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Can A Christian Be Both Loving and Critical?

The songs at church this Sunday were alright. Only one minor theological blunder that I counted. The person on stage who read today’s passage managed to pronounce all the words correctly. . .

From the moment the pastor started preaching, my brain quietly fact-checked everything that came out of his mouth, from the historical background of the passage, to the “original Greek” claims he made, to whether or not I thought his message was gospel-centric enough . . .

Not exactly the posture of a humble worshipper before God, huh?

I grew up in a Bible-believing household, went to Bible college, and now work with a Christian ministry. I love history, culture, and language, so my interests happen to line up nicely with acquiring biblical knowledge. The problem? As Paul said it so simply, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Don’t get me wrong—familiarity with the Bible is a good thing. Analytical thinking is a good thing. It is important to know the difference between a solidly gospel-grounded sermon, and a motivational feel-good speech. Even the most experienced pastors will make mistakes, and it is crucial for us to cross-check anything we hear with the Bible.

After all, even the Bereans checked Paul the Apostle against Scripture (Acts 17:10-11).

But none of that calls for sitting back with arms crossed, silently grading the pastor on the quality of his sermon. Partway through the sermon that Sunday, I realized that I was being critical of the pastor to a point of hostility. I had let myself puff up with pride, and was silently pointing out every minor flaw I noticed as a means of affirming my own inflated sense of intellect, well-read-ness, and general arrogance.

Once I realized my serious attitude problem, I told my brain to shut up and stop being so critical. But that doesn’t exactly solve the problem, does it? For the rest of the day, I wrestled with how to reconcile a critical mind with Christian love. Eventually, I came up with some guidelines to help me think through the issue and hold myself accountable.

 

Does it really matter?

Sometimes I find myself nitpicking at minute details that don’t really matter. If a person mispronounced a word, for example, it probably wouldn’t cause any misunderstanding. Or if the pastor gave an illustration of God’s amazing creation, and mentioned nine planets in the solar system (instead of eight, since Pluto has lost its status)—the main point is still clear and valid. It would be silly for me to worry over such irrelevant mistakes in a worship service.

On the other hand, sometimes there are mistakes with greater consequences. For example, I was recently in a Bible study where a newcomer mishandled biblical passages to argue that the Holy Spirit was not God. This clearly contradicts the Bible’s teachings, and could potentially mislead some of the newer Christians in the group, robbing them of the comfort of God’s continued presence in their lives (John 14:16-17). Unlike mis-numbering the planets, this was a problem that needed to be addressed.

Thankfully in that case, the leaders of the Bible study politely but firmly put a stop to this newcomer’s theories, while offering to discuss it more in a private setting.

While some mistakes are minor and have little consequence to how we live our lives or relate to others, other mistakes might be more foundational and problematic. I need to learn not to dwell on minor mistakes, as well as how to act lovingly in the face of more serious problems.

 

If it matters, how do I respond in love?

When faced with errors in foundational doctrine or mistakes with the potential to damage a young Christian’s relationship with God, sometimes we need to act. But at the same time, I need to take care in how I respond to the issue. Too often I find myself stewing in imagined debates, or pointing out errors to those around me in a gossip-like manner while not actually doing anything constructive to address the problem.

If I decide that a mistake is not trivial but requires action, then I need to ask myself, am I being loving in my approach? I should always start by praying and asking God to purify my motive.

If I counter someone’s point in Bible study, or approach a pastor after the sermon, I need to do it out of a heart of love and service. I’ve found that starting with questions and clarifying the other person’s view first is one way I can do that. After all, perhaps they know something I haven’t thought of yet, or maybe I misunderstood!

If I bring up the issue with friends or family, I should talk about it in a way that seeks further understanding and truth—it should never simply be criticism for the sake of pointing out errors. “What did you think about the speaker’s interpretation of this verse?” would hopefully lead to a constructive discussion that leaves us all with greater understanding and confidence in the truth the Bible offers.

Finally, whatever I do, pride must have no place in it. I am to “do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Too often, I am overly confident in my own opinions and understanding. I need to learn to let go when something simply doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I also need to remind myself—and ask God to help me—to be loving in all that I do and think. I pray that He will continue to overcome my sinful pride and reveal my many mistakes and misplaced opinions. And as I continue asking myself these questions throughout the week, I will ask God to enable me to interact lovingly and humbly with people around me.

I Learned the Secret to Time Management

It was late afternoon. I was still at my computer, supposedly editing an article our website needed soon. My son was noisily racing his toy cars across the living room floor—an audible reminder that I hadn’t had time to play with him that afternoon. I also still needed to plan and cook dinner at some point before my husband and sister came home from work.

But instead of carefully weighing words and punctuation, or attending to any of the other items on my growing “to-do” list, I was checking out what my friends had recently read on a book-centered social media platform.

That’s when a notification lit up, informing me that I had read a total of 19 books in the last year.

As a self-identified major bookworm, I stared at the number in disbelief. Even during slow years, I could easily read twice that number of books. Why so few books in 2019?

For the next week or two, I turned this question over in my mind. I also started paying attention to how I was spending my time. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my work was taking far longer than it should, mostly because I was constantly taking “breaks” to scroll social media or news sites instead of focusing on the work at hand. These breaks often took much longer than planned, and tended to zap my motivation rather than build it up.

In response to this newfound realization, I decided to free up a morning, splurge on some overpriced coffee at a local shop, and brainstorm how best to salvage my time in the future. I felt pretty pleased with the actionable steps I came up with. To remind myself of these actionable steps, I summarized them onto a post-it note that I stuck on my computer.

Though it worked well for the first day, within a week I found myself battling old habits again. I would forget to set timers for myself or spend my breaks away from the computer. I got distracted and followed Internet rabbit trails when I was supposed to be doing research for work. A few days went better than the rest, but even on the better days, I could not say that my time had been well accounted for.

No matter how hard I tried, it seemed like I was still a slave to distractions. And all my reflection and practical steps made only the slightest difference.

This continued until I came across Psalm 51 one day while reading the Bible. This was David’s psalm of repentance after committing adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11-12). One line particularly stood out to me:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

What struck me was that David didn’t focus on fixing the problem of his sin himself. He didn’t make promises to do better in the future. He turned to God and God’s mercy, and asked God to change his heart.

In battling my lack of time management, I had written out realistic goals and actions—trusting my own willpower to make the change and get things done. But none of it worked! I had forgotten what David knew so well—not only is God able to forgive, but He is able to create in us a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within us.

That afternoon, I placed a new post-it on my computer. Instead of practical steps I thought up myself, I simply copied out Psalm 51:10, and made it my own personal prayer. When I sat down to work, when I took breaks, and even when I caught myself following rabbit trails on the Internet, I found myself looking down at the post-it and praying, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

You know what? That afternoon of work was phenomenal. I was able to focus like I had rarely done in the past year. And not only did I do my work quickly, but I did it well. I even had time to do an extra load of laundry, tidy-up better than usual, and bring my son to the playground downstairs—all before cooking a lovely dinner for my family.

It has been two weeks since then. There are occasional days where I focus less than I should, and work takes longer than ideal. Sometimes dinner is a little later than planned. But overall, I have more time and the work that I do is of better quality.

The thing is, I had tried to manage my time better by my own strength, and I failed. When I realized I could not do this on my own, I asked God to intervene. I prayed that He would change my heart so that I would not be so easily distracted, and could focus well on my work. I asked God to enable me to do what had been impossible for me to achieve by myself.

And God graciously answered my prayer. By His grace alone, I have been enabled to work well and give a good account for my time.

This experience was a fresh reminder that God is able to change hearts. He created a pure heart for David. He has renewed my heart in the past, and did so again in a miraculous way these past two weeks. And I know God will continuing renewing my heart in the future, helping me overcome my sins and my faults when I cannot, so that one day, I will be presented before Him without fault and with great joy (Jude 24).

Is there anything you struggle with in your life? Anything that even the best intentions have not been able to overcome? Ask God to give you a new heart.

Change might not come overnight. Some of my own prayers have taken years for God to begin answering. But even in the waiting, we can ask God to help us trust Him and lean on His strength. Even when we stumble and fall again, we know that God is continually molding and sanctifying us. And we continue praying, continue trusting that He will renew us day by day. God is in the business of changing hearts. He desires to give us a new heart and renew our spirit; all we have to do is ask.

