Red Pen Fear

When people email me, they almost always include some line that goes “please don’t check my spelling” or “I know I’m terrible at grammar” or “I hate emailing an English teacher.” It is interesting, especially considering that I have always been a bad speller myself and that the sort of work I do has little to do with pedantic proof-reading or nit-picky grammar. My family, friends and, perhaps more naturally, my students are all afraid that I’m secretly examining every word they write, every phrase that leaves their fingers. But I assure you this is not the case: I never pay any attention to spelling or grammar in the emails I receive. It seems inappropriate ― a reduction of an interpersonal exchange to frequently ossified rules about phonetics, prepositions, and punctuation ― to even think about such things when reading a friend, loved-one, or even student’s email.

Over the past three days I’ve marked hundreds of pages of student writing. As I finished the final paper and uttered a (sincere) “thank God that’s done!”, I was struck by the similarity between the fear that people have in writing me and the fear that many people, myself included, feel about God. When I pray ― and when I don’t ― I sometimes fear that God is analyzing and weighing everything I say, checking it for its spiritual grammar and its theological correctness. Many of my friends who are not people of faith express a similar fear about God: that he is scrutinizing every instant of their lives, looking for the misplaced comma, the misspoken word, the dangling modifier, or the good work left undone. And so, they avoid him like some of people I know avoid emailing me.

This fear is, perhaps, somewhat well founded. It is cliché, but no one is perfect and, so, we naturally fear that the perfect God sees our mistakes, our errors and judges them with his red pen, making note of each and every imperfection…But, that isn’t how I react to my students work or to the letters of friends. No, I rather enjoy hearing from them, enjoy the interaction regardless of a misspelled word.

While I don’t want to suggest that the extreme and staggering evil that people are capable of is the equivalent of a squinting modifier, I am reminded of Father Zosima’s comment to a young woman who came to him for confession. After hearing her confession he tells her, “If even I, a sinful man, just like you, was moved to tenderness and felt pity for you, how much more will God be.” If I (and all the other English teachers I know out there) actually don’t read emails looking for the mistakes that family and friends might be making, why do I have such an uncharitable view of God, imaging him as the divine corrector, red-pen in hand, ready to mark, to judge, to fail me.

While the Christian faith is often portrayed as an exercise in judgment and nit-picky morality, this isn’t the picture of God that the biblical text reveals. God is holy but he is not out to get us. He is deeply concerned with our lives and loves us. Such a theological statement may seem childish, but when Karl Barth, (one of the 20th century’s most important theologians) was asked to sum up the most profound thought of his 14 volume work of dogmatic theology, he paused for a moment and said: “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Jessica Hughes


3 responses to “Red Pen Fear

  1. It’s been a year or two (okay a decade or two or three) since I was in high school, but I remember a teacher who said something to the effect that in knowing his students, he knew the kind of work they could do and in some sense was able to extend the words on the paper to the thought process that was behind them. It seems to me, this is wonderful way to see God. God knows us, what we are capable of (good and bad) and in fact before we come to God, God already knows our hearts and minds. God then extends the words of our prayer/confession/conversation, because God knows us better than we know ourselves. We need have no fear, because God’s only use for the red pen, is to draw little hearts on our papers. Thanks for a Friday boost in Spirit!

  2. Thanks for this! I am a fellow English teacher, and these are words of truth I’d like to send to my teaching buddies and my non-teaching buddies. And here’s something I always share with my students: When I was in undergrad, I had a professor who found, I swear, every single mistake any of us made. But he used a blue pen, and everytime he passed back papers he would say, “Remember, blue means love. If you see lots of blue marks on your paper it’s because I care about your writing and I want it to improve. Blue means love.” It definately changes your perspective, both as a student having to look at all those marks, and as a teacher having to give out all those marks! :)

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