God knows and loves each of His children as a completely unique individual. In fact, He knows us to the depths, better than we know ourselves. In his infinite capacity to love us, he never despises us, but there are times when He knows we need correction.
This is often referred to as a “rebuke.” In fact, one of the spiritual works of mercy is to “admonish the sinner.” That is, to lovingly rebuke and correct someone out of a sincere concern for them.
Let’s examine this a little more closely.
What Does It Mean to Rebuke?
To “rebuke” is to speak seriously to someone as a warning, or to reprove or correct someone in order to prevent a bad action, or bring it to an end. Rebuking one another in charity and a spirit of forgiveness is a part of how God calls us to relate to each other as brothers and sisters. Although the word sounds intimidating, rebuking is not synonymous with harshness.
Rebukes should be offered with a pure intention: that of seeking the highest good for another. They serve an important purpose. Rebukes allow us insights we may not otherwise reach on our own, so we can correct or admit fault in a situation where we caused harm.
Rebukes also bring attention to a flaw that hinders our spiritual growth and maturity..
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”Proverbs 3:11-12
How Does God Rebuke Us?
In the New Testament, Jesus rebukes everything from the wind to unclean spirits. At various times, He rebuked his Disciples’ unbelief, pride, ambition, and their inability to understand His coming passion as being according to the Father’s Will.
God finds ways to reach us when we need correction. Often, the Holy Spirit will work through our own consciences to convict us. These moments are important graces in the spiritual life, because clarity about our choices and behaviors is necessary if we are conforming ourselves to Christ.
If we surround ourselves with others who are also aspiring to holiness, we have faithful friends accompanying us on the path. In our shared quest for spiritual perfection, rebukes are a form of love we should offer one another. To rebuke a friend, or be rebuked by one, is a fulfillment of mission and a sign of love.
Correction is an important aspect of the Sacrament of Confession. We sometimes need rebukes in order to change. A gentle rebuke in Confession is a tremendous gift. Since the priest is in the Person of Christ, we might consider it a tender rebuke from the Lord Himself.
Examples of Jesus Rebuking in Scripture
When Jesus rebuked in the Scriptures, it does not always appear gentle. Sometimes He displayed anger, frustration, or sorrow. His delivery suited the circumstances. His goal was to help His children make a course-correction that would lead them to Himself and His Father’s will.
When Christ’s devoted servant Martha complained about her sister Mary not helping her serve and clean up, He told her gently, but matter-of-factly,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”Luke 10: 41-42
Jesus left Martha to contemplate her priorities, but He did not deal harshly with His beloved. He invited her to consider what was truly the better part, and to partake of that as His gift to her.
When the Lord encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, He taught gently and compassionately about Himself as the Living Water, because He wanted this daughter of His to receive what He had come to give. Then He gradually led her to see her failings, face them, and take accountability.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Go call your husband and come back.’ The woman answered and said to him, ‘I do not have a husband.’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘You are right in saying you do not have a husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.’ “John 4:16-18
His rebuke was grounded in love. Defying social convention, Jesus spoke to the woman and asked for a drink from the well. He taught her about the Living Water first, then acknowledged her wrongdoing to hold her accountable. Jesus’ approach was an invitation to amend her life.
The rebuke that stands out to me the most in Scripture is when Christ exclaims to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do!”Matthew 16:23
This was a wake-up call to Peter to remember that the will of God—not human love—must be his priority. Peter had lost sight of the divine. In his zeal, he swore to protect his Master, threatening to obstruct the Divine Will.
We know these two loved one another deeply. The stark reprimand was a warning and rebuke against Peter’s way of thinking in the moment. Jesus knew Peter’s flaws and foibles. He also knew that much would be required of Peter to accomplish the will of God in and for the Church.
What It Means for Us
Rebukes are an important part of spiritual growth. We are flawed human beings, often unable to step back and see a situation with proper perspective. We are in turns blind, arrogant, cruel, uncompromising, and seriously lacking in judgment.
How can such pathetic creatures ever expect to reach heaven? Only through God’s merciful love, and, yes, with rebukes. I’m grateful for them when I receive them.
I’ll be honest: they sting in the moment. When that happens, I try to remember that my goal is not to feel good, but to learn to please Him and to conform my heart to His.
Was He not the model of humility? The Apostle Peter tells us (and he should know):
“So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your worries upon him, because he cares for you.”1 Peter 5:6-7
There it is! We are to humble ourselves to be like Him, and yes, even when we are blind, arrogant, cruel, uncompromising, and seriously lacking in judgment, He still loves us!
Sometimes I need a rebuke to help me see where I was headed, so I can correct my course and make amends to others, and so I can keep conforming myself to Him. The question is, are we humble enough to receive them—and offer them—in love?
The Lord does not delight in crushing us under the weight of our own faults. He does not want to humiliate or destroy us and He does not want others to do so either. That is the work of someone other than our Heavenly Father.
How To Rebuke Those We Love
This is challenging. It can feel judgmental. It can seem personal. We all get defensive when our actions, motives, or words are critiqued. But it is clear in the Scriptures that the Lord asks us to rebuke one another in charity, with pure intentions.
If we see a need to offer rebuke, we should first examine our own motives and intentions. Are they pure? Do we truly want the best for the person in question?
We cannot know someone’s heart. Only God can. But there are times when we can see by the outcome of a situation or by a specific behavior that gentle correction would be an act of charity and mercy.
This can be difficult to judge. Some relationships are better suited to rebukes than others. Some souls are better suited to receive them than others. Some relationships are more accommodating of rebukes than others.
After examining our intentions and considering these points, we can pray to the Holy Spirit, asking for the right words and the right opening if we feel we should rebuke someone.
Finally, we must be sure that our rebuke is as gentle as it can be, and filled with as much love as it should be. In fact, every rebuke should be grounded in love.
What Scripture Says About Rebuking and Being Rebuked
There is no need to fear rebukes or rebuking. Scriptures tell us many times that He admonishes those He loves, and asks us to do likewise with our brothers and sisters in love.
“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.”2 Tim 4:2
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”Luke 17:3
“These then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.”Titus 2:15
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.”Hebrews 12:5
“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline, so be earnest and repent.”Revelation 3:19
I’m Ready. How About You?
If we think of ourselves as His beloved disciples, and we want to be with Him in heaven, we will come to appreciate rebukes. If we are receiving them, we are in good company!
Through them, we are redirected. We learn how to please Him, and we see how we were failing to do that in a specific circumstance.
Then we press the reset button, and redirect ourselves. Balance is key. He does not want us to despair. In His infinite mercy, He invites us to change. I don’t know about you, but He has invited me millions of times, and I hope and expect Him to invite me constantly, until I see Him face to face.
When we can come before the Lord and others in humility, ready to listen, and committed to continuous conversion, we will learn to be grateful for the rebukes we receive, and we will learn to offer them in love.
Rather than wincing at the thought of them, we may even long for a rebuke, that we might have another opportunity to please Him in ways we have not yet mastered.
Our defensive egos may feel the sting, but the goal is nothing short of heaven.
What’s a little sting compared to spending eternity in the glory of His Kingdom?
Bring it on. All legitimate rebukes welcomed!
I’m ready. Are you?