Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will still be wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
– Proverbs 9:8-9
Now, let’s face it: no one really likes to be corrected or critiqued. But, it is a little easier for us when we know the person correcting us has our best interest at heart.
One of my closest friends is my wheelchair basketball coach, Kevin. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for 13 years now, and 8 of them have been with Kevin and the Triangle Thunder. In my time playing with them, Kevin and my teammates have been like older brothers to me. We would play ball, go out to eat, hang out at each other’s homes, tell jokes, and share life advice.
I remember my first three years playing for the Thunder. Kevin and my teammates would watch me during drills and scrimmages, and they would tell me where to be on the floor, how to properly guard my opponent, and to talk on defense. What was interesting to me was that they never got angry at me for missing a shot in a game or getting scored on after contesting a shot. They only got frustrated when I would lose focus and not run our drills or plays correctly.
I remember one practice I was talking with Kevin, and he was getting on me for not running our set plays correctly. I apologized, but I kept messing up. After practice was done, Kevin was taking me home, and we were talking about what I needed to do to improve. I remember during our conversation he said, “Don’t worry if I critique you; worry if I stop talking to you.” He then told me that I have the potential to be a really good player, a dominating center in the game. I have carried those comments with me to this day. Even though I didn’t enjoy being critiqued by Kevin and my teammates, I knew that their instruction was the only way I was going to improve as a player. Moreover, I feared I was going to lose the friendship and brotherhood I had with Kevin and the team if I did not take basketball seriously.
Ever since that talk, I have made an effort to sharpen my focus in practice, develop my basketball skills at home by going over drills, and shooting hoops in the backyard or the fellowship hall at our church. For the past two years, I have been a starter on the team, and last season I received an All-Conference award for Division III. All the improvements I have made in my game and successes I have had up to this point are because of my dear friend and coach, Kevin. If it wasn’t for his patience, guidance, and correction, I would not be the player I am now.
The vitality of correction is a prevalent theme in Christ’s healing of the epileptic from the Gospel of Matthew (17: 14-23) and Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians concerning their spiritual arrogance (4: 9-16). In the Gospel, Christ critiques the father of the epileptic and His own disciples for their “little faith.” In his criticism of the epileptic’s father, Christ states, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” And to His disciples, Christ privately critiques them for their “little faith,” instructs them to grow in their faith through “prayer and fasting,” and then He foreshadows His impending passion and forthcoming resurrection. In both instances in the Gospel, Jesus refers to His earthly mortality. He will not be a physical presence on the earth for much longer. He needs His disciples to be the ultimate examples of His teachings and virtues when He ascends to Heaven so that His message can live on and convert the hearts of many. Christ knows they can do it; but, the disciples cannot fulfill their mission if their faith is weak, which is why He instructs them to build on their faith “through prayer and fasting.” Once their faith is strengthened by these two powerful, spiritual tools, they will not only move mountains, but also cast out the strongest of demons.
However, what kind of prayer and fasting can strengthen our faith in Christ? We need to look at the Epistle for the answer. In writing to the Corinthians, who were puffed up with pride and boasting about their virtue, Saint Paul, through sarcasm, points out their lack of living a truly Christian life: “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” The Corinthians at this time were living comfortably; they were not being persecuted. They were not dealing with the trial of martyrdom; they were not sacrificing anything for God. As a result, the Corinthians lost their focus on Christ and His message, and Saint Paul knew that and sought to correct them.
After using satire to humble their self-righteousness, Saint Paul instructs the Corinthians on how to fast from both the body, (in the form of hunger, thirst, and manual labor), and also the ego (by blessing those who revile you, conciliating with those who slander you and patiently enduring your persecutors). Saint Paul could have ended his message at this point. The message is loud and clear: in order to be a Christian in the truest sense of the word and to take the salvation of the Cross seriously, we must cast away the desires of our body and ego. Got it. Understood.
But, Saint Paul, like a good father, like a good coach, explains his purpose in writing this letter: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.” Saint Paul’s critique of the Corinthians, like Christ’s critique of His disciples, is constructive. It is an opportunity for the Corinthians to recognize their folly and fix it. It is an opportunity for them to grow in Christ, to sacrifice their comfortable life on earth for eternal life with God.
The same is true for us living in the world today. We have an opportunity each and every day to recognize how we have relaxed our purpose of attaining unity with God. If we are slow in finding this out for ourselves, let’s ask someone who knows us well and who will be honest with us about our spiritual shortcomings. Let us take the words from the Gospel and Epistle and learn to embrace those who correct us, not run away from them. The more correction we receive from those who have our best interest at heart, especially in our spiritual lives, the closer we will be in attaining unity with God.