Spiritual progress involves learning discernment. Few matters lend themselves to flowchart clarity, or one-size-fits-all approaches. Discernment is the ability to ascertain what is needed in any given moment or situation. The nature of this spiritual wisdom is to know how to make the timely choice between two opposites, as whether to do or not do, to say or not say, and to act or not act. As the wiseman teaches us, there is time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
I want to explore today and next week the topic of when to instruct and correct, and when to refrain from doing so. First, we will look at why it is best, at certain times, to not attempt to point out and correct where others are wrong. Next week we will look at the effect our anxiety has on how and when we try to instruct others.
Many of us learned, in whatever churches we have been a part of, that we should always stand for the truth. This typically meant always and immediately correcting all errors in thinking and action. However, because such problems are easily seen in others but barely recognized in ourselves, in practice we may end up trying to straighten everyone else out about the truth. We tend to notice the specks of dust in their eyes and not the logs of wood hampering us. This inability to readily see our own faults should give us pause about being too eager to immediately set right everything that is amiss in others. Love for the truth involves speaking it in a timely way.
We also need to consider the reality that we can only handle so much at any one time. Let’s imagine that we are wrong in fifty matters of belief and action, which must be a laughably small number in God’s eyes! Could we handle being corrected in all fifty at once? Does God tell us everything that we are doing wrong in a single instance, or does the Spirit convict us of sin gradually, one thing after another? The process of recognizing and addressing our faults has been likened to the layers of an onion; once one is removed, another is revealed.
Perhaps we marvel or are even confused that ancient Israel tolerated, or even endorsed to some extent, practices such as polygamous marriages and slave owning. Moses’ laws may have regulated or forbid some of the worst aspects of these common ancient customs, but why did it not simply outlaw them entirely? Perhaps God knows that seeing our faults is a process and everything cannot be changed at once. In Jesus’ day neither polygamy nor slavery was being practiced among the Jews, but the change in Jewish culture had been slow. What was once regulated was later eradicated.
If God can be patient, persistent, and timely in his work with us, then we can learn to do the same with each other. What we come to recognize is that not everyone is ready for every correction, no matter how true, immediately. Please don’t overwhelm me with a long lost of all my sins that are apparent to you. Help me to see and address the most urgent problems, and we will get to the others later.
In my own attempt to be timely with correction I try to separate sins which are a failure to practice faith in God from sins which are a failure to have faith in God. For instance, someone may not be very forgiving. They hold grudges and are bitter. This is a failure to practice the teachings of Christ because his way calls for us to forgive others. Let’s say this same person centers his whole life on acquiring wealth. Unforgiveness is a failure to live out faith, but pursuing wealth opposes having faith in God. The latter problem must be addressed more urgently than the first. Until one is putting faith in God details of living out that faith are irrelevant. As this simple example suggests, we have to discern an order in which to correct wrong belief and practice.
Jesus taught using the phrase “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”. Though he was speaking to crowds who had come to listen and he had not cornered them at the town market while they were buying groceries, still he knew not even all who had come were ready to hear. Though he spoke generally to the crowds, he waited for those who would approach him individually, seeking further instruction. Only those who are seeking will appreciate instruction and correction. Unless someone is “coming toward us” they will not want to hear. Chasing after others to offer uninvited teaching is pointless.
There is a time to teach and correct, and a time to refrain. Wise discernment helps us know to withhold correction when others are not ready, to know which matter is more urgent when there are several to address, and to recognize when others are not “coming toward us”. Helpful teachers and mentors know the times to leave unaddressed certain misguided thoughts, beliefs, or actions they see in others.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11