Sunday, January 13, 2019

Criticism and Grace

The apostle Paul (and Timothy) to the church of God in Corinth:

“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it — though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”

You may already know the background here …

Breaking Bad in Short Order

Corinth had failed in virtually every way it is possible for a church to fail. Self had been elevated above Christ in the areas of morality, pride, gift, doctrine, leadership, discernment … well, you name it, Corinth had it in spades. It was a bad place made worse by the fact they didn’t know that they had become awful. They were proud of their deficiencies; they were as blind as it is possible to be.

All this had happened in a period of something less than four years since their founding — so lesson one is that it does not take long to ‘break bad’. (Incidentally, there is a happy lesson in 2 Corinthians that it takes even less time to repent.)

But back to the main storyline: these people were, or at least appeared to be, what we might call “archetypically bad”. So the letter Paul writes in 1 Corinthians has to be one of the hardest letters to receive that you can imagine. There you are in Corinth thinking everything is rosy and that you’ve become marvelously diverse and ecumenical. You don’t judge anyone because you’re so welcoming. And then a letter arrives from Paul (someone you admire and appreciate as a brother) and, to your horror, it attacks everything you are and do and take pride in; it absolutely excoriates you.

A Rather Abrupt Course Correction

This passage has been on my mind a fair bit lately for a few different reasons. Let me point out a few things about receiving unexpected and unwelcome criticism that might escape us on casual reading:
  1. Paul was fearful of destroying relationships with his letter. He recognized that was a real possibility; in fact, it appears he anticipated their rejection of him as extremely likely. He did not think his letter would have a happy outcome. Despite that, it appears that he did not pull his punches. Or, if he did, I’d hate to see what he’d write if 1 Corinthians is an example of him compromising on what he really thought.
  2. The initial reaction of the Corinthians was not a happy one. That’s hardly surprising. They were — well, whatever you want here — hurt, sad, bewildered, confused and probably angry. Paul says, “I made you grieve,” and I guess that’s the way to put it. Here’s the good thing about slow postal service and pre-modern era communication: it allowed time for things to cool down (or perhaps in other cases, time to fester and come into full angry bloom!). In any case, the reaction Paul eventually got to a hot letter was the considered, real reaction of Corinth after his words had time to settle with them. Paul assuredly did not get an impulsive defensive paroxysm. They did not cancel Paul’s next missionary journey because they were put out by his tone.
  3. Paul’s description of their response is to declare them vindicated; he says they are “innocent in the matter”. This is, at first glance, bizarre. Is he saying they didn’t have immorality in their gathering? Is he saying that he was mistaken and gift was not being abused? Is he saying there weren’t divisions marked by selfishness and pride? No. I think he’s talking about their character here rather than their actions. Their initial actions — the ones addressed in 1 Corinthians — suggested that perhaps their character was rotten and unregenerate. But when their eyes were opened by Paul’s scorched earth approach, their response was to immediately deal with their failings and blindness in a way that told Paul their character was good, despite having erred in their conduct.
Faithful, But Ugly

Maybe the hardest thing in life, even in a Christian life, is to receive criticism with grace. When the criticism is unjustified, it stings. But perversely, when the criticism is justified — even in part — somehow it bites even harder. “Faithful”, the Bible says, “are the wounds of a friend.” I’d put the emphasis there on the word “wounds”.

Getting hit with a faithful but ugly truth is painful beyond many people’s endurance. That doesn’t mean the truth is not worth standing for.

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