Here is some of the new material from the second edition of It’s (Not That) Complicated, Chapter Four: Relationship Bootcamp: How to Be a Sister to Your Real Brothers. Though these thoughts on how and when to give a biblical rebuke are obviously written with the biological brother-sister relationship in mind, they would apply to relationships in general.
In this book, we talk a lot about how women can build up, support, encourage, and affirm their men, but is there ever a time for correcting or rebuking them? Let’s be very clear on this: Loving our brothers means loving them enough to hate the sin that threatens to destroy them. It requires loving them enough to help hold them to the standard God does, not standing by as effectual accomplices when they depart from it. “Building up” doesn’t just mean making people feel better about who and where they are. It means building up the spiritual man, sometimes even by rebuking the “old” man of the flesh. And for that reason, we’re not being supportive sisters if we’re supporting the vanity, worldliness, foolishness, or laziness of our brothers – much less if we’re “covering” more dangerous sins, like pornography, drunkenness, or abuse. Even girls in conservative Christian families can have brothers given to these sins, and choosing to “overlook” them is not love, or biblical womanhood.
As we have just pointed out, we’re not responsible for our brothers’ actions or for the situation’s outcome, but we will be held responsible for our own sin of saying nothing when it was our duty to speak. Look at how strong a burden is placed on us to speak up when others are in sin:
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:3)
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Gal. 6:1a)
“… exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13)
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. …admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess. 5:11-14)
“…if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19,20)
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matt. 18:15)
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose [literally, confute, admonish, convict, convince, tell a fault, rebuke, reprove] them.” (Eph. 5:11)
Let’s establish two basic things about our relationships with our brothers. 1: What should matter most to us about our brothers is how they are doing in the Lord’s eyes. 2: The central function of our relationships with them should be to push them closer to God, whether that looks like walking the path with them, reproving them gently when they step off, or even being ready to call in the higher powers (parents, elders, or even the law) if they do things that require it – because our love for the Lord and His righteousness is what this is all about. (And this should also describe their relationship with us, by the way.)
As valuable a skill as biting one’s tongue can be, there are times when we’re commanded not to, and our silence could be to the harm of our brothers’ souls. And for this reason, the rare ability to exhort, admonish, reprove, and rebuke biblically is a crucial part of supporting and building up. Yes, most of us have inner harpies and dripping faucets we’re struggling to restrain (and some of us are reluctant to confront our brothers’ sin for fear of letting these monsters out), but we need to recognize that the reprover and the tongue-lasher are two entirely different women, and that learning to reprove for the right things in the right way is the best way to conquer that tendency to tell off, chew out, or dress down.
So what is the difference between biblical reproving and unbiblical tongue-lashing? In our own experiences with our own brothers, there seem to be three big differences.
- Whether we’re reacting to their sin in the Spirit, or in the flesh.
What part of us is bothered by what they’re doing: the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, or our flesh – our natural impatience, selfishness, insecurity, and quick temper? And why exactly are we bothered? Is it because we know what they’re doing is a serious sin that grieves the Lord, or because of some other reason? (e.g. I can’t stand it when people do that; it makes our family look bad; it makes more work for me; I just don’t get people who are that way; it makes me feel inadequate; I’m in a bad mood; normal people don’t do that.)
Responding to our brothers’ sins rightly will first of all require our walking in the Spirit rather than the flesh, and really studying to know what the Lord loves and hates. It will require putting on the mind of Christ, and seeing our brothers and their actions with His eyes alone. We’ll need to train our sensitivities to be bothered only by the things the Lord is bothered by – not loud noises, the lid being left off the toothpaste, or dirty socks on the floor. If what he is doing is not a problem according to Scripture, maybe it is not something you should be upset about. Your standard of what’s bad behavior should be coming from the Bible, not your personality. Our concern is God being wronged, not us.
And if our goal is really our brothers’ spiritual growth and up-building, we’ll be more likely to see the deep, spiritual root-problems than the annoying little surface-level symptoms – for instance, their fundamental lack of concern for others, instead of the fact that they never help us with the dishes (No fair!), or their constant need to escape from reality into online fantasy worlds, instead of the fact that they’re playing a boring, stupid computer game again. If it’s really their hearts and souls we’re tuned in to, their surface-level immaturities and mistakes won’t be what bother us.
- Whether we’re speaking God’s words to them, or our own.
…And whether it’s with the goal of leading them to repentance, or of proving our superiority, venting our feelings, or making them feel bad.
