On at least two occasions, in the context of speaking about forgiveness, Jesus instructs us to confront every brother or sister who sins against us and fails to repent or apologize. In Matthew 18:15, He says that we are to “go and tell” the one who has hurt us “his fault” in private. In Luke 17:3, He calls us to “rebuke” the one who has sinned against us in the hopes of bringing him or her to “repentance.” But, as everyone who has ever attempted to do these things will know, the way that we do them matters just as much as actually doing them. We can “go and tell” or “rebuke” others and end up making the situation far worse than it was before by doing these things in an unhelpful way. We can further damage the relationship, and we can even make the prospect of reconciliation less likely than ever by “telling” and “rebuking” in ways that hurt rather than heal.
I remember one time, many years ago, when I tried to confront my wife about something she was doing that was causing me offense. I thought about what I should say to her ahead of time, and I asked the Lord to give me the right words and the right tone of voice as well. But I didn’t give any thought to the timing of the confrontation (can you believe that I actually decided to talk to her right after we had gotten into bed and were ready to say goodnight?). And I didn’t approach the whole thing lovingly. Instead, as I discovered an hour or two later(!), I came across as arrogant and unkind. I didn’t have her best interests in mind, and she saw right through it all. Rather than fostering forgiveness and reconciliation, my confrontation backfired. It accomplished the exact opposite of what I had wanted it to accomplish.
What does it actually mean to “rebuke” someone? And how exactly should we “go and tell” others when they have offended us? What should the kind of confrontation that Jesus is advocating for in Matthew 18 and Luke 17 look like in real life? Jesus doesn’t give us much to go on in these two passages in order to answer these kinds of questions. But I think we can draw out a few guiding principles from the character of Christ Himself, which Christians are clearly called to emulate, and from other passages in Scripture as well. In particular, I want to suggest four things for us all to keep in mind when we have to confront someone who sins against us. These four things will help us not only to do it but to do it as helpfully and Christianly as we can.
The first thing I would say in regard to Christian confrontation is that we need to be very slow in actually “going and telling” people their sins. When I say this I don’t mean to suggest that we should delay our obedience to Jesus’s commands unnecessarily. We should never be slow in doing what Jesus asks us to do. But what I mean is that we need to be suspicious of our motives and our desires and to let that suspicion keep us from being “trigger-happy” in our confronting of other people. We should seek to discern why we want to confront them. Is it because we want to vindicate ourselves? Is it because we want to feel better about ourselves by tearing the other person down? Or is it because we genuinely love the other person and want what is best for them in this situation?
Practicing self-suspicion enables us to be more cautious in our approach to confrontation so that we are not confronting others unnecessarily. It helps us to be more selective in the things we choose to confront and the things we choose to let go. This is important because we live in an age that is overly sensitive. We are a thin-skinned people, by and large, and we are easily offended by the things that people say and do. When we continually confront people for trivial and unintentional things and when we constantly make mountains out of molehills, we become like the boy who cried wolf. People will stop taking us seriously. They will not want to be around us, because they will feel like they cannot be themselves around us. They will perceive a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude from us and will avoid us at all costs. Being suspicious of ourselves allows us to better differentiate real offenses that actually require confrontation from our own overly sensitive spirit.
Once we decide that we need to confront someone, the first thing we must always do is pray. This may sound incredibly obvious, but I think it needs to be mentioned anyway, because, as Christians, we fall short in our practice of prayer. None of us prays as often as we should or as eloquently as we should or as fervently as we should. Most, if not all, of us forget to take the circumstances of our lives to the Lord in prayer from time to time. We so often decide to go it alone and try to do things in our own strength. We treat prayer as a last resort that we fall back on after we have tried everything else.
But if God really does answer prayer—as the Bible overwhelmingly says that He does (see, e.g., Luke 11:9-10; John 14:13-14; John 16:23-24; James 4:2)—then we are hurting ourselves when we don’t pray. We are hamstringing our efforts to confront before we even get started. We ought to pray before, during, and after our occasions of confrontation. We ought to ask the Lord for wisdom, for the right words to say, for the right timing, for the right tone of voice, the right gestures, and the right facial expressions. We should lift every detail of our confrontations up to the Lord. Ideally, we would want to begin and end every confrontation with prayer together with the one we are confronting. We may even want to stop our conversation mid-stream in order to pray together, especially if things seem to be getting off track.
Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3—“in humility count others more significant than yourselves”—remind us that true humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking more of others. And if this is our attitude whenever we “go and tell” others their sins, it will affect not only the way we approach every confrontation but, more often than not, the success of each endeavor as well. Rather than coming across arrogantly or uncharitably, as I did with my wife, we will genuinely and obviously have the other person’s best interests in mind.
In marriage counseling sessions I have often been asked to clarify what the Bible means when it calls wives to “submit to your own husbands” (Eph. 5:22). I have usually responded by pointing couples to what the Bible says just a few verses later about the husband’s responsibility: “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). We tend to focus on the idea of submission, because we think wives are being singled out and treated unfairly. But we overlook the far greater challenge that is being given to husbands: we are to pour ourselves out on behalf of our wives day in and day out. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t consider it a joy to submit to a husband who was continually and obviously laying down his life for her.
And I think the same thing can be said about confrontation. I don’t know any Christian brother or sister who wouldn’t joyfully submit to being confronted with his or her sins if the one doing the confronting was approaching the situation in a similar way as husbands are called to treat their wives. Receiving a rebuke from someone who approaches us in a self-denying and self-sacrificing way that continually and obviously values and exalts us over the one doing the confronting is disarming. It eliminates anger and every trace of defensive behavior. I know that I will receive almost anything from the person that I know has my best interests in mind and who approaches me lovingly and humbly—counting me more significant than themselves.
The last thing I would say about Christian confrontation is that it needs to be done lovingly. If you and I are called to “speak…the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), then this applies to every time we open our mouths. Christian confrontation, therefore, must not only entail “speaking the truth,” but it must also involve love. This means that the way we confront others is just as important as the truth we say, if not more so. We aren’t simply called to “get things off of our chests” as Christians, because that is selfish and the opposite of love. Rather we need to let love dictate what we say and how we say it.
While it might be true to tell someone that he or she is ugly, it is hard to conceive of this being a loving thing to do. Rebuking people who sin against us must, therefore, involve a good bit of wisdom so that we can focus upon the right things to say and can avoid communicating unnecessarily hurtful words or ideas. We don’t want to impute motives or to attack the person out of anger or a desire for vengeance. That would not be speaking the truth in love. Our goal ought to be restoration of the relationship, and that should be driving everything we say and the way we say it.
One of the ways we can ensure our confrontations will be done in these four ways is to remind ourselves of our own sinfulness before we approach those who have sinned against us. We must go into every confrontation with an awareness of the fact that we have been forgiven a 10,000 talent debt—an amount we could never repay—and are attempting to rebuke someone who owes us 100 denarii, a mere pittance in comparison (see Matt. 18:21-35). What we typically do, however, is the exact opposite. We approach others as though we have been sinned against greatly (10,000 talents) and yet have very little need for forgiveness ourselves (100 denarii). No wonder we come across unlovingly in our confrontations. We perceive that we have been forgiven little, and so we love others little (Luke 7:47). But if we, like the apostle Paul, could perceive that we are “the foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), we would see how much we have been forgiven and would, therefore, love others much. Christian confrontation would then instinctively be less about “speaking the truth” and more about speaking it “in love.”