Editor's note:

Parenting is not for the faint of heart and never more so when we must correct our children. Both our own childhood experiences and outside popular opinions on correcting litter our mental landscapes like trap doors in a haunted house. We parents often find ourselves wracked with confusion and falling into shame. Did we discipline too harshly? How do correction and love coexist? Did we let them get away with too much? Who is to blame for this? Much to my regret, early on in my own parenting journey I took the “my way or the highway” approach to correction. I saw my children’s need for correction as a time to “set them straight” rather than the opportunity for restoration and growth. For certain this was not what I intended to get across to my children, but my lack of vision betrayed us.

As God’s patient love has transformed me it has also transformed my parenting—maybe most obviously in the way I correct my children. Fourteen years ago when I read the following passage in Dallas Willard’s, The Divine Conspiracy, I caught a vision of correction that not only sets children free from condemnation and blame, but also sets parents free to love without abandon, to love through correction into restoration.  

Holy Lord Christ, let it be so.

—Lacy Finn Borgo

Excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy

Judge Not

If we would really help those close to us and dear, and if we would learn to live together with our family and “neighbors” in the power of the kingdom, we must abandon the deeply rooted human practice of condemning and blaming. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Judge not.” He is telling us that we should, and that we can, become the kind of person who does not condemn or blame others. As we do so, the power of God’s kingdom will be more freely available to bless and guide those around us into his ways.

But when we first hear this we may feel as we did when we heard about laying aside anger, contempt, and cultivated lusting—disbelieving. Can we really live that way? Could we successfully negotiate personal relations without letting people know that we disapprove of them and find them to be in the wrong? Condemnation—giving it and receiving it—is such a large part of “normal” human existence that we may not even be able to imagine or think what life would be like without it.

At least we need the choice of giving others a good dose of blame and condemnation when it seems appropriate, don’t we? We have great confidence in the power of condemnation to “straighten others out.” And if that fails, should we not at least make clear that we are on the side of the right—no small matter itself?

But what is it, exactly, that we do when we condemn someone? When we condemn another we really communicate that he or she is, in some deep and just possibly irredeemable way, bad—bad as a whole, and to be rejected. In our eyes the condemned is among the discards of human life. He or she is not acceptable. We sentence that person to exclusion. Surely we can learn to live well and happily without doing that.

Who Can “Correct” Others

To be fair, we rarely intend such total rejection, but that is usually what comes across. To correct another without making this happen requires great spiritual and personal maturity. That is why Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Brothers, if someone really is caught in a sin, the spiritual ones among you are the ones to restore him. Do it in a lowly and non-presumptuous spirit, considering yourselves, lest you too be put to the test. Feel the weight others are feeling, and thus you will fulfill Christ’s teaching” (6:1).

The wisdom that comes from Jesus to us through these words of Paul is astonishingly rich. First, we don’t undertake to correct unless we are absolutely sure of the sin. Here the language of 1 Corinthians 13 comes into play: love “believes all things, hopes all things.” If there is any lack of clarity about whether the sin occurred, assume it did not. At least, don’t start correcting.

Second, not just anyone is to correct others. Correction is reserved for those who live and work in a divine power not their own. For that power is also wise, and it is loving beyond anything we will ever be. These are “the spiritual ones” referred to. Only a certain kind of life puts us in position to “correct.”

Third, the “correcting” to be done is not a matter of “straightening them out.” It is not a matter of hammering on their wrongness and on what is going to happen to them if they don’t change their ways. It is a matter of restoration. The aim in dealing with the one “caught” is to bring them back on the path of Jesus and to establish them there so their progress in kingdom character and living can continue. Nothing is to be done that is not useful to this specific end.

Fourth, the ones who are restoring others must go about their work with the sure knowledge that they could very well do the same thing that the person “caught” has done, or even worse. This totally removes any sense of self-righteousness or superiority, which, if it is present, will certainly make restoration impossible. To aid in this direction, the restorers are to endeavor to feel the weight, the “burden,” that the one being restored feels as he or she stands trapped in the sin.

Of course these teachings were never intended to apply only to church fellowships and community. They are most important for human life as they apply to our closest relationships, to our mates and children, our close relatives and associates of all types. This is the place where, in our twisted and upside down condition, familiarity is most likely to breed contempt. Most families would be healthier and happier if their members treated one another with the respect they would give to a perfect stranger.

C. S. Lewis’s discussion of storge, familial love, is endlessly instructive on this point and is required reading for all who intend to have a decent family life. He notes that he has “been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parent.”

Parents are seen to treat their children with “an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance.” They are dogmatic on matters the children understand and the elders don’t, they impose ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously, and make insulting references to their friends. This provides an easy explanation to the questions, “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” “Who,” Lewis inquires, “does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

Saint Dominic, who lived in the thirteenth century and founded the great Dominican Order of Preachers within the Catholic Church, beautifully illustrates the tender way of Jesus. His brother Paul of Venice, among others, bore testimony to it by relating, “He [Dominic] wanted the Rule [of the Dominican Order] to be observed strictly by himself and by the others. He reprimanded offenders justly and so affectionately that no one was ever upset by his correction and punishment.”

Brother Frugerio also said of Dominic, “He himself observed the Rule strictly and wanted it to be observed by the others. He convicted and corrected offenders with gentleness and kindness in such a way that no one was upset, even though the penances were sometimes very severe.” This is the natural effect of a noncondemning spirit.

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Excerpted from The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard (HarperOne, 1997) and used here with permission.