correct someone? And how do you do it in love?” The church culture I was in, however was high on correction, and low on love. The pastors would correct you, but you didn’t usually feel they had any personal investment or love toward you. This led me to be lukewarm on the whole idea of being corrected or giving correction — even though I got my fair share. However, with enough time in the other chair, I’ve started to really see how important it is.
Secular counseling models usually refrain from the idea of giving correction at all. The counselor is supposed to ask questions and help you make decisions for yourself according to your own values. On the other extreme, is so-called Biblical Counseling which is entirely centered around giving correction. Rebuking you with a Bible verse and telling you to repent is the fundamental idea here. Cloud and Townsend tell the story of a man who went to get counseling under this model and came back the second week for help. On the second week the pastor simply asked him “I told you it was a sin, did you repent yet?” I find this completely absurd. If that’s what “counseling” and “pastoral care” are, then skip it, just read Deuteronomy and Jeremiah a few times instead. The Pastor is there to help you know what to repent of, to help you see it, and turn away from it, to help you live it out. If you are so fundamentally lacking in mercy that you can’t see that, you have no business being a pastor.
Remember that you only will help the person to the extent that you can get them to see and understand the problem for themselves. This means that the very first rule of correction is contained in that oh-so-highly-corrective epistle of James 1:20: “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” If you are angry with someone or frustrated with them and give them correction, you will get negative results. You cannot produce the fruit of righteousness in them through human anger. I have learned that when am frustrated or angry with someone, they go deaf. They simply do not hear anything I say. All they hear is “Will is angry with me” which normally leads to “this is his problem, not mine.” As soon as you get angry, you become the problem. Correction, therefore, in order to be heard properly, must be given in love. You have to be wanting the best for them, wanting them to escape their sin and all of its problems before your words will be heard. This means that when you give correction, what you are usually doing is simply truth telling. You’re going to say something which might make them very upset, but the anger should come from them, not you. I’m not mad at you for your sin, but you may be mad at me for telling you the truth about it. If you become good at this, you can say some things which would be very confrontational and often create no confrontation.
The second rule of correction is that some people need more than others. I have four children. One requires a lot of intensity to get through. My younger two, will usually adjust their behavior at even the simplest suggestion. God says that a “bruised reed He will not break” Isaiah 42:3. In Psalm 18:25-26 we see that God responds to people according to the attitude of their hearts. “To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.” When someone is in a posture of humility and vulnerability, a forceful word will crush them. But when someone is prideful and deaf, you might have to “shout” for them to hear you at all. To that person, little suggestions are not heard at all. James and John got a mild word suggesting they reconsider what spirit they were of (Luke 9:55). Peter, a bit of a tougher character, got a direct rebuke for harboring Satan (Matthew 16:23). But the Pharisees, the most prideful and hardened of all, got a lengthy castigation, which probably included Jesus bring quite a bit of emotional force (Matthew 23). Jesus loved all of them, but brought more or less force as was most likely to get through to them. Most of us have a lot of difficulty using different levels of volume. Either you are a cowboy and do well dealing with pharisees, or you are a dove, and you do well dealing with the broken. A great pastor learns to deal well with both, growing in the area where he is weakest and applying different volume as needed.
The third rule of correction is to focus on what the Holy Spirit is dealing with. You are the mouthpiece of the living God, not rent-a-verse. As you look into the person’s life, what is the area that most needs change — the area where God is clearly working in their life. That is the area you should speak to. All of us, if Jesus were to show up today and correct every thing about us would crumble into dust. Focus on the major area where God wants to see a change. If they change that area, all kinds of other little things will resolve themselves, and God may bring up a new area later. If you start correcting every little thing, you will put the person into legalism, and end up controlling their lives. Essentially you will take over the role of the Holy Spirit and misrepresent the character and grace of God. What God wants to do in the big areas of their life will get drowned out with your tips on cutting back their donut intake.
Correction should be more about “who you are” than “what you did.” God does want you to take responsibility for the past but the significance of that is really about who you are now. The fact that you walked out on your wife is bad, but the focus of our discussion is not to punish you for that, but to help you become the kind of person that would not have walked out on her in the first place. That of course includes dealing with the past, but the focus is on the present, so you can create a better future.
Finally, is the rule that you should use it sparingly. When someone actually hears and receives your correction, it can be very disorienting and a bit depressing. I know it is for me, even with a lot of practice, it’s hard to receive correction rightly. I have to work it through with God and then regain my balance. If I take it seriously, I have to let it work its way through my entire personality. Therefore, if someone receives your correction seriously, you have to then switch posture — you move now from the oppositional stance, to one of coming along side and helping them live out their new life direction. You are helping them overcome their sin, rather than forcing them to see it.