As we saw in the last post (Part 1), the path to wisdom is paved with the hard yet precious stones of reproof. Yet our ability to profitably accept rebuke and correction is not something we stir up by sheer will power, nor is it something that “just happens.” There are five vital steps we must take by God’s grace in order to foster genuine growth in this area.
1. See the kind discipline of the Lord in the rebukes of others. This 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 and failure 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.”
Do you see beauty in this passage? 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 — because he loves you. He wants you to be wise. He wants you to live well. He wants you to be like Jesus.
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 failures 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-esteem. 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 your inclination 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. When I am driving my Jeep down the freeway and check the rearview mirror and side mirror, concluding it is safe to switch lanes only to receive a prompt and sustained warning from the previously “hidden” vehicle to my right, I am reminded how limited my vision is — I thought I saw everything, but I didn’t, and it almost cost me dearly. Our spiritual lives are no different. 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); 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 be permanently 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 within.
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 his people 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 greatly hindered.
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.