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I Don’t Regret Hurting You



I have a right not to be offended!


That seems to be the view in modern Western culture of ‘expressive individualism’[1]. The logic of expressive individualism goes like this.


  • My greatest need is to be authentic as my best self (self-actualisation[2]).

  • The real ‘me’ is the ‘me’ of my inner thoughts, feelings and desires.

  • To be happy and fulfilled, I must discover the real ‘me’ and be true to myself.

  • To be true to myself, I must express the inner ‘me’ to the world.


This approach to the pursuit of happiness has implications for society. If I cannot express myself authentically, then I suffer harm. So, society must grant me complete freedom (so long as I don’t harm others). But we’re increasingly told that tolerating others is not enough. We have a duty to affirm others in their self-expression and sense of identity. To offend someone by disagreeing with their inner sense of self is not merely arrogant, but and act of aggression.


REBUKE IS NOT UNLOVING


These values play out daily on social media and in public discourse, and we Christians are not immune to them. In recent years, I have observed a tendency for Christians to approach conflict with the assumption that if words cause offence, they must be wrong. Or at least, if our tone is anything less than gentle, we’re in the wrong. Rather than engaging with questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the discussion remains in the realm of feelings. Everyone is hurt. We just need to be kind to each other.


Against this background, the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians are profoundly counter-cultural.


Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.

2 Cor 7.8a


We might expect Paul to apologise for the hurt he caused the Corinthians, but he knew there is something more important than hurt feelings. There is one to whom we must give an account (2 Cor 5:9-11). The apostle had written to the Corinthians because of sin in the community. He called them to repent, and he did not enjoy doing so. Indeed, he regretted hurting them for a time, until he heard about his letter’s result.


He says their sorrow was ‘godly’.


When we grieve at sin and its effects, we are aligned with the heart of God. Such grief leads us closer to our Saviour. Their godly sorrow led the Corinthians to repentance, and this birthed within them an eagerness to do what is right.

This is life-giving grief.


The person who provokes such grief is not harming them. It is the work of God. The apostle Paul says as much.


You became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.

2 Cor 7.9b


Living in our offence-averse culture, Christians ministers may shy away from confronting sin. We want to maintain harmony and live at peace with others. This is all well and good. However, if we become people-pleasers who avoid challenging damaging sinful behaviours, then we leave vulnerable people at the mercy of these behaviours.


Rebuke is not unloving. Listen to the Lord Jesus addressing the church in Laodicea.


Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.

Rev 3.19


Perhaps you respond by arguing that this a role uniquely assigned to the Lord. Not according to the New Testament. Here’s the apostle Paul instructing his co-labourer, Timothy.


Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Tim 4.2


We read a similar message in the book of Proverbs.


Better is open rebuke than hidden love.

Prov 27.5


James goes further and writes of the value of rebuke.


Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5.20


Rebuke is not unloving.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpfully reminds us that the unloving thing is to ignore sin.


Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.[3]


So, how much do you love the people the Lord has entrusted to your care?


GENTLE . . . OR NOT?


Perhaps you might argue that such challenges should be done gently so as to minimise the risk of hurt. Certainly, gentleness should be our default tone when confronting a brother or sister. As the apostle Paul wrote, ‘if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently’ (Gal 6.1).


There is a time, however, when gentleness is not appropriate. When people are stubbornly set in a pattern of sin, or when their error is causing harm or contradicting the gospel, we need to follow Paul’s advice to Titus in his ministry in Crete. He writes, ‘rebuke them sharply.’ (Titus 1.13). The word translated ‘sharply’ —apotomós—derives from the verb ‘to cut’—temnó. It could be translated ‘cutting’ or ‘abruptly’ or ‘curtly’. This word is found in only two places in the New Testament—here in Titus 1 and, unsurprisingly, in 2 Corinthians, when Paul writes that he does not want to be ‘harsh’ in using his authority (2 Cor 13.10).


The godly minister does not want to bring a sharp rebuke but will do so if necessary.


In Crete, a sharp rebuke was necessary because the believers there were stuck in cultural tendencies to be dishonest, stubborn, and lazy (Titus 1.12). In Corinth, it was needed because of the destructive sexual sins being tolerated there. Paul also modelled this more urgent approach when he opposed Peter to his face (Gal 2.11). He did this because the matter in hand was too serious for gentle correction.


These sharp rebukes were needed because the people were resistant to a more gentle approach or the situation was urgent. If you see someone teetering towards the edge of a cliff, you don’t say gently, ‘Excuse me, but you may be in danger’. You cry out with urgency. A sharp rebuke is an urgent cry to help someone avoid disaster.


How do we decide whether a gentle correction or sharp rebuke is in order? We should consider five things.


  • What is the issue? Is it sin, division, or gospel unfaithfulness (and not just my own opinion)?

  • How serious? Are the potential consequences bad enough to need a swift and decisive intervention?

  • What is going on inside me? How pure are my motives? Am I angry or prideful?

  • To whom am I speaking? Are they able to take a sharp rebuke? Have they been repeatedly resistant to correction?

  • What is our relationship? Do they know I love them? Do they trust and respect me as a person who is godly and caring?


If we decide to rebuke the person sharply, we should consider how best to do so. The following suggestions may be helpful.


  • Have the conversation in private or with one trusted witness. I suggest that it’s essential to include another person, if you are confronting a vulnerable person or someone of the opposite sex.

  • Keep your focus on the issue that necessitates the rebuke. Don’t drift onto other tangential matters.

  • Don’t judge the person’s motivations. Avoid words like ‘always’ and ‘never’.

  • Commend the person for the good things you see in them, and remind them of their past faithfulness.

  • Be aware of the tone of your voice. Do not raise your voice.

  • Listen well to their response, even if they are defensive.

  • Assure them of your love and openness to future conversations.

  • With humility, be open to criticism.

  • Ensure the grace of God and his forgiveness are always central in the conversation.


Deciding when and how to rebuke others is not straightforward. We must be patient and prayerful. Wisdom is needed. But we should not be afraid of hurting someone or losing our relationship with them. The apostle Paul faced just such a fear when writing to the Corinthians, but he still rebuked them.


Of course, rebuke is much easier in a culture of mutual encouragement. We need to create a culture of this kind, because when people know we love and support them, they are much readier to receive our challenging words.


But this isn’t just about others. It’s also about us.


How often do we justify our own behaviour? How open are we to hearing words of correction? Do we value obedience and truth above our position and feelings? Only with an attitude of humility and by God’s grace can we build a culture that includes rebuke.


In both giving and receiving the gift of correction, we are called to set our fears and our pride aside.


We do so for the sake of our Lord.


 
  1. Expressive individualism is a term coined by American sociologist, Robert Bellah, and popularised by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It is critiqued from a Christian perspective by Carl Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

  2. The term ‘self-actualisation was coined by therapist Kurt Goldstein and popularised by Abraham Maslow as the pinnacle of his ‘hierarchy of needs’.

  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1954) Life Together, trans. by John W. Doberstein. San Francisco: HarperOne. p.105


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