5 Things to do Before Turning 30

Though it still feels like college wasn’t that long ago, my friends and I are now all closer to 30 than we are to 20. 30 seems like a big milestone. Right now, we’re still exploring, still jumping between jobs, still trying to decide “what we want to do when we grow up.” But by the time you turn 30, you’re supposed to be an adult, right? Steady job, living on your own, building a family, all that good stuff?

What are some things you want to accomplish before turning 30? Here’s my list.

1. Read the entire Bible through at least once (more)

I want to read the Bible through again. My father and I read through the Bible together when I was 18, from Genesis to Revelation. It was sort of a “sending me off to college” thing. He wanted to equip me before I went off to college and entered the big bad world. And the best way he knew to do so was to give me God’s Word.

I read the Bible through again some time after graduation, as I was starting a new stage in life. As I pass through different stages of life, I’ve realized more and more that God’s Word really does have answers to any question we might have. Often the Bible does not tell us directly what we want to know (“apply to this job and not that one”), but God has given clear and sufficient guidelines on how to live.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible thoroughly equips us for every good work, in whatever circumstance of life. Before turning 20, I want to read God’s Word in its entirety again, maybe even multiple times, because I know there is no better preparation for a new phase in life than to read and re-read God’s love letters to us.

 

2. Cook a meal for someone else

During my college years, I loved it when others invited me over for dinner. Of course, being fed is always great. But there was also something restful about being in a home, after so many hours spent in our transient dorms. When someone invites me home for dinner, they are inviting me into their lives in a way that just doesn’t quite happen at a restaurant or a coffee shop. Oh, and the conversations we had, lingering late into the night over the dining table after a wholesome meal!

I want to share that with those around me. By the time I’m 30, I hope I’ll have at least a basic set of life skills: cooking, budgeting, cleaning the toilet. And I hope that I will be learning to use these skills in service of others.

It won’t always be easy. Some of us live in small apartments. Some have roommates. Right now, my husband and I are temporarily staying at my parents’. But hospitality is not a fancy dinner (Proverbs 15:17). It is about sharing what we have with others, because we know that Christ gave His all for us.

Opening up our homes for others draws them close, tells them that they are more than strangers, that they matter. Christ has invited us into His family. Let us do likewise, and invite others into our lives by the simple act of cooking them a meal, perhaps through that we can share the feast of God’s love with them as well.

 

3. Make a good friend older than myself

I am in the process of settling in a new church because of a recent move. It would be easy for me to surround myself with people my age, or in similar stages of life as me. We can commiserate over the parental pressures that still loom large in our lives. We can talk about the uncertainties faced by every twenty-something-year-old. We can fantasize about our first apartment or house.

But I need more than just people my age. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul lays out a picture of an older woman teaching younger women Christian virtues. When I read that, I think to myself, I would like that—having the friendship of someone who has walked the paths I am walking, who can share of her wisdom. I have my mother, who is a solid Christian and  is excellent at living out the Bible. And I have learned so much from her. But sometimes it’s nice to have a different voice. Someone I haven’t had over 20 years of experience ignoring.

This means that I would need to move beyond my comfort zone. At church, I would need to talk to people I am not naturally drawn to. I need to share honestly my experience and worries. Because why would someone open up to me if I do not open up to them first?

Not everyone I talk to will become a mentor or teacher. That’s okay. If I persist in building relationships, eventually some will bear fruit. I look forward to being discipled, so that I may in turn disciple others.

 

4. Start serving regularly in church

Like I mentioned earlier, I am settling into a new church. The church is just big enough that I may slip through the cracks of serving without drawing much notice.

I’ve never liked serving in church. I’m shy and for the most part am intimidated by the idea of having to interact with people. When asked about my spiritual gifts, I shrug and smile self-deprecatingly. But this is to be my spiritual family. Christ called me to love these people (John 13:35). He even showed me how to love them by setting an example and washing the feet of His disciples (John 13:15).

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). I don’t really know what gifts I have. I like reading. I like in-depth study of the Bible. But how can I use these skills to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ? Especially when I don’t particularly like interacting with people?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one thing to do. Look around to see what opportunities there are to serve at my church, and try serving for some time in one position or another until I find one that fits. Not necessarily one that I like immediately, but one where I am doing what the church needs to be done, and that few other people are able or willing to do. By God’s grace, I will learn to like it and will flourish in service to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

5. Start to give regularly

In our twenties, we usually start earning some sort of income. The hope is that as we approach 30, our income becomes more stable and we will be more able to support ourselves and our families.

But you know what’s more important than earning an income? Giving it away.

Paul urged the Corinthians, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It’s not easy to give cheerfully. I worked hard for what little I have. Why should I give it away? Or take my current situation as an example. My husband and I are only making a portion of what we need (which is why we’re living with the parents for a season). Surely, it would be more responsible to save up so we could move out sooner and be less of a burden to others?

Paul continues by saying, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). God isn’t promising to give us as much money as we think we need. What we think we need is often very different from what we do need. God promises to give us what we need so that we might “abound in every good work.”

While our finances are not quite where we want them, we are practicing reliance on God, and trusting that He will make good on His promises and give us what we need for good works. We strive to give regularly at church (and fail at times) because we trust that God will take care of us in all our needs. And because we need to be reminded, week after week, that God is the one who gave us everything that we have. All our money, time, and talents belong to Him.

What are some things you hope to do before turning 30?

 

When Someone Goes Astray

Day 30 | Today’s passage: James 5:19-20 | Historical context of James

19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

The first time I met my friend, she told me that she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior when she was six. But when I encouraged her to come to church regularly, she shifted with embarrassment and told me she was struggling with an addiction, and wanted to straighten out her life before finding God again.

We kept in touch. Three years down the road, she still struggles with the addiction as well as a series of other bad life choices. Every time we talk, she tries to convince me she’s turning her life around. But each time, I see more of the pain (both physically and emotionally) that her choices are bringing her.

Do you know anyone who has, to quote James, “wandered from the truth”? Sometimes people walk away from a doctrinal belief in God and His gospel; other times, someone might believe all the right things, but no longer live by them.
My friend, for example, confesses Jesus as her Lord and Savior—but you would never know it from the way she lives.

As James emphasizes throughout his letter, God does not desire merely our superficial confession of Him. He wants us to live out the gospel in our lives.

But that’s not all. He also wants us to watch out for our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we see a fellow Christian wandering from the truth, whether in thought or in deed, James exhorts that “someone should bring that person back” (v. 19).

To encourage us in seeking wandering souls, James reminds us that “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (v. 20).

For sins to be “covered over” means that God will forgive the sins (Romans 4:7). There is no sin too great for Christ’s sacrifice. When we restore a brother or sister, whatever their sin may be, God’s forgiveness is more than able to save them from spiritual death. What can be greater than a renewed life in Christ? And to think that God allows us to play a part in His amazing work of restoration!

But how do we turn a wanderer back to God?

We can love. We seek to love others just as Christ loves us, which is precisely why we seek to bring them back to Him (John 15:12). Sincerely loving our brothers and sisters prevents us from falling into the sin of judgmentalism or gossip. When we love, we will seek to maintain a meaningful relationship through which perhaps God would be pleased to work.

We can pray—regularly and passionately. Ultimately, it is not our clever arguments or sincere words that change a person’s mind. Rather, it is God’s Spirit moving in the deep recesses of the heart that brings a wanderer back, and by prayer we bring our petitions directly to God, who loves the person more completely than we ever can.

We can lovingly confront a person who has turned away from God. Our love forbids us from being an observer on the sidelines, watching passively, while someone forfeits their soul. In talking with someone whose actions are contrary to God, we “do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as [we] would a fellow believer” (2 Thessalonians 3:15), lovingly and prayerfully.

God desires that we live out the gospel in our daily life, and is grieved when any one of us turns away. As brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s commit to hold one another accountable because of the love we have for God and for each other. In everything we do, may we act out of love and wholly depend on God’s grace and leading, trusting that He will continue to work in the lives of all who belong to Him.

—Christine Emmert, USA

Questions for reflection

1. Do you know anyone who has turned away from God? What are some possible signs of a person wandering away from the truth?

2. What is one step you can take to restore the brother/sister who has gone astray?

3. What is one truth from God’s word that you can take to heart in this process of restoration?


Christine is a follower of Christ, and a lover of good books and food. Life is good, she insists, and each new breath is a reminder that whatever the circumstances, God is still good. Her husband and her are trying to build a family that seeks Christ and serves as light and salt among the nations. Ezra 7:10 is her favorite verse.

Read 30-day James Devotional