I’m kind of a teddy bear. No, that’s not primarily a reference to my physique. Someone once told me that getting “rebuked” by me felt like getting a hug. Thanks? I’m pretty sure that the comment was meant as a compliment, and I took it as such, but it also made me a bit uneasy at the time.
Rebuking is a biblical concept. As human beings, we get involved in all kinds of sin, and we need to be called out. Sometimes we’re stubborn or blind or defiant, and we need someone to get in our faces and call it like it is. I think that’s the idea behind Paul’s command to “admonish the idle” (1 Thess. 5:14).
And I know many godly examples of this type of direct confrontation. Look no further than Nathan’s confrontation of King David in 2 Samuel 12. Nathan told a story to raise David’s wrath against a certain type of unjust man, then took a sharp left turn and with his finger in David’s face exclaimed, “You are the man!” That’s bold.
I’ve seen videos of Mark Driscoll yelling at men who abuse, demean, or dehumanize women and of John Piper screaming against those who preach the prosperity gospel. I think there’s a healthy place for these kinds of expressions of outrage over genuine atrocities.
Many of the guys I work and teach with are often bold in their confrontation. They sense that a student needs a stronger word, so at times they’ll let them have it. It’s effective and—I believe—God-honoring.
And then there’s me. I need pep talks from my coworkers before I’ll “unleash the fury” in a confrontation situation. Even then, the confronted person will sometimes walk away feeling hugged. As I said, this makes me uneasy. Do I need to be harsher?
I do probably need to work on that “admonish the idle” part of 1 Thessalonians 5:14. But Paul also goes on to say, “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
There are different types of people. Some are idle, unruly, or undisciplined, and they need a strong word of admonishment. Others are weak, beat up, or tired out, and they need an arm around the shoulder and help in their pursuit of godliness. Still others are fainthearted, disheartened, or discouraged, and they need some comfort and encouragement.
In reality, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to confrontation. Though I sometimes feel I need to toughen up when I deal with people in sin, I’m not convinced that’s where I should be focusing my efforts. Even when dealing with the unruly, Paul says we need to be patient with every single person.
Proverbs puts it like this:
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (15:1)
What’s your goal? To make a tense situation explode? Harsh words will do the trick. But if your goal is to disarm the situation, to bring grace and peace to a heated encounter, then you can’t go wrong with a soft answer.
I have known people who are hard-wired for the harsh word approach, sometimes even in the name of a “godly rebuke.” But those that I respect the most default to the soft answer. Even my bold colleagues are ready to go with soft answers nine times out of ten (bringing in a harsher rebuke only when they prayerfully deem it appropriate).
So the next time you find yourself in an intense situation, remember that a soft answer turns away wrath. It’s counterintuitive. But even if you know you could win the yelling match, that would be a hollow victory. The soft answer produces peace. When someone is truly in rebellious sin, we need to admonish them. But it doesn’t need to be at the top of our lungs.
And going beyond confronting someone in sin, the soft answer approach—especially when we are being unjustly accused—makes us imitators of Jesus, who taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, and who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).