A UK newspaper article went viral last week when the Telegraph published a letter sent from Nick Crews, a retired naval officer, to his three 30-something children. The long and sternly-worded letter expressed the father’s “bitter disappointment” with each of his children for their lack of “maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions”. The letter culminates in the father’s declaration that “I want to hear no more of you until… you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.” His children must defend themselves to him and show proof that they have done something with themselves before he will speak to them again.

As you can expect, reaction has been swift and vigorous, both pro and con. For some, he has been lauded as an inspirational example of tough love. On the other side, many think the letter exhibits the failure of unrealistic expectations, and others suggest that the father is out of touch with modern sensibilities. Of course, lost by all is the basic question of whether a strongly critical letter like this should be written in the first place, let alone allow it to be published and subject your family to public scrutiny! This is the exact point taken up by David Brooks in his most recent NY Times column.

For Brooks, such a letter fails principally because people don’t change when confronted head-on with the imperative to change. Human nature being what it is, such exhortational tirades fall on deaf ears. He writes:

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Here Brooks recognizes the human predicament in an undeniably profound way. Anyone who has found themselves on the wrong side of a letter such as this one will tell you how counter-productive they are. So while the problems of life may seem as though they can be easily fixed with a simple pep-talk, the reality is that the roots of our issues run deeper than we can imagine. Perhaps even deeper than Brooks recognizes, as illustrated by his walk-before-you-can-run solution.

But something of Brooks’ overall critique felt a little dismissive and maybe even patronizing. Nick Crews isn’t the first person in the history of the world to write a such a highly critical letter. It’s easy to scoff at news items like this when the seem so plainly out of touch. But in fact, a number of places in the Bible do the very thing which Brooks suggests doesn’t work. This isn’t a distant problem for the unenlightened, but an issue which is embedded in scripture itself.

For example, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes Crews’ letter seem tame. Are these texts discredited because they fail to understand the human predicament? This avenue is short-sighted, since it ironically seeks to preserve the integrity of one teaching by sacrificing another. To put it plainly, if such a letter were sent to a member of our family we are perfectly free to do as David Brooks does and write it off as a misguided endeavor doomed to fail, but when it comes to reading the Bible we should not be so hasty to make such judgments, lest we render the whole thing obsolete.

On the other side, could the numerous places in scripture which contain Crews-like tirades be used as an endorsement of our own harangues against those who don’t measure up? Here, Brooks’ insight is more helpful. The problem of tirades is not their existence, but it has to do with their futile effect upon the recipient. While not always the case, scripture often does inform us of such an effect and quite frequently, long-winded demands fail to make any positive impact.

As St. Paul frequently noted, the giving of the law to Israel does not lead to a new found obedience, but begins a long history of rebellion. The command that the rich young ruler sell everything he owns has no effect (Mk. 10). Jesus’ severe indictment of the Jewish leaders does not lead to a heartfelt repentance, but his own crucifixion. Jesus’ command to his disciples that they must take up their crosses and follow him fails to inspire them to martyrdom. Paul’s stinging criticism of the Corinthians leads directly to his own tearful letter in II Cor. 10-13. In each instance, the arrival of the law does not lead to life but disobedience and death. If the law is to have a purpose, it may just be this paradoxical outcome.

So when I hear of yet another example of a frustrated parent or an overzealous pastor mistakenly wielding the unruly sword of criticism, I am reminded that this isn’t just a problem for people who don’t “get it”, but an “in house” problem of how we read the Bible. There are good readings and poor readings, but they are still readings. Nevertheless, the (very good) news about the end of the law of sin and death is fundamental to the Bible itself, and any use of the exhortation that does not take this into account–however well intentioned it may be–is short-sighted of its overall message. On that note… criticism over!