Question 1: How do you correct someone’s errant theology while still being supportive and compassionate to his or her suffering?
First, take your time. When considering the prospect of challenging another person’s beliefs or understandings, especially when he or she is in pain, it is rarely wise to rush in on an impulse. A well-known theorist and psychotherapist once said, “The problem with emotions is that they happen too fast.”
Many of us were raised in a culture that encouraged us to hurry past painful feelings and look quickly for the next action or the solution to our pain. It is a gift to anyone we care for to give them our time and the space to feel what they are feeling. This time and specific type of space can also be beneficial to us as we consider how to approach making a correction. We may also need some time to sort through our feelings before we know what we want to do or say.
Second, use the resources of time, prayer, and wise counsel from others to consider your motivations for making a correction. Although a part of our motivations may be altruistic, it is also likely that our “pure” intentions also have some selfish and prideful motivations mixed in. In these moments, it is usually unwise to simply “go with your gut” without input from others, as we are likely to have only part of the picture of our true motivations at any moment. This process of discernment requires humility and a willingness to be corrected yourself.
Third, let love lead. Remember that the biblical motivation behind correcting a fellow Christian should always be about encouraging a close, unified relationship with God and the church. Ask God to cultivate authentic love for the other person in your heart and let this love inform the tone and the way you offer your theological challenge. It can often be helpful to offer correction as a conversation starter or questions rather than rigid statements.
For example, don’t say, “The Bible says you should rest on the Sabbath. Why aren’t you?” Instead, say,
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible’s teachings on keeping the Sabbath and how it’s meant to protect us from overworking ourselves. I’ve also noticed you seem to always be so busy and stressed out lately. I wonder if you would be interested in talking with me a bit about what Sabbath keeping looks like for you, and perhaps what some of the challenges would be for you to take part in this biblical practice.”
By starting a conversation in this way, you are creating an opportunity to offer support on implementing correct doctrine beyond just agreeing with it.
Finally, walk humbly. When you have offered your correction, regardless of if the person acts on it or not, remember that the correction was never about you. If the person listens and changes, try not to get caught up in thinking about how “successful” you were or how much the person “owes you.”
Likewise, if a person does not take your correction, try not to take it personally. Know that it is not your role to save anyone. Your role is simply to love and obey. If you have done those two things to the best of your ability, no burden should be left on you. If you find yourself continuing to be preoccupied with the other person’s error, practice intentionally placing that person in God’s hands, reminding yourself that God’s love and care for this person will always be much greater than your own.
Finally, never forget that you could be wrong. While God’s word is infallible, your understanding of it is not. Try not to be surprised if you find out one day that your theology was the one in need of correction!
More in Part 6 of this series.
Carson A.M. Tabiolo, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College’s Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at the University of Alabama Birmingham – Veterans Affairs Medical Center Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium in Birmingham, Alabama.
Amy J. Smith, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College’s Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at Pine Rest Christian Psychological Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Dan Barnhart, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College’s Clinical Psychology program. He will complete his doctoral internship at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and is entering the U.S. Army as an active-duty clinical psychologist.