Rebuke is a bad word. How many of you even like the sound of it? The thought of "rebuke" conjures up negative images for me, images of being "gotten on to" or of "getting on to someone." Those kind of situations are not pleasant.
Rebuke isn’t a bad word, it just has a bad name. The idea of "rebuking" someone is part of a larger context of teaching. The teaching process covers several phases of education: instructing, correction (rebuke) and conviction. A father instructions his son, he corrects him when he strays from what he has been taught, and over time, as the father continues to instruct and correct, the son internalizes what he has been taught. The lessons and corrections become the personal conviction of the son. For example, a father instructs his son that lying is wrong. But, when the son strays from what he has been taught and lies, what does the dad do? He corrects him, pointing out the misbehavior and even administering punishment. Over the years, as the father patiently bides with his son and continues instruction and correction, the son develops the personal conviction that lying is wrong.
This process of instruction, correction and personal conviction is a biblical process. It is easy to see this development in the Old Testament. First, God provides instruction for his people. In Exodus 20 God provides instruction through the Ten Commandments. These commandments are not just impersonal orders to force certain behavior. The purpose is to instruct the people in how to live in covenant relationship with God. The ultimate goal of these and the other commands of God are to penetrate the hearts of the people and become a personal conviction for them. And, eventually it does. When Moses confirms the covenant with the people they cry out, "Everything the Lord has said we will do." (Exodus 24:3). But, conviction does not come without correction or rebuke. Numerous Old Testament passages offer warning and threat of correction should the people violate the terms of the covenant (Psalm 50:8-22; Hosea 4:4; Micah 6:2; Isaiah 1:18f.).
Even though correction or rebuke itself is not bad, that does not mean rebuke is easy! Jesus describes the process of rebuking someone in Luke 17:3: "If your brother sins, rebuke him ..." Rebuke here means to, "Overcome with a powerful word."1 A brother who errs is to have his sin pointed out to him. The situation may even call for a "powerful word" to be directed at him. If you have ever been on either side of that "powerful word," you know it is not a pleasant experience! But, it can be a soul-saving experience! "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).
There is a lot about rebuke in Proverbs. The following points can be made.
One, genuine rebuke is for our good.
Proverbs 3:11-12 says, "My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in."
Genuine rebuke is offered in love and kindness. But, some people hurt others with their rebuke. It is not their correction, but their attitude. They mean to hurt. They, "have one on you." Rebuke under such an attitude is not rebuke; it is vengeance. Don’t confuse dumping personal venom on someone with genuine rebuke, whether you are on the giving or receiving end of it.
Also, some people hurt others with their rebuke by their approach. Maybe they do it in public when it should be private. Some rebuke can be public, as in the case of Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8). But, generally, rebuke should be initiated as a private matter: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you" (Matt. 18:15). Only after private attempts fail should a rebuke become public (Matt. 18:16-17).
Rebuke, done with a proper attitude and approach, is intended by God for our good. Consider these verses:
- He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. (Prov. 15:31)
- Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Prov. 27:5,6)
Secondly, our response to rebuke reveals the content of our heart and the depth of our discernment.
People with a healthy level of discernment may not WELCOME rebuke, but they will be open to it. They will have trained themselves over time to not react to rebuke with immediate defensiveness and denial. They will listen to what is said to them and will calmly contemplate it.
Benjamin Franklin knew the value of rebuke. He reportedly said, "Love your enemies, they tell you your faults." Even enemies have the potential to reveal to us unsavory aspects of our personalities and character. They may be intending to belittle and demean us; but that does not detract from the potential truth of their statements. If we can maintain a depth of discernment and process the pain of the "enemies" attack on us, we may gain some new insights into how others perceive us.
If our hearts are tuned for wisdom, and we can practice discernment, we can maintain an openness to the rebuke that comes our way.
A wise son heeds his father's instruction ... (Prov. 13:1)
He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. (Prov. 15:31)
A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool. (Prov. 17:10)
Flog a mocker, and the simple will learn prudence; rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge. (Prov. 19:25)
People lacking discernment will scorn rebuke.
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. (Prov. 9:7-8)
...A mocker does not listen to rebuke. (Prov. 13:1)
A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed - without remedy. (Prov. 29:1)
Thirdly, genuine rebuke can make the wise even wiser.
My son, Wes, and his friend, Zach, used to work for an oil company during the summer. One day they were sent to the field by a supervisor to work on a piping project. The owner of the company, Rick, was driving around checking on some of his work sites. He saw the boys and stopped to see what they were doing. He attempted to show them how to perform their task. Wes and Zach explained to Rick that the supervisor had shown them a new and better way to do the job. Rick said, "Well, go to it then" and left them. Both boys were impressed that the owner of the company acquiesced to their explanation of why they were doing it differently than the boss suggested. When I talked to Rick about this he said, "What has made my business successful is that I hire key people who can do the job even better than I can." That is wisdom. It is also humility.
- My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Prov. 3:11-12).
- He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. (Prov. 15:31)
- Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear. (Prov. 25:12)
Rebuke IS NOT pleasant. But it has the potential for great blessing in our lives. If you are rebuked, be open hearted and open minded enough to at least consider the possible truthfulness of the rebuke. If you have to rebuke someone, do it gently and kindly, making it as palatable as possible for the other person to swallow. Remember, the objective of rebuke is to increase the wisdom of the one being rebuked, and to turn their heart toward God. We’ll have more on rebuking tomorrow on power for today.
The wisdom Solomon is concerned with is skill at functioning well in relationships: relationships with oneself, with family and with neighbors and coworkers. Such skill in relationships is wisdom. This kind of wisdom does not come in private study or reflection. It comes through interaction with others, from learning from our teachers and mentors and from gaining insight into relationship and character faux pas from those who care to rebuke us. The wise are open to and benefit from wisdom.
Finally, those who are rebuked can be closer to God.
- If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. (Prov. 1:23)
Children who are disciplined by their parents grow up loving and respecting their parents. The discipline provided by their parents - both instructive and corrective discipline - provides parameters of behavior and security. A healthy, loving discipline communicates love and concern. Children who are not disciplined, who have almost unlimited freedom in their behavior and choices, often feel unloved. I have heard teens say, "I wish my parents would give me a curfew ... I wish my parents would tell me I could not date that boy ... I wish my parents cared about where I went at night." Discipline communicates love from parent to child. It does with God to us, too.
"... My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? (Heb. 12:5b-7).
"We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb. 12:9-11)
How do we know if a particular hardship we are suffering is merely a hardship or is a rebuke or discipline from God? Trying to sort through that question can be a daunting task! I have learned to regard ALL hardship as a rebuke from God. A strained relationship, embarrassment from a word rashly or harshly spoken, even criticism received (whether deserved or undeserved) can all be perceived as rebukes from God.
Viewing all hardship or hurt as a rebuke from God serves two purposes for me. One, it allows me to process the hurt rather than to allow the bad feelings to fester and lead to resentment. That spirit works against wisdom. Two, it allows me to be open to what God may be trying to teach me about myself. Very early in Proverbs Solomon urged us to keep an open heart and mind to how God is wanting to work in our lives through the rebuke that comes our way: "If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you." (Prov. 1:23).
1.H. Giesen, "Eπιτιμάω" in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p.42).