How to Rebuke
1. Know whom you are rebuking. Learn to distinguish among the different animals in the ecclesiastical barn. For starters, there are pigs–not worth your time. Save your pearls of wise rebuke for someone else. Then there are the sheep. Deal gently with them if you can. But as for the wolves, they need a firm whack with the rod. And when it comes to the top dogs, remember to show them extra respect. But when they mess up in front of everyone and keep on doing it, “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20).
If you can keep these animals in mind it will save you a lot of trouble. Don’t go whacking the junior high school student who breaks curfew the first time or the high schooler who isn’t sure the Bible can really be trusted. Use the staff and bring them back to the pen. Too often we blast the sheep and coddle the wolves, and waste all our time on the pigs. The one thing we may get right is to address the top dogs. We like to take people down. But we are no doubt quicker to speak than we are to listen.
2. Know who you are. Some people hate conflict. They probably need more of it. Others run into it. They need to chill. If you can’t wait for your next opportunity to rebuke, take a little Sabbath from being the Holy Spirit in everyone’s life. It’s like C.S. Lewis said, the hard saying of Jesus are only good for those who find them hard. Anyone who is eager to rebuke is not ready to do so.
3. Check your heart. Are you getting in his face so you can serve your notice of indignation, or are you going to serve their sanctification? Consider this wisdom: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Prov. 17:27). And, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Prov. 15:18). In other words, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Or as James puts it, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person by quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
4. Check your eye. As in, is there a plank in it.
5. Don’t be loud if you can be soft. Galatians 6:1 says restore your brother gently. 2 Timothy 2:25 tells us to correct our opponents with gentleness. A gentle answer, Proverbs tells us, turns away wrath (15:1). It was always Paul’s desire to come in a spirit of gentleness; the rod was only a last resort (1 Cor. 4:21; cf. 2 Cor. 13:10). You see a pattern here? Try gentleness first. Don’t be the one whose rash words are like sword thrusts (Prov. 12:18).
Immature Christians only have one decibel level. Some don’t know how to whisper and some don’t know how to scream. The goal is to administer the rebuke as softly and gently as possible. In most situations, the trumpet blast should come only after you’ve tried the flute first. Don’t launch the nukes at the first sign of trouble. Try diplomacy, then sanctions, then warnings, then strategic targets, then air, then sea, then ground, then start consulting about the big red button. Don’t punch them in the gut if an arm around the shoulder will do the trick.
How to Receive Rebuke
1. Consider the source. If you are any kind of public figure there will always be complaints. Ditto if you spend any time on the internet. So it’s imperative we know what to do with criticism. Ask yourself: is this rebuke coming from someone I trust and respect? Is it from someone I know and someone who knows me? Is this person someone to whom I am accountable–a spouse, an elder board, an employer? We can’t take every rebuke to heart. But ignoring every unflattering assessment is foolish too.
2. Consider the substance. Pray about the hard word spoken to you. Ask others what they think. Maybe this rebuke needs your blind eye and deaf ear. Jesus was rebuked by Peter, so not every correction hits the mark. If you take an honest, humble look at the rebuke and it doesn’t seem to fit. Don’t wear it. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4 “My conscience is clean.” That didn’t mean he was necessarily acquitted before God, but as far as he could tell, he had not sinned. So he moved on.
But sometimes we do screw up. Even the best of men are men at best. I doubt many of us are over-rebuked. Most of us, myself included, would probably do well to receive more specific correction. So consider the source, consider the substance, and be prepared to grow.
3. Consider the sin. We will never benefit from rebuke (and our friends will be scared to tell us the truth) if we are never open to the possibility that we might have sin that needs rebuking. There are few things more necessary in a child of God than being teachable. “A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Prov. 17:10). Or more to the point: “He who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1).
4. Consider the Savior. Jesus sees all your sins right now. Why not see them for yourself? The way of godliness is the way of confession, cleansing, and change. One of the reasons we aren’t really changing, is because we aren’t really confessing. And we aren’t really confessing because we aren’t really seeing. And we aren’t really seeing because few of us love enough to give a rebuke and very few are humble enough to receive one.
But in the end, we have a lot to gain with rebuke–a restored brother, a conquered sin, a greater sense of the Savior’s love–and we’ve got nothing to lose but our pride.