If you aren’t sure about where your life is headed, about what you should think, say, or do next, there is one place you can go for an unlimited supply of advice: social media.

If you want good advice expressed with kindness, however, you might need to keep looking. If you want to know how to give such advice, you certainly should look elsewhere.

There are plenty of kind people on social media, of course, but there are a few critical problems with the way many people give advice on social media:

  • They give unsolicited advice, which is always a risky proposition;
  • The advice is often so saccharine and devoid of content that it is kind but unusable;
  • Much more often, it comes in brutal fashion, as people use sarcasm and mockery to belittle ideological opponents and make often outlandish assertions.

God’s word gives us a better way to challenge people we see going astray. But first, let’s look at another cultural trend related to this topic, which is often called “fraternal correction.”

In recent years, there has been a heavy emphasis placed on the role of affirmation in the way we relate to other people, especially when we hold some position of authority in their lives. Parents are much more careful to affirm their children’s goodness, and employers have come to recognize that affirmation can serve as a strong motivational tool, helping their employees achieve greater results in the workplace. In my years of playing and coaching different sports, I’ve seen trophies grow, and grow, and grow, to the point that a third-place sixth-grade basketball tournament trophy could rival the NBA championship trophy!

This trend toward relentless affirmation has some good in it and some bad. In some ways, it fits well with our Catholic faith. When God created Adam and Eve, He said these particular creatures were not only “good” but “very good” (Genesis 1:31). And we know we are made even better than “very good” in baptism. Baptism makes us members of God’s family, the Church. We become His adopted children. Baptism gives us not merely natural but supernatural life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1227) tells us, “The baptized “have ‘put on Christ’ (see Galatians 3:37). Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies.”

When you add to this the good individual qualities any given person has, there is certainly a lot to affirm. But when we think in any depth about the human condition, we also see there is more to the story. Even among the baptized, there is still the problem of sin. Many people have not received the gift of baptism, and all of us who are baptized think, speak, and act against the dignity God has given us in various ways. Some of these ways are very serious, very bad.

Of course, we could say a lot about our own sins, and I hope we all know how much we need to rely upon God’s mercy and forgiveness, especially in the sacrament of reconciliation. But this weekend’s readings point us in the direction of thinking about other people, and how we need to help them live according to their God-given dignity.

Being mostly human, and part-chicken, I have to admit that I find Jesus’ teaching about fraternal correction very challenging. It can be incredibly difficult to confront another person when we need to tell him he’s on the wrong track, doing something that is hurting himself and others. But it’s clear this is part of the Christian life.

Being mostly human, and part-chicken, I have to admit that I find Jesus’ teaching about fraternal correction very challenging. It can be incredibly difficult to confront another person when we need to tell him he’s on the wrong track, doing something that is hurting himself and others. But it’s clear this is part of the Christian life.

This Sunday’s first reading (Ezekiel 33:7-9) and Gospel (Matthew 18:15-20) make it clear that we are not only called to be holy ourselves, and to help others to become holy through our positive words and example, but we’re also called at times to challenge other people when we see them heading down the wrong path. 

It’s easy to have a gut reaction against this teaching, but we have to at least begin by admitting it’s there, in plain English. Jesus goes into some detail about how to challenge others in this way, and in the first reading the Lord makes it clear to Ezekiel that it must be done, and it can be a matter of life or death: 

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel … If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out and dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”

These are obviously strong words! And it makes sense to say Ezekiel had a special responsibility in this area as God’s prophet. But that doesn’t mean we are without responsibility for one another. On the contrary, Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

This kind of conversation is one of the most difficult we can have with another person, especially because it often involves people we love. Most of us have family or friends who aren’t living out their Catholic faith in significant ways. And we can’t simply shrug our shoulders as they drift (or run) away from the Church. We believe as Catholics that the spiritual life is the most important part of our human life. And so we should at least logically recognize that as often as we would warn someone about other dangers, we should warn people when they are in spiritual danger because of sin.

But how do we do this? 

  • First, we must act in love. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that we need to speak the truth in love, and this is absolutely essential. And he says in today’s second reading, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another … love does no evil to the neighbor.” Without love, our challenging of others will only make things worse. Love needs to be the motivation of our words and the defining quality of the way we in which express ourselves. It’s tempting to feel like God is calling us to do something kind of harsh, because we have been conditioned to some extent by a “live and let live” society. But our absolute need to put love first should show us that this kind of correction is not supposed to be harsh, even when it is clear and challenging.

  • Second, we need to “choose our battles.” That’s not an excuse for neglecting our responsibilities, but not every problem requires our intervention. We need to avoid two extremes: being too laid-back about others’ lives and being too uptight and quick to pounce.

  • Third, we should consider our role in the life of the person. A closely related consideration here is whether or not our silence could be taken as consent. If my nephew Bobby has just joined a gang, for example, I need to consider how close I am to him. I need to think, “Who else (if anyone) would be likely to correct him? What is likely to be the impact of adding my voice against this decision? Is my speaking up likely to steer him toward a better path? If I said nothing, would he take that as encouragement to continue? Is my speaking up in one way as opposed to another way likely to make things significantly better or worse?”

  • Fourth, timing counts. Correcting someone publicly is far less often called for than correcting someone privately. When we need to speak up in front of other people — let’s say, for example, when a group of people at work is viciously gossiping about another coworker — I should be clear but more gentle, and if I need to say something further I should try to speak privately to the gossipers. Timing is also important for other reasons, such as when someone needs to cool down. If my Uncle Larry really lets Aunt Sally have it at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s probably best not to go correct Uncle Larry when he is still glowing with fury. On the other hand, I can’t be so wimpy that I neglect to say anything to him before Christmas dinner!

  • Fifth, know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and how you handle — or are prone to mishandle — different situations (e.g. writing, phone, face-to-face). Each person has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Sixth, we should take into consideration the seriousness of the sin involved. This affects both whether and how we speak to someone. If a friend likes gambling a little bit more than he can afford to lose, that’s one thing. If he is putting his livelihood or family in serious financial danger, that’s “a horse of a different color.”

  • Seventh, and finally, we need to correct others with humility and without judgment of the people involved. This is the difference between watching out for others and “watching others like a hawk.” It’s the difference between saying, “Look out!” and “Gotcha!” When I challenge someone, I am a sinner trying to warn and to help another sinner. I can recognize an action as sinful, but I have no right to judge the intentions of someone’s heart. This, like our need to be loving, is a non-negotiable.

And so, when our voices are needed, may God give us the grace, courage, and love to speak up for the good of others when we see them turning away from God. This is one of those crosses Jesus calls us to pick up and carry, but like all crosses it leads us to new life. With the strength Jesus gives us in His Body and Blood, may we never fail in our responsibility to call our brothers and sisters from spiritual death to life. 

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.