One of the harder things to accept in life is when others correct us. Usually when confronted by a shortcoming of ours we are fearful, and our egos, which tend to be fragile, react with anger and resentment. But Scripture reminds us in many places that to be corrected is in fact a gift:
- When the Just man corrects me it is kindness. Let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. (Psalm 141:5)
- It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools. (Eccl 7:5)
- He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored. (Prov 13:18)
- He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.. (Prov 15:31-32)
- To one who listens, valid criticism is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry. (Prov 25:12)
So correction, even if not perfectly given, is a gift. But it is a hard gift, in which our flesh struggles to rejoice. We are easily hurt and offended, or perhaps we are angry, because we see the person who corrects us as far from perfect himself and wonder why we are being singled out. So correction is hard for our flesh (our sin nature) to endure.
In the modern age there seem to be additional cultural obstacles to accepting correction.
- It is widely held that this current age has attained a kind of enlightenment that previous ages lacked. We are very mesmerized by our technology and science and maintain an illusion of greatness. Hence the teachings and traditions of the elders are often rejected as relics from a time more rude, bigoted, and ignorant.
- We also live in a culture that celebrates youth and often isolates its elders.
- Respect of elders is not as taught or insisted upon as in previous times.
- In an age dominated by the notion that truth is relative, everything is thus reduced to the level of opinion, and my opinion is just as good as yours.
This past week in the breviary we have been reading from the Abbot, St Dorotheus of Gaza and, specifically his work De accusatione sui ipsius (Concerning the accusation of one’s very self). He has some important insights I would like to share and reflect on. Allow me to quote, and then comment. His text is in bold, black italics, my comments are in normal text red.
The man who finds fault with himself accepts all things cheerfully – misfortune, loss, disgrace, dishonor and any other kind of adversity. He believes that he is deserving of all these things and nothing can disturb him. No one could be more at peace than this man….. [Again] the reason for all disturbance, if we look to its roots, is that no one finds fault with himself. This is the source of all annoyance and distress [in the matter of correction]. . This is why we sometimes have no rest.”
In our psychotherapeutic culture we tend to consider most notions of our own guilt as an unhealthy, morbid guilt. Thus, one might conclude that Abbot Dorotheus was giving unsound advice. Now there is such a thing as morbid guilt, but this is not what our author commends. Rather he is commending a healthy and sober notion that we are all sinners and that we offend in many ways, both hidden and open.
Scripture says, In many ways all of us give offense (James 3:2) and the righteous falls seven times and daily rises again (Prov 24:16) and yet again, There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins (Eccles 7:20). The good Abbot is commending a sober realization of this fact and indicating it is a source of peace for us.
Hence we are not exempt from the need for correction and, if we have a lively understanding of this fact, nothing can disturb us. The just man or woman will assess his life properly and conclude, “I am more blessed than I deserve. I have offended in many ways, but God who is merciful has spared me the full impact of my sinful choices. Hence, when I am corrected, I realize that I more than need and deserve correction. Even when I am not corrected perfectly, or may feel singled out, it remains true that I have often escaped rebuke when I DID deserve it.”
This sort of thinking and premise helps steel the soul against the resentfulness that sometimes comes when we are rebuked. There is a kind of serenity that comes when we say, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it….The Church is not sinless, because I am a member, this situation is messy because I am involved. There is an inner peace and we are far less disturbed by life’s imperfections when we own our own stuff and stay in our lane. Correction is much more easily received by a serene person aware that they are in need of assistance and correction.
But perhaps you will offer me this objection: “Suppose my brother injures me, and on examining myself I find that I have not given him any cause. Why should I blame myself?” Certainly if someone examines himself carefully and with fear of God, he will never find himself completely innocent. He will see that he has given some provocation by an action, a word or by his manner. If he does find that he is not guilty in any of these ways, certainly he must have injured that brother somehow at some other time. Or perhaps he has been a source of annoyance to some other brother. For this reason he deserves to endure the injury because of many other sins that he has committed on other occasions.
Our flesh, our sin nature, is so quick to want to declare ourselves innocent. Too often we carelessly go through life unaware of the grief and harm we cause, unaware of how difficult we can be to live with.
Scripture says, Who of us can discern his own errors? Forgive my hidden faults, O Lord (Psalm 19:12), and again, You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence (Psalm 90:8).
We think our side of the story is the only side. Well, a one sided pancake is pretty thin. And even if is true that I do not deserve blame in this exact instance, I am still serene by the knowledge that I never got half the stripes and criticism I really deserved. More often than not I escaped rebuke, punishment and correction. It’s OK to let the scale tip back a bit.
The attitude of what I “deserve” that robs us of a lot or serenity and makes us difficult to correct. Expectations of what I “deserve” are premeditated resentments and cause all sorts of protests to issue from me that make me incorrigible (incapable of correction). The truth is, if God were “fair” and we all really got what we “deserve” we’d all be in Hell right now. We ought to be very careful of announcing what we deserve for we have quite a debt in this department.
We must not be surprised when we are rebuked by holy men. We have no other path to peace but this. ….If a person is engaged in prayer or contemplation, he can easily take a rebuke from his brother and be unmoved by it. On other occasions affection toward a brother is a strong reason; love bears all things with the utmost patience. Here then are two other helps to being able to accept correction and rebuke cheerfully.
When one prays, he is anchored and not easily disturbed by contrary seas. When one prays she begins to discover he dignity is from God and not merely what others think. The soul who prays is delivered, in stages, from serving two masters and from the obsession with popularity and seeming to be perfect in the eyes of others. Hence rebuke and correction are no longer devastating. One seeks only to please God and the correction and reality checks others can offer are seen as helps on the journey to God. Others can help me to see myself as I really am. And whatever rebuke or correction is offered, it can be taken back to prayer and discerned in terms of its accuracy and application. For, not every correction we receive is always of God. Through prayer and spiritual direction the soul is not vexed by correction, it is glad for the revelation and eager to discern it with God.
Note too how St. Dorotheus indicates that love can help us bear the difficulty of being corrected. When we love others we are more able to hear even difficult things from them. Mutual love, respect, and trust are a good environment for fraternal correction to find its mark.
Just some advice from an old saint, St. Dorotheus, an Abbot who lived a monastery in the Gaza desert in the 7th Century. More his teachings are here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorotheus_of_Gaza
Here’s a charming and clever Ad from this year’s Super Bowl. It shows two border guards barely enduring each other’s existence. But for a moment the ice breaks through a shared interest and we think perhaps the scorn will give way to mutual respect and mutual correction of one another’s perceptions. Something to hope for anyway: