Our ability to receive rebuke from others is a quality essential to our making enduring progress in our spiritual lives. There are no two ways around this truth: either we will readily receive correction and enjoy the fruits of godly wisdom, or we will entrench ourselves against reproof and gradually harden our hearts to our soul’s peril.
Yet nothing seems to be more difficult and more contrary to our nature than gladly taking pointed words about our sin and failure and then using those words as a means to sincere repentance. Instead, we often attempt to defend ourselves with complex and even “biblical” arguments, blame others for their negative influence, or douse the confrontation altogether by pointing to the hypocrisy in the one delivering the rebuke. Our sin will do whatever it can to be left in the dark.
Rebuke and Correction: A Central Theme in Proverbs
It is no wonder, then, that the Proverbs speak repeatedly to the importance of profiting from the rebukes of others. This rich collection of God-breathed instruction links growth in genuine wisdom to our capacity to receive reproof; at the same time—and often in the following phrase—the Proverbs remind the reader of the inevitable folly which attends one’s rejection of correction. Again, there are only two options: receive correction and become wise, or reject words of rebuke and become a fool. Just a few selections from the Proverbs illustrate this truth:
Proverbs 12:1 – “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, whoever hates reproof is stupid”
Proverbs 13:1 – “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke”
Proverbs 13:8 – “Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored”
Proverbs 15:31-32 – “The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence”
Proverbs 19:27 – “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from words of knowledge”
Rejecting reproof can also lead to personal calamity (1:26), sexual sin (5:12), deceiving of others (10:17) and death (15:10). On the other hand, absorbing and profiting from hard words of rebuke brings precious wisdom (8:18-19) and life (6:23).
Our need for a heart ready to receive correction is apparent. Below are five ways we can profit from the rebukes of others.
1. See the Kind Discipline of the Lord in the Rebukes of Others. This truth is the theological bedrock on which we must build our response to correction and criticism. The only way in which we can gladly receive tough, piercing words directed at our sin is if we see God’s hand directing the rebuke and gently plunging the blade into our souls — not merely to promote pain, but to remove cancer. The work of Christ on the cross — bearing the fullness of God’s wrath toward us — now provides us with solid hope and resilience in the midst of stern rebukes with this glorious truth: behind every reproof is the tender heart of a Father who desires what is best for his children. Hebrews 12:5-6 comforts us, as we are smarting from the wounds of friends (and even enemies), with these words: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.”
The Lord afflicts his children, not like a cruel and hardened master who beats his slaves without cause, but as a loving Father, who lovingly disciplines his child so they might be pure (Proverbs 20:30) and so folly might be put far from them (Proverbs 22:15). The Lord sends you rebukes and corrections — those conducted in both a righteous manner and in a sinful manner (see below) — because he loves you. He wants you to be wise. He wants you to live well. He wants you to be like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29).
2. Understand the Biblical Nature of Godly Instruction. Throughout the Proverbs, the words “instruction” and “wisdom” are often parallel with the word “reproof,” as in Proverbs 10:17, “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path of life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (see also 5:11-13; 13:1, 18; 15:5, 31-32). This observation is especially important for 21st century Americans (like myself) who breathe the air of unbridled self-esteem and self-respect. In much of our culture, straightforward rebukes aimed at the sin of another person are automatically, by their very nature and regardless of approach, deemed rude, insensitive, and unloving. On the other hand, Scripture tells us that godly instruction often comes by way of pain and through the leveling of our self-made defenses. It is only when the dam of pride is burst that the waters of spiritual instruction come flowing to us in abundance. Correction and reproof from others serve us well in hammering our pride and preparing our hearts to receive genuine spiritual instruction. Soft, unsure, hesitant, “suggestions” in place of clear and forthright rebuke helps us little, if at all.
3. Recognize that You Are Prone to “Blind Spots.” No matter how old we are, how long we have been a Christian, or how much we have matured, we all have blind spots in our lives. Although God has graciously opened our eyes to the beauty of the gospel of Christ, we still suffer the blinding effects of sin. We may think everything is fine, but we are wholly unaware of our habit of gossiping about our manager or our persistent lack of generosity. The reality of blind spots should cause us to see reproof from others, not as a spiritual negotiable, but as a spiritual necessity. I need you to tell me about my sin because I can’t see it all, no matter how hard I try. Even the apostle Peter needed correction (Galatians 2:14) and we delude ourselves if we ever think we are above it.
4. Search for Truth in Harsh, Unkind, and Exaggerated Criticism. One of the ways we keep ourselves from profiting from a rebuke is by allowing the truth of the rebuke to remain veiled by the sinful manner in which it was delivered. This is not wise — there is rarely a criticism or rebuke that does not contain something of benefit for our souls. Even if we are corrected in a mean-spirited way, where facts are not altogether accurate and emotion blurs the lines between reality and overstatement, we do our souls well if we diligently seek for truth in the rebuke. Usually, if people are angry enough to administer a harsh word, it is unlikely we were completely innocent in the situation. We will keep our souls free from bitterness and our hearts humble if we discipline ourselves to look past the sinfulness of the rebuke to the seed of truth concealed therein.
5. Pray for and Seek Correction and Rebuke. Finally, I think it is important to not only prepare our hearts to graciously receive correction and rebuke, but to purposefully and actively seek it. We find Biblical precedent for this kind of prayer in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
God’s answer to this prayer comes not only through the personal, intimate communion with Christ and the conviction of the Holy Spirit through private study and hearing the Word, but also through the community of believers as we sharpen one another by way of rebuke and correction (Proverbs 27:17). And our determined search for and openness to correction is the only logical action we can take if we have understood the importance of what we have already seen in the Scripture. Without this final step, our efforts toward humility and spiritual learning will be hindered.
The Pain and the Pleasure
The pain of rebuke is like the pain we feel after a successful surgery: we hurt, but we are overjoyed to have the infection out of our body. Although rebukes from others are initially hard to hear, I can think of no other means by which God has effected greater and longer lasting change in my life and in the lives of those close to me. Hearing the Word in preaching, studying it personally, seeking the Lord in prayer, and fellowship with other believers are necessary and wonderful channels of sanctification. Words of rebuke, however, have a special capacity to lay our hearts bear and promote significant progress in our spiritual lives. May we humbly submit to this tough means of grace for the glory of God and the good of our souls.