So let’s say you’re upset about the right thing – your dear brother is truly in his heart a lazy bum who doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and that grieves your righteous soul. Now what to do? If your reproof or admonition contains the words, “I’m sick of,” “When will you ever…” “For the last time…” “That’s it…” or “You jerk…” your flesh is winning again, and your brother is not being properly pointed to his sin or his need for Christ’s help. That’s because pointing someone to your short fuse or hurt feelings is not the same as drawing his eyes to where he has just offended the Lord. Your brother won’t understand that your concern is simply a hatred of sin and a love of righteousness, if you are responding to him in sin instead of righteousness. (See how this could be confusing?) “Do not be overcome by evil,” says Romans 12:21, “but overcome evil with good.”
The purity of your intent or the righteousness of your indignation is only half the equation when it comes to giving a righteous reproof. You also need to know God’s words and mind enough to know what God would say to your brother. Just as “I’ve had it!” has limited power to pierce another’s heart, so does “Find your humanity,” “Search your heart,” “Grow up,” “Well, that’s really mature.”
Use the language of Scripture to reprove him, and explain his offense according to the moral categories Scripture uses – for instance, pride, love of self, unkindness, or foolishness, rather than “You’re driving me nuts,” “My friends will think you’re a moron,” or “No one will ever want to marry you.”
Let’s examine the anatomy of a great rebuke, Abigail’s to David (1 Sam. 25:23-31). In plain, modern English, she’s essentially saying, “I know I’m not in any position to tell you what to do, but I’m beseeching you to please listen to me anyway, because I see you as extremely important in the Lord’s eyes, and it’s truly your best interests that I have at heart. I’m speaking to you because I want you to be in a good place with the Lord and not a bad place, and I would hate to see the Lord having any reason to chastise you, just as I would hate to see you having to regret having sinned against him, by shedding blood without cause and taking vengeance yourself [actual sins].”
She could have pointed out that he was being a jerk, that he was a pathetic excuse for a Christian warrior-poet, that he might have ruined her life, that it’s not nice to kill people, that he wouldn’t like it very much if somebody came and killed him, would he?, that it would serve him right if something bad happened to him and it might teach him a lesson, and that she felt sorry for his wife. All of these things might have been true, but Abigail knew these were not the things that would point his eyes where they needed to be. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, she had “the law [literally, the Torah, or law of Moses] of kindness on her tongue.”
What about us? Do we know what God’s word actually does have to say about things like computer-game addictions, fear of commitment, or work-avoidance? Can we represent God’s thoughts on these things to our brothers, or at the end of the day, will it just be our own opinions we’re giving them? Will our brothers leave these conversations in more fear of God… or in more fear of us?
- Whether the most obvious vibe they’re getting from us is our love for them… or our lack of love for them.
In order for your moments of reproof to carry the weight they should, every other moment with your brother – your casual interactions, your conflicts of interests, all the everyday stuff – must leave him in no doubt that you care more about him than yourself. Make sacrifices for him. Put him before yourself. Affirm him every time you possibly can. And, like Abigail, establish your respect and care for him even in your moments of confrontation.
Another important way to keep our reproofs from falling to the ground is to save them for the important things. If we’re jumping on our brothers for their every tiny misstep, they will eventually become deaf to the frequency of our voices. Imagine that you only have a certain number of minutes on your reproof-card before your brother starts leaving the room at the sight of your lips beginning to part. What would you choose to use them on? It’s our natural tendency to waste our reproof-minutes on trivial issues, and then be too terrified to speak when something is really serious.
There is a wonderful model in Scripture for how not to give a rebuke, actually by another woman in David’s life: his wife Michal (2 Sam. 6). When David was so overcome with joy before the Lord at the return of the ark that he began dancing for joy with the rest of his subjects in the linen garment of a common man, Saul’s daughter couldn’t appreciate what God surely did appreciate, and was royally ticked off that her husband wasn’t acting how she thought a king ought to act. So she “despised him in her heart,” and laid into him afterward with sitcom-worthy sarcasm, trying to shame him into caring more about what people thought and keeping up royal appearances – pointing him to a standard more like Saul’s than God’s. David, thankfully, could see the pharisaical spirit behind her rebuke, and responded with a reproof of his own.
If we ever hope to handle relationships with men righteously, we need to learn the difference between Abigail-style reproof and Michal-style snarking, between words fitly spoken and the dripping of a faucet, between making a man say “blessed be you” and making him run to live on a corner of a roof to get away from you. And if we don’t learn now how to respond to men’s sin in the Spirit instead of in our flesh, armed with wisdom, with grace, with boldness, and with God’s words ready on our mouths… we could find ourselves in some very bad places with other young men (as we’ll discuss later in the book).