We live in a society in which admitting one’s own sins is seen as a sign of weakness.
Are we genuinely interested in seeing the person restored to a correct path, or are we taking the opportunity to put him or her down?
Not many of you reading this are likely to be called before a ruler and have to say to him such difficult things as Daniel did to Nebuchadnezzar - who was not just any king, but the absolute ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, a man who could raise people up or have them executed with a word. Yet all of us are faced with situations from time to time where we sense God encouraging us to warn somebody about a course of action which they are taking: a colleague at work, a friend, a member of our family, maybe even our boss or a church leader. What are we to do?
The Bible is clear about the importance of rebuke. In the book of Proverbs, which is designed to align our conduct with God’s wisdom, the word ‘rebuke’ occurs no less than 16 times. For example, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (27:5); “Like an ear-ring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise person’s rebuke to a listening ear” (25:12); “The person who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (15:31). So how can we ensure that, if we have to give a word of rebuke or correction, it is life-giving and not destructive?
There are three dangers here. The first is to confuse rebuke with criticism or complaint, which are usually about what I would like to see or what I am not happy with, rather than what we feel is genuinely good for the person concerned. Leaders receive far too much criticism and complaint, and it would be much better if we gave them encouragement instead.
Secondly, our rebuke may be harsh, even judgmental. We will be especially prone to this if we are speaking of an issue which we are also struggling with. But see how Daniel speaks to king Nebuchadnezzar: “My Lord, if only this dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!” (verse 19). He was deeply concerned for the welfare of his king. Also, he gives him a way out of his situation: “O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue" (verse 27). Rebuke always has the objective of restoration.
It is important to examine our hearts and ask why we are giving a word of rebuke or correction. Are we genuinely interested in seeing the person restored to a correct path, or are we taking the opportunity to put him or her down? Are we secretly interested in making him or her look small? Love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); and nowhere is this more evident than in the word of rebuke.
Thirdly, the temptation is to say nothing and just let the situation continue. How easy that would have been for Daniel! The king could have ordered Daniel’s execution if he had been upset with his words, so there must have been a strong temptation for him to water down what God gave him, to conceal the most negative aspects. But he did not; he remained faithful to his God. How easy it is to duck out of saying that difficult thing, say, to our boss at work or to a church leader because we are worried about how it will affect our reputation or our future relationship with them. In this respect, the warning of Ezekiel 33 is rather sobering.
Finally, it is important to realise that we are not responsible for the way in which a person responds to our word of rebuke. Nebuchadnezzar heard what Daniel said but did not take it to heart. Nevertheless, after the seven years of isolation which Daniel had warned him about, Nebuchadnezzar finally repented and gave his life to praising, exalting and glorifying the King of heaven (verse 37). A friend of mine once felt God prompting him to challenge a fellow Christian leader at a large conference about involvement in pornography. The man totally rejected his word and told him he was way off target; yet two days later this man came back to him and admitted that this was an issue which he had been struggling with for a long time. Never be discouraged by an immediate negative response; we need a long term perspective. Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Galatians 6:1-2).