Sean McDowell | January 7, 2020

How Not To Correct Someone

Not long ago, I received one of the most critical emails ever. Given that I tweet, blog, and speak publicly on controversial issues, criticism has become a regular part of my life. But this email was particularly personal and biting.

He compared me to my father on three occasions and told me that he was “extremely disappointed” in me. Ouch.

As tempting as it was to write and justify myself, I decided to read the email to my high school students and ask them a simple question, “What is the loving response to an email of this sort? Should I delete it or respond? If so, how?” After a long discussion, we decided the following response was best:

Thanks for your email. I read all messages that are sent to me, including those that are critical. I just want you to know that I love you and wish the best for your life and ministry. God Bless.

That’s it. I never heard back.

After this experience, in the hopes of becoming better myself, I began to think about ways to not correct someone. Three come to mind:

First, focus on the negative. The email launched right into a personal attack on my character and ministry. Is there really nothing positive to start with? People are naturally resistant to correction, but it is much easier when we feel that others care about us and can find some positive in our lives first.

If you want people to ignore you, focus on the negative.

Second, be harsh. The email was remarkably harsh. There was no kindness or grace. None. There is certainly a time to be harsh, but shouldn’t it be softened with grace and be in the context of a relationship? Consider two powerful passages about the importance of kindness in our speech.

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

If you want people to ignore you, be harsh in your tone.

Third, be non-loving. As I read the email, I realized his focus was not on aiming to lovingly correct me as a younger brother. Rather, he used me as a means of venting his disappointment and anger. Had he started with the question of how he could lovingly correct me, the tone of the email would likely have been entirely different. And it could have been a model to my students about how to gently correct a fellow believer (e.g., Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1).

The Bible does call us to correct fellow believers. But the first thing we need to do is look in the mirror and remove the plank in our own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). Then let’s be sure we are positive, kind, and loving.

If so, then regardless of how the person responds to the criticism, you can know that you have honored God.

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Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: