How do we humbly rebuke our friends? One of my friends made a somewhat bad decision, and when I told her my view in what I thought was a loving way, she just got mad at me, and now I’m questioning if I should’ve said anything. I know we have to be honest, but how do we know when it’s not OK to say something and when it is? And how do we do we rebuke people in a humble and loving way when we’re never really humble or loving?
Thank you for the question. This is a very relevant question and an issue that many people, me included, struggle with. I don’t know the exact circumstances in which you spoke up, but this takes a lot of courage and I want to encourage you to not stop doing this because of a negative response. One of the reasons we can be afraid to rebuke is because people by nature do not like getting rebuked and often respond like your friend did with anger. As you say, it is important to rebuke in a way that is humble and loving, and it is possible that while you thought you were humble and loving it did not come across that way. Evaluate what you said and how you said it and if there was sin on your side ask for forgiveness. The Bible is not silent about when and how to rebuke so I want to look at that and a short section on how to accept rebuke when it is direct to us.
Matthew 18:15-17 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
Leviticus 19:17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.”
Proverbs 13:1 “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.”
Proverbs 13:18 “Poverty and shame will come to him who disdains correction, But he who regards a rebuke will be honored.”
Matthew 7:1-5 “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
When to rebuke
The Bible gives two different times in which we need to rebuke. The first is when some one sins against us (Matthew 18:15-17, Leviticus 19:17). It is important to realize that Matthew 18:15 shows it is our duty, our responsibility, to go and to speak to the individual(s) who has sinned against us. As the one sinned against we are in a unique position to do this because we are the most familiar with what has happened. As Matthew 18:15 makes clear, the goal in this rebuke is that the one who has sinned against you would repent and that the relationship could be restored. Leviticus 19:17 gives a slightly different reason and goal for rebuking. It says, “you shall not hate your brother in your heart”. Isn’t this so often what happens when someone sins against us. We become angry and hold a grudge against this person, we begin to hate this person. When we do this, we are also sinning. By rebuking the person, we do not harbor anger and hatred in our hearts but release ourselves from this and know that we have done our part to correct the sinful behavior.
The second time in which we need to rebuke is when we see someone who is going down a sinful path (Proverbs 13:1, Matthew 7:1-5). This is especially the role of parents, church leaders, teachers, and others who have positions of authority, but everyone has a responsibility to give loving correction to someone who is sinning. This world often says things like, “he is an adult, he can make his own decisions” or “it her body, she can do what ever she wants with it” etc. Sinners want freedom to do whatever they desire and therefore they say this about other people’s behavior. Yet it is not an act of love to stand by quietly while someone sins. If we really cared about someone, we would want what is best for them and that is certainly not to live a life of unrepentant sin.
How to rebuke
Having seen that it is clearly our responsibility to rebuke I think we all must confess we so often fail to do so. This maybe because of sinful fear about what the other person will think of us and/or because we are unsure how to rebuke someone. Here are some principles which can help us to carry out our responsibility.
First, by dealing with our own sin. Matthew 7:1-5 is often used as an argument against judging / rebuking others and yet it is teaching the very opposite. This passage is speaking against hypocritical judging and rebuke – when the person doing the judging is openly living in the same or worse sin. Verse five makes clear that a person needs to deal with their own sin first – removing the plank from their own eye – before helping some one else with a small speck in their eye. The plank is removed from our eye when we repent of our sins and turn to Christ in faith for the forgiveness of our sin. Even as believers we sin daily and that is why the practice of daily self examination, confession, and repentance of our sins before God is such an important practice. Clearly no one is ever perfect, neither is this required; otherwise no one would ever be able to rebuke.
Second, rebuke with much prayer. Pray for God’s blessing as we seek to rebuke, that the Lord may use it for conviction leading to repentance and restoration. Pray for wisdom that we may use the right words and not be misunderstood. Pray for patience and love if the person does not respond well to our rebuke.
Third, by rebuking privately. Matthew 18:15 makes it very clear that this should be done privately. This means that we cannot first share (gossip) all the details with our other friends, we do not go straight to the consistory to tell them what has happened. No, we meet privately with the individual and seek to work this out between the two of us. NOTE: In cases of physical or sexual abuse or other violence (even threats of violence) it is extremely important to first get help and advice from people who are knowledgeable with these types of issues (social services, victim support services, pastors, law enforcement, etc.) and to take someone with you to avoid putting yourself in harms way.
Fourth, rebuke with the authority of Scripture. When we rebuke, we don’t do it based on our own opinions or wisdom but firmly based on the Word of God. God is often pleased to use his Word in the lives of those who hear it. Christians especially ought to listen to rebuke when it is founded on God’s word.
Fifth, rebuke with a humble attitude. A proud or arrogant attitude from the one who is rebuking is extremely counter productive and this attempt to rebuke is almost certain to end badly. But when some one comes with a humble spirit, confessing that it is only by the grace of God that they are not committing the same sin, then it is much more likely that someone will be willing to listen.
Sixth, rebuke with love. As 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 makes clear, if you do not have love, you are nothing and it will profit you nothing. When a person being rebuked can hear the love in your voice and see the love in your eyes it can soften the hard heart and stop the bitter response.
While these six principles can help us and direct us in rebuking others, it does not guarantee that the person being rebuked will respond rightly. We cannot control how other people will respond. We can only do our best to be faithful. This does raise an important point; how do we respond when we are rebuked?
How to accept rebuke
Scripture often praises those who accept rebuke by calling them a “wise man” (Prov. 9:8), “wise son” (Prov. 13:1), or by saying this individual “will be honored” (Prov. 13:18), “gets understanding” (Prov. 15:32), “will discern knowledge” (Prov. 19:25), etc. Are these not all descriptions or qualities that we want? Yet accepting rebuke is hard so when we receive rebuke we need to:
First, listen attentively. Whether or not we agree with the rebuke does not matter at this point. We need to listen closely and do our best to understand what is meant. If there is any confusion as to what the rebuker is referring to, ask polite questions to make sure there is no misunderstanding.
Second, thank the rebuker. It takes a great deal of courage for most people to come up to some one and to rebuke them. As scripture shows, rebuke can be of great value to us and therefore, we ought to thank the individual who has given us this gift. It is also a sign of real friendship and love that they care enough for us that they are willing to rebuke us.
Third, prayerfully consider the rebuke. Go home or to some quiet place and spend some time in prayer. Evaluate what was said in light of scripture. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you clarity and to convict you where there is sin.
Fourth, repent of sin and seek to reconcile the problem. All sin is to be repented of and true reconciliation begins by going to Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Once that has been addressed, we need to confess our sins to those who have been sinned against and seek their forgiveness.
Fifth, thank God for correction and seek to live a life pleasing to him. God is pleased to use instruments in correcting us and one of the instruments he uses is people who are willing to show us our sins. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 1 says: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
I hope this is a helpful summary of when and how to rebuke, and how to receive rebuke. I pray this is something we may all be much more consistent with as we seek to be conformed to the image of Christ who also often rebuked sins in those around him.