If you want to rebuke well, you must be honest (Matthew 18:15), you must be bold (Luke 17:3), and you must love (Ephesians 4:25). The recipe for good rebuke involves far more than one ingredient, but one ingredient may be the most important.
“The voice your wandering brother or sister needs most is not yours, but God’s.”
The apostle Paul says to Timothy, “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Patience is enough to convict me over how I correct others, but complete patience? Paul knew how gratifying to our pride it can be to tell someone they’re wrong. And he knew that whenever we speak the truth in genuine love, we will be willing to wait for God to bring the growth. Be ready to say the hard thing, Timothy, and then do the harder thing and practice complete patience with fellow sinners.
Your experience in relationships may be vastly different than mine, but for me, the hardest part of rebuking someone has not been being honest or being winsome — challenging as both may be. No, the hardest part has been demonstrating patience when the rebuke is ignored, or when change comes slowly.
We are impatient in rebuke because we think rebuke is more like a hot pocket than a crockpot. We want two minutes of instant contrition and transformation, not the days, weeks, or even years it often takes for God to rewire dysfunctional hearts and habits.
Our rebuke will always be shallow and fleeting if we think the work is done the moment we inform a brother of his error. We often consciously or unconsciously believe that the right set of words will set things right, and we’ll immediately be able to move on. But loving rebuke rarely happens that quickly or simply. Good rebuke is not a moment of boldness, but a gentle and persistent pattern of patient correction.
Love Is Patient
Loving rebuke is “patient and kind; it does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [Loving rebuke] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). If more of our rebukes sounded and felt like love, perhaps our hard words would be more treasured and less resented in our relationships.
“Patience is not passivity. It’s active, intentional, and longsuffering love.”
Patience covers a multitude of sins. Our patience does not atone for others’ sins, or overlook them, but it will endure them for a time, bearing with the offense and hoping for repentance, even against all odds. When you feel like giving up on someone, ask God to give you enough hope, enough love, enough patience to bear one more day. A time may come to walk away, but far too many walk away when true love would have been willing to stay.
Impatient with Passivity
Don’t mistake patience for passivity.
Paul says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Patience doesn’t just sit on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. It helps, and encourages, and even admonishes, but with a faith-filled, compassionate willingness to wait (and even suffer) for change.
If we think we are being patient when we just withdraw or overlook or neglect or “let go” in the face of sin, in most cases we’re not truly being patient. In fact, we’re likely being impatient — and lazy, uncaring, and self-preserving. Instead of taking the rougher, harder road of patient perseverance, we opt for the moving walkway of easy avoidance.
Patience is not passivity. It’s active, intentional, and longsuffering love.
Where do we learn this kind of patience? First, it requires real effort, but true patience is always ultimately a fruit of the Spirit working in us, not our working harder (Galatians 5:22). Growing in patience requires building muscles through practicing patience, but those muscles feed on the Spirit or they atrophy — and fast. Every effort to exert patience in the face of resistance requires faith that God will work in us the patience that is pleasing in his sight (Philippians 2:13).
“Our patience does not atone for others’ sins, or overlook them, but it will endure them for a time.”
Second, we have to see that we have received mercy in order “that in [us], as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Complete patience with sinners only grows out of sinful hearts who have experienced perfect patience from the sinless one. To say it another way, patience and gentleness are the children of humility (Ephesians 4:2).
Our patience with sinners will not fundamentally change by focusing on being more patient with their sin. Lasting patience with others comes from looking at our Lord’s patience with us. God is wealthy in patience (Romans 2:4; 9:22). His patience can’t be counted in billions. If you want to be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and ready to wait for change, meditate on words like these: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you” (2 Peter 3:9). The scandal that God chose you should be enough to make you more patient (Colossians 3:12).
Ironically, the patience we need with others’ sins begins with looking at our own, not theirs. Only when we’ve felt the awful weight of our wickedness, and the miracle of our forgiveness and freedom, will we be able to extend undeserved mercy and grace to someone who has sinned against us — and to do so with supernatural patience.
One More Ingredient
Paul includes one more often-overlooked ingredient for good rebuke: “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Now, he is a preacher speaking to a preacher about preaching, but it has implications for us all.
The hard work in rebuke is not simply to muster enough courage to say the hard thing, or to patiently persist in calling someone to repentance. The hard work also involves taking them to God’s own words, thoughts, and desires in the Bible to have their words, thoughts, and desires shaped by his. The voice your brother or sister needs most is not yours, but God’s.
“When you feel like giving up on someone, ask God to give you enough hope, love, and patience to bear one more day.”
When Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry on his work in the world, he didn’t say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . telling them what is right and wrong.” Rather, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). Not just what they should do, but how and why.
If you see your brother or sister walking out of step with the gospel or wandering (subtly or overtly) away from the faith, pray first that God would “grant them repentance” that leads to life (2 Timothy 2:25, Acts 11:18). Then ask God to give you the integrity to be honest, the courage to speak up, the compassion to rebuke lovingly and winsomely, the patience to wait on his timing, and the specific words you need from Scripture to lead them through repentance.