Rebuking is one of the hardest things to do. We’re either too soft or too strict, and for most of us polite church people, we would rather go on a mission trip to a war-torn third world country than speak truth to our neighbor.
But once you’re ready to pay the cost of awkwardness, there’s some things we need to know.
1) I want to build them up, not bring them down.
This is not something you do to someone, but for someone. That’s a huge difference. The former is like throwing your friend in a shark-infested ocean after shanking them to teach them how to swim; the latter is actually coming alongside them in the pool with gentleness and humility.
Your goal is to build up, not tear down. Any other goal is selfish, immature, and unwise.
It can’t be to tell them off, to get it off your chest, to let them have it. That slight twinge of offense or anger in you might be there, but it can’t control the conversation. Your friend will be able to tell immediately if you’re just there to spout off condemnation. Then comes the “What about you” and “Who are you to tell me that” and “It’s not what you said but how you said it.” That’s dancing a circle around hell to nowhere.
An extra tip here: Never, ever rebuke in public. That will quickly undermine you, your friend, and everyone else in the room. If it requires immediate attention, do so gently.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
— Ephesians 4:29
1 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
— Romans 15:2
2) The Sandwich: Encouragement, Truth, Encouragement.
Apostle Paul, even in his letter to the messed up Galatians and Corinthians, always began with some kind of encouragement. Something as simple as, “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” He lets them know there’s evidence of God’s grace working in them.
That’s not misleading or glad-handling or flattery. It’s not warming them up or pampering or greasing the gears. Paul means it, as should we. There is always something good about the person you’re rebuking.
It’s possible that people will see this coming, because they know after an encouragement that you follow up with arrows. Which is why a habit of encouragement is a good thing. We can’t only be encouraging when we want to get in a sharp word.
3) I’m also here to listen and examine myself.
You’ll get a dozen different reactions. Your friend might blow up, break down, shut down, throw things, accuse you back, or defend themselves to death. No matter how emotional or emotionless they become, hear them out.
Don’t fight their fire with fire, but keep focused on the issue. It’s easy to lose a grip on the whole thing.
It’s also possible that you brought up a silly issue which you should’ve overlooked. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus gives the grounds for approaching someone: If your brother sins against you … It has to be a sin, which is a really big deal. People sometimes rebuke over preferences, like the time I got angry when my friend confessed he didn’t like Forrest Gump. I mean whoever doesn’t like that movie must be a heartless animal. Or the better explanation is I’m just a moron for thinking so.
4) I totally love this person because they’re my friend and a created human being just like me.
If you don’t love this person, forget it. If you can’t look them in the eyes and grieve in your heart for them and be broken in spirit over another God-created human being with hopes and dreams like you, then go back to the basement and pray through it. Be praying before, after, and during.
You don’t rebuke to love someone, but because you love them.
It should make you a little sick to your stomach to confront someone. If you actually enjoy rebuking, then your privilege is instantly revoked. If you’re looking for reasons to rebuke, then get off your high horse and humble yourself before the cross: because your sin put Jesus there and you’re not better than anybody.
Most people are well-meaning. They instead acted from a blind spot. They couldn’t see it, which is why it’s called a blind spot. So don’t be too hard on them just because you see an angle they didn’t. Even if they were ill-intentioned, you must draw that out surgically, not with a broadsword.
At the same time, you love them ferociously with the truth. Guide them to get there. Don’t back down. It’s always awkward to tell someone the truth about themselves. But press through. The weirdness will end.
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load.
— Galatians 6:1-5
A word to the person being rebuked:
Maybe you thought you were pretty patient: but that’s until this moment.
Please don’t immediately hold up a mirror and start yelling automatic defenses. Be gracious enough to know that your friend — the same friend who would die for you, who loves you enough to tell you the truth, who is putting the friendship on the line, who gets no real benefit from approaching you about your sin — is ultimately seeking to help you. We all need that help.
If your friend fears God and loves you — and I believe they do — then they’re not out to get you. They’re out to see the best in you. I know you want to defend yourself and also tell them why they suck; you suddenly find it a convenient time to unload the millions of flaws you also see in them. Now is not the time. The rebuke is about you. Even if your friend doesn’t do it well, you worry about that later. Even if your friend is relishing in the rebuke, that’s their problem and not yours. Your problem is figuring out the kernel of truth in there and examining your heart.
As iron sharpens iron,
so one man sharpens another.
— Proverbs 27:17
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
— Proverbs 27:6
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
— Psalm 139:23-24