Truth telling: Words as weapons or healing balm?

Posted by on Mar 17, 2024 in Blog | 2 comments

two gray condenser microphones

I have a few mantras I trot out often enough to be annoying. One is “facts are friends”. And they are! Even though we might not like what they are saying, it’s better to face reality than to have it forced upon us. So I am in favour of telling the truth, and developing environments in which candid conversations can take place – though I do work hard to demonstrate that candour and kindness do not have to be incompatible. My stance then is that truth telling works… except when it doesn’t.

Are there times when we should lie – or if not lie, avoid telling the truth?

Let’s face it, some questions are simply inappropriate. “Do you like my new hairstyle” is one of them. After all, if I hate it and tell you so, I risk you hating me. I can of course try to doge it, though “Am I allowed to ignore that question?” is it’s own answer.

About forty years ago I was in a pastoral conversation with a student. Very courageously he showed me his art portfolio. “What do you think?” he asked. “I’d really like God to use my artistic talent in ministry. Do you think I am called to do this full time…like as my career, but to do it for God.”

I thought his work was uninspiring. With a ruthlessness that still dismays me, I answered straight back, “No I don’t, I really don’t. I don’t think you’ve got it.”

I still remember the look of shock in his face. Whatever answer he had expected, it wasn’t that. And then it was followed by a look of deep hurt, followed by awkwardness and then a few fumbled comments and he rushed away.

It’s 40 years on and I still rate it as one of my cruelest conversations – one I’d really like to pull back and change. But that’s the thing about words, once they are spoken, they’re spoken.

It’s not that I think that what I said was necessarily untrue – it was my candid opinion at the time (though we shouldn’t confuse opinions with facts. And this was not my field. Who was I to say?) If you had asked me to defend myself I would have said, “Well, I was just trying to be honest. And I was asked a direct question,” but I know that is not satisfactory. There were hundreds of better ways for me to have responded.

The more I have thought about this and other incidents, the more I have thought about how “truth” and the words we speak can be either weapons or healing balm.

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s instruction in Eph 4:15 that we are to speak the truth in love. Note the two qualifiers for speech.

We are to speak the truth – and if we lie to each other we should ask “why am I lying?” The answer could be

  1. to spare embarrassment (either for you or for me)
  2. to save face
  3. to impress
  4. to score some cheap points off you
  5. because of fear of what you might do if you know the truth
  6. dozens of other things.

In the end most boil down to: “At some level I feel I am not enough and if you know the truth about me you will turn away from me.”

This is hauntingly sad.

It’s a deeply spiritual problem, one that needs to be worked through in the presence of Jesus, and perhaps we should have the words of 1 John 3:1 spoken over us: “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God.” The definitive truth of my life is that I am a child of God – and that is always more than enough. Each day is an invitation to live in the light of this truth.

But it’s not just truth we are to speak. Truth must be spoken in love. That puts a check on weaponising truth.

I’ve been in ministry long enough to have seen the political side of church life. Church politics is often about defining who is “in” and who is “out”. Truth quickly becomes a weapon. Nuance is lost and we boldly declare, “Well that’s clearly unbiblical” or “stop being a fundamentalist/ liberal/ progressive/ charismatic/ catholic/ evangelical/ new-ager/ postmodern/ woke” or whatever label is insulting from where you stand.

Once we’ve labelled someone, respect disappears and we feel exempt from the obligation of love and care. But it’s not what Paul advocates. He suggests truth should only be spoken when it is done in love. And point scoring is not motivated by love. Nor is climbing the ladder at someone else’s expense. Nor is selectively reporting another’s views. Nor is… well anything that doesn’t flow from love.

Before rushing to speech it is therefore as well to ask: “In what way does this flow from love?”

Now at this point some will say, “Trying to save someone from the error of their ways is loving.” And it might well be. But don’t assume it is. Dig a little deeper. Is it truth I want, or is this about power and control, or because I only feel comfortable with people who are essentially like me? It might not be, but at least be willing to ask the question.

Proverbs 15:23 exclaims: “A word in season. How good it is.” No matter how lovingly we intend to speak truth, there are times which are simply “out of season”. While it is true that in the end everything in life must be faced – it doesn’t neccessarily mean it must be faced today. There are times when no matter how much I want to say something, I must simply “zip it”. I wish I had 40 years ago. To recognise that something is not the right time isn’t about cowardice, but wisdom. It’s about having enough faith to trust that God will provide a right time, and being at peace until then.

How about making Psalm 19:14 a prayer for this week: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Please extend the reach of this blog by reposting and forwarding to others who might find it helpful. You are free to reproduce this material with acknowledgment of its source.

2 Comments

  1. Great post. Thank you.

    • Thanks Rachel. Hope things are going well for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Brian Harris

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading