Too many believers have this mistaken notion that above all, we should never make anybody feel bad, nor should people be offended, or upset, or put out in any way. We must just be nice to everyone, and never hurt their feelings or cause them any sort of negativity.
That seems like good advice – certainly for those in the surrounding pagan culture. But is it sound biblical advice? No, not at all. There is plenty of biblical material we can offer here, but what I again read in my daily reading will suffice. I refer to 2 Corinthians 7. The entire chapter could be focused on but let me just run with verses 8-10. They read:
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.
Here Paul says that things he had written previously to believers in Corinth had caused a fair amount of grief. But that was a good thing, because such grief was actually godly grief. It resulted in repentance and a restored and a renewed relationship with God. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is cause temporary pain and grief in someone to get a much better outcome.
Had Paul taken the advice of so many believers today, he never would have said such strong things. He would have just tried to be nice, and make them happy, and make them feel good. In which case, they would not have grieved, and neither would they have repented and gotten right with God. So which is better? Obviously for the biblical Christian the approach of Paul is the way to go.
Let me draw up on some helpful commentary here. Sam Storms offers a bit of the background to this episode:
As best we can tell, Paul made an urgent and confrontational visit to Corinth in the spring of AD 55, which he described as “painful” in 2 Corinthians 2:1. He immediately returned to Ephesus and changed the plans he had earlier made to visit Corinth twice more: once on his way to Macedonia and then on his return trip (see 2 Cor. 1:15-16). Fearful that his enemies would destroy the work of the gospel in Corinth, he wrote what some have called the “severe” or “tearful” letter (2 Cor. 2:4, 9), entrusting its delivery to Titus. In late AD 55 he left Ephesus and went to Troas, hoping to meet Titus there with news of how the Corinthians had responded to this forceful appeal….
Paul’s regret over sending the severe letter is short-lived when he learns of the godly and sincere fruit it bore in their experience (v. 8). Now he is relieved and filled with joy both at how Titus was encouraged and refreshed by them as well as their genuine and godly repentance (vv. 6-7, 9-12, 13).
Scott Hafemann comments further:
In spite of the pain the letter caused, Paul no longer regrets sending it but rejoices (7:7, 9), since the sorrow it caused “for a little while” (7:8) was not an end in itself, but led to their repentance (7:9). “Repentance” includes both the remorse that comes from recognizing that one has wronged God and its consequent resolve to reverse one’s behavior as seen in the first steps in that new direction. Therefore, though its consequences are long-term, repentance is indicated by an initial change in both attitude and action.’
Paul is aware, however, that not all experiences of “feeling bad” lead to repentance. People feel guilty for all kinds of reasons. The reason the Corinthians’ remorse led to repentance was because they had “become sorrowful as God intended”—that is, experiencing the kind of genuine remorse that leads to a real change in one’s way of life (7:9b; cf. Rom. 8:27; Eph. 4:24 for the same expression used here). Being sorrowful as God intended is feeling the deep grief that comes from knowing that our attitudes and actions have harmed our relationship with God. “Godly sorrow” feels bad because it is missing out on God.
He goes on to contrast this with worldly sorrow:
Worldly sorrow is the grief that comes about because one’s actions result in missing out on something the world has to offer. Worldly sorrow feels bad because it wants more of the world. Such sorrow causes us to focus even more on how hurt we are, thereby helping to bring about the death that comes from living for self rather than for Christ (cf. 5:15). At stake in the Corinthians’ earlier rebellion, however, were not their feelings or their fortunes, but their future with God.
Paul cared deeply about the Corinthians’ relationship with him not merely because he had grown fond of them, but because he was their spiritual father in the gospel. So just as their rebellion had caused him great pain, their repentance brought him great joy, since his primary goal as an apostle of the new covenant is not to bring God’s judgment, but the joy of experiencing God’s righteousness (cf. 1:24; 3:9; 13:9—10). As an apostle, Paul’s happiness was bound up in the redemption of those to whom God had sent him. By their repentance, the Corinthians had shown themselves to be part of this number.
Thus there are times when speaking truth out of love and concern for the other person will cause some hurt – at least temporarily. But the loving thing to do is not hold back on sharing such much-needed truth. Sure, we pray for the right time and circumstance to do so, but love demands honest confrontation and at times even words of rebuke.
Any parent knows the reality of this of course. As R. Kent Hughes puts it:
At times a father has to deal severely with his children, disciplining them for their own good. A good father never enjoys this, but he does it. In the same way Paul’s penning the severe letter to the Corinthians, his second epistle to them, was a distasteful but necessary task. As Paul earlier described it in 2:4, “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears.” The object of that letter was to bring about grief and repentance among the Corinthians….
There is a worldly grief that can be very bitter and intense, like that of Esau who grieved with many tears over the loss of his birthright but found no place for repentance (cf. Hebrews 12:16, 17). Worldly grief is deficient because it is not distinct from sin; rather it is redolent of the very essence of sin and self. This is because self is the center point of sin. As Archbishop William Temple so memorably put it, “I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand.” Therefore, “worldly grief” is a grief for oneself, centered on self, not grief for sin against God. It grieves over consequences. It aches with embarrassment. It focuses on its own hurt. It is self-pitying.
On the other hand, “godly grief” is a grief that comes from knowing that your actions are unpleasing to God. This is what the Lord commends in the second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn”; that is, they mourn over their sins before God. And such grief is “blessed” because it drives us to God and to repentance. As parents we have learned that godly grief in our children is necessary for salvation and ongoing spiritual health. Sorrow is not enough. A child must own that his or her sin is against God and must be repentant before God. We must never be fooled by tears because they often are tears of self-pity or anger: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (v. 10). Here, in respect to the Corinthians, Paul rejoices because they have experienced godly grief and the requisite repentance.
In sum, hard words, wounding words, tearing words, are sometimes necessary. Of course we do not go out of our way looking to hurt people and make them feel miserable. But there are times when the most loving thing we can do for others is to be honest with them, tell them unpopular and unwanted truth, and pray they receive such words as they were intended – as life-giving words meant to lead us back to where God wants us to be.
That might always be hurtful in the short run, but in the long run it results in a very good outcome indeed. As the writer to the Hebrews put it in Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
So let us press on to be prayerful and careful speakers of truth – even when it might cause some temporary grief.
Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. Bill's podcast is exclusively produced for Good Sauce readers and fans.
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