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The indespensablity of gentle instruction

Category Articles
Date May 2, 2002


Everything in our lives matters to God. If there are things wrong in our lives, they need to be dealt with, removed.

by Ian Hamilton

Our Lord Jesus’ teaching is always deeply searching, sometimes almost unbearably so. Few statements of our Lord are more calculated to search out our hearts than what he says about specks’ and ‘planks’ (Matthew 7:1-5). The picture conveyed by our Lord is almost comical. A man with a huge plank of wood sticking out of his eye, says to another man who is troubled by a speck of wood in his eye, “Let me take the speck out of your eye.” There is no doubt the man with the speck in his eye needs help. The speck needs to be removed, before it causes him greater problems. It is a little problem, but it is a real problem, and needs removing. But who is to remove the speck? Certainly not the man with the plank sticking out of his eye! Of all people, he is least suited and fitted to do the job. Why? Because, while he Sees that the man with the speck has a problem, he is blind to the even greater problems in his own life. His ‘plank’ has blinded him, made him insensible to his own great need. In trying to take the speck out of the other man’s eye (if his plank would even allow him to know what and where the speck was!), the man with the plank would do great damage.

Jesus is not saying that ‘specks’ don’t matter. Everything in our lives matters to God. If there are things wrong in our lives, they need to be dealt with, removed. When Jesus says in Matthew 7:1 “do not judge, or you too will be judged,” his words have often been misunderstood. Our Lord is not saying absolutely that we are not to judge. Indeed, in verse 6, Jesus encourages us to make judgements: “do not give dogs what is sacred: do not throw your pearls to pigs!” What, then, does Jesus mean? His illustration is surely obvious: the man with the plank sticking out of his eye is the man who only too clearly sees sins in others, but is acutely blind to recognising the sin in his own life. Indeed, he is blind to the fact that the sin in his life is greater than anything he sees in the lives of others. He is a ‘censorious man.’ This was one of the besetting sins of the Pharisees.

This spirit of censoriousness is only too common. We can all, only too easily, slip into this sin, for sin it is. What is often missed here, is the fact that the censor usually has a point. There are specks, lots of them, and they need pointing out and removing -but not by those who are ‘holier than thou.’ In pastoral ministry, and all Christians are pastors to one another, the application of truth is not the only objective. We are told of our Lord Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” He knows our frame, but he remembers we are dust! The spirit in which we comfort, counsel and rebuke one another is of paramount importance.

Paul urges Timothy to “gently instruct” those who oppose him, and reminds the censorious Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind… it is not self-seeking… Love… rejoices with the truth.”

In pointing out the sins of others, boldness is usually needed, and many of us shrink from that. But no less is tenderness needed, the tenderness of the One who was so extraordinarily patient and forbearing with his errant and slow to learn disciples.

It’s not hard to see ‘specks’ – they are everywhere. It’s also not hard to See ‘planks,’ except when it’s your own plank. May the Lord preserve us all from ‘holier than thou’ spirituality. It has at least one distinguishing feature – it prizes the ‘head’ more than the ‘heart.’ Of course, they belong together, the former nourishing the latter. But only too easily, as we see in Scripture and in the history of the Church, they can be separated, and spirituality become metallic and clinical.

The most effective antidote to such censoriousness is conformity to our Lord Jesus. None were holier than he, none were gentler than he. So Paul could write, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children..”

Ian Hamilton
Cambridge Presbyterian church

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