Looking at Harshness and Cheerfulness
Most of us know people who are blunt. Sometimes their bluntness morphs into harshness and unkindness. If that happens often enough, we may sense that they have a kind of personality disorder, because they seem unable to express emotions other than frustration and anger. They give little positive affirmation and little praise—of anything. There is little spontaneous expression of the sort of joy that is self-forgetful and simply swept up into some wonderful experience.
On the other hand, most of us know people who are always chipper, always smiling, always commending, always gentle and kind. We marvel at this. It seems wonderful and biblical. But then, over time, we may sense that something is amiss.
What we want to see in others, and have in ourselves, is a kind of wholeness that can be blunt and forceful and corrective when necessary, but that also has a peaceful pattern of encouragement and affirmation and kindness.
These people never seem to notice the wrongs others do. They seem to never take note of evils and injustices in society. They are silent when others are wrestling with a difficult moral issue. They don’t give their opinion when there is a matter of church discipline, where a church member is guilty of unrepentant wrong. They seem incapable of disagreeing or correcting or admonishing. They are only positive or silent.
What we once saw as a beautiful trait of kindness starts to seem like a lopsided mark of insecurity. A lack of conviction or moral backbone. A fear of conflict. A desperate need to have everything smooth and positive. A need to be seen positively, and a quiet dread of being criticized or rejected. And gradually we realize that there is something unhealthy behind this smiling face.
Lavish in Affirmation, Direct in Criticism
What we want to see in others, and have in ourselves, is a kind of wholeness that can be blunt and forceful and corrective when necessary, but that also has a peaceful pattern of encouragement and affirmation and kindness. Expressions of anger are common and unexceptional in our world. Most people are capable of expressing anger. But what we want is a predominant kindness that is just as capable of expressing positive emotions like thankfulness, and admiration, and hopeful expectancy, and exultation over good news, and heartfelt empathy, and sorrow over bad news.
Paul was one of those people who was lavish in his commendations and direct in his criticisms. For example, the church at Corinth was a troubled church, with conflicts over leaders, church discipline, food offered to pagan idols, the Lord’s Supper, the role of women in worship, the use of spiritual gifts, and more. In short, the church gave Paul headaches of concern (2 Cor. 11:28). But listen to his opening paragraph in his first letter to them.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4–9)
Paul expressed this kind of robust affirmation not only in his letters. We all know that some people can write kind words, but in person they are emotionally ham-fisted. Paul could be as emotionally warm and expressive in person as he was in his letters. For example, he writes to the Thessalonian church:
We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess. 2:7–8)
But when the time was right, Paul could be utterly blunt and forceful in his reprimands. For example, after that warm commendatory beginning, Paul later says to the Corinthians, “In the following instructions I do not commend you” (1 Cor. 11:17). That is clear and straightforward and blunt.
Blunt, Brief, Forgiving
Paul was keenly aware of the limits of rebuke and correction. Such treatment should be brief and redemptive if at all possible.
Listen to his concern about a disciplined brother, whose discipline he himself had encouraged:
This punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2 Cor. 2:6–8)
Beautiful. But all the more beautiful because Paul had the moral backbone and the emotional ability to say, “I do not commend you,” and, “I thank God for you. He will sustain you to the end.” This kind of robust emotional well-roundedness draws out my heart in admiration and love to this extraordinary man.
This article is adapted from Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons by John Piper.
- John Piper’s Trilogy on the Word of God
- The Intersection of the Natural and the Supernatural in Preaching (John Piper)
- Help for Humanly Impossible Acts (John Piper)