God calls us to rebuke one another. I am primarily addressing the idea of one believer addressing another about sin. Yet these principles apply more broadly. Addressing conflict with non-Christians may be messier.
WHAT TO REBUKE SOMEONE FOR?
If you can overlook a sin and forget it, do so. See Proverbs 19:11. God overlooks many of our sins. He never brings them up and our intimacy with Him continues. When we can follow His example we should. This may apply to something small such as your roommate eating your left overs even though you asked them not to. It’s not a big deal. You never bring it up.
The key to applying this principle well is “Don’t try and be more spiritual than you are.” When I was first married, I was determined to be the godliest one in our marriage. That may sound holy but it was driven by pride. So if my wife hurt me with her words I would “overlook” it. In reality I was stuffing it. The volcano may lie silent awhile. Eventually it will blow. I had not really forgiven her.
My litmus test has become: “If I’m still bothered by it the next day I have not overlooked it and need to bring it up.” Keeping short accounts is always better than lying to yourself and others. Don’t pretend to overlook if you can’t.
Secondly, try to only rebuke people for sin. There are some things you may not like that are more about preferences and personality differences that don’t rise to the level of sin. Maybe your boss is occasionally five minutes late. Maybe you are a Nazi about always being 15 minutes early. Ask “Does the Bible clearly call this sin?”
Always try and assume the best. This is a great way to apply 1 Corinthians 13:7. Christians are meant to be discerning and certainly should not believe and trust all that we ever hear. But when we are unsure, we should lean in and try to assume the best about others. Think of others’ motives the way you want someone to think of yours.
If you get to a place where it seems or feels impossible to assume the best anymore, don’t swing the pendulum to the other side. Don’t start assuming the worst. (We often do this.) Rather, ask them. Approach them in love and humility and ask them why they are so often late etc…
When should you should speak up? There are at least four times. There may be others.
First, if you think someone else is mad at or hurt by you, you should initiate a conversation. Matthew 5:23-24 says it is our responsibility to pursue someone if we know someone has something against us. This is not the Western way. We think “If I’m fine and he has a problem with me, that’s his problem! The ball’s in his court to move first!” But Jesus teaches something better. Love should guide us to leave a worship service and go see this person, even if we must travel a great distance to try and reconcile. But often a phone call will do.
Second, if a brother (or sister) sins against you and you can’t overlook it, you should go and rebuke them. That’s the clear teaching of Matthew 18:15. Are you obeying this?
A third time you may need to rebuke someone is if two others are in conflict. Imagine John has already obeyed Mathew 18:15 and seen no repentance in Sam. If you see the same sin in Sam’s life, you probably should go with John to rebuke Sam. Especially if John asks you to.
Fourthly, if you see a brother stuck in a pattern of sin, you should pursue them in love. Their sin may not impact you at all directly. But if you see someone stuck in repeated sin that you have victory over, God may be calling you to pursue your Christian family member who is struggling. See Galatians 6:1-2.
Once you’ve decided the rebuke needs to happen, how do you go about it? The first and main thing to do is pray. Pray before, during and after the rebuke. Pray for wisdom, patience, love, grace, boldness. Pray for softness of heart, brokenness, contrition and life change.
Second, Matthew 7:1-5 teaches that it is always best to deal with your own sin before you seek to address others. This ought to be a pattern in our life. Dealing with sin helps prepare me to deal with others. This is especially true if I am in conflict with the person I am going to rebuke.
Tim Keller says we often make a caricature of others in their sin. We exaggerate their sinful parts and minimize their good parts. We do the reverse with ourselves, trying to make ourselves look better than we are.
Even when we are going to rebuke someone that has not sinned against us personally it is still good to check our own hearts first. Is there any pride or condescension in my attitude that may negatively flavor the words I’m about to say? This also prepares us to be humble in confrontation.
Third, practice Ephesians 4:15-17. Say the hardest things in the softest ways. Don’t back off the hard truth they need. Say it in the gentlest way that has the best chance of gaining a hearing.
Someone said “Say what you mean, mean what you say, don’t be mean when you say it.”
The goal is reconciliation, unity and maturity. The goal should rarely be to get something off your chest. That’s usually self-centered. Help others grow up in Christ. God loves it when we love one another! Psalm 133.
Partially this means be sensitive to when and where you rebuke. A busy Starbucks isn’t the best place for a tough rebuke. When your husband is walking out the door on the way to work isn’t the best time to rebuke. Be wise and gracious in choosing a place to lovingly confront.
Ephesians 4:29 teaches that all our words should be helpful. The ultimate litmus test of what to say is “Will it help build them up?” If you think your words will hurt more than help, keep them to yourself.
This doesn’t mean only say nice things. Jesus said many harsh things to the self-righteous. Sometimes that is what it takes to dislodge someone from their sin.
Go into the rebuke hoping they’ll repent. Be ready to forgive, eager to reconcile, yearning to show grace, and offering to forget it all if they will repent! Read Ephesians 4:32 and think of how much Christ has forgiven you!
If you go in with the attitude, “I’m going to confront and if they repent, then I’ll think about forgiveness,” then how will you ever know if they repented enough? How can you be sure it’s deep or real enough? In a sense you’ll make them work for your forgiveness, and that’s not going to work.
Christ didn’t do that for us! Hallelujah He didn’t or we would still be in our sins! Rebuke others out of the overflow of Christ’s love to you.