(Please see the note at the bottom of this post.)
Last week, autumn ran a high fever. I took oddly sweat-prickled walks in an environment that would normally be associated with cr-words like crisp and crunch and crumble, used interchangeably for the air or the leaves or the desserts. I found myself somewhat guiltily enjoying the hot sunshine because honestly, there was something a bit “off” about it.
This is true of many things; though something may be entirely appropriate and desirable in a certain setting, it can be discordant and a bit disturbing in a different context. I think this can be especially true of our words.
Growing up we learn very quickly that certain statements, no matter how true they might be, should simply not be loudly proclaimed in a crowded aisle at Target. The time for brutal honesty may not be a friend’s gallery opening or book release or to a woman who finally reveals herself after prepping two hours for a date. I think we all can think of examples of this happening to us or our children. (If you can’t, I’m certain my family has some extras to share with those less fortunate.)
Yes, it’s true that there are some things that need to be said even when the setting isn’t entirely perfect. There are hard but necessary truths, proclamations against injustices or wrongs, which we shouldn’t keep to ourselves, even when the environment isn’t accommodating to them. But lately I’m aware that there are times when we use the excuse of “hard but necessary truth” to shortcut the cultivation of that certain element in the environment that should always be abundantly present when speaking the truth: Love.
Last week my daughter did something that conjured up some particularly difficult feelings. I was angry and afraid and, smack dab in the middle of that tense moment, out of those feelings I uttered something that was true… but that didn’t make it right. I hurt my daughter and I hurt our relationship. In addition she most likely wasn’t even really able to consider what I was saying because in an environment of fear and anger she couldn’t feel safe to open her heart and her mind to receive my words. I am sure this is why we’re admonished in scripture to speak the truth in love. Truth may be absolutely valuable and necessary and appropriate, but if truth is dispelled in an environment that is not adequately saturated with love, it most likely won’t find a receptive target.
I’ve been considering this week if certain things being said by the church are exactly like that. In 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his treatise on love by saying,
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Think of it! Even if we speak truth as beautifully and powerfully as angels, if we don’t have love for the people of whom or with whom we speak, then all that is heard is discord! Even if we’re offering our best points or our most poignant arguments, no matter which words we use or how well they’re spoken, if we don’t have love, all we’re creating is ugly noise.
The world says it this way, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” The Bible says it this way, “ If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” How often does what we say and what we know mean nothing because we don’t have love for those with which we’re sharing?
When I’ve heard people in the church talk about this issue, they seem to be articulating a certain tension. What we end up saying is something that sounds like, “Well, the truth is so important that we must proclaim it at any cost.” Sometimes it feels like what that means is that we must proclaim the truth even if we neglect to show love to people in the meantime, as if the collateral damage of hurt people and estranged relationships is “worth the cost” of dropping some truth bombs. But actually then, isn’t what we’ve actually decided to do sometimes is act out of an economy in which we have too little love to spare? If we are a people for whom love has been poured out in such great measure, even to death, then how can we possibly have so little of it to give away in the cause of truth?
Do we live in a scarcity of either truth or love? Must we choose one or the other? No! In the economy from which we’re operating, we have access to both through Christ. In fact, truth and love are inseparable companions! “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Brothers and sisters, I hope you do not hear this essay as me undervaluing the truth. Instead, I hope that what I am communicating is that I value the truth so much that I am encouraging us to invest a little more love in it. Truth is absolutely valuable and necessary and appropriate but, as I’m learning with my daughters, if truth is dispelled in an environment that is not adequately saturated with love, it most likely won’t find a receptive target. What can we do to make love the environment in which truth is spoken, both together defining the all activities of children of God? So here is the question I’m asking myself and others in the church: Are there times in which we must take stock of how much love we have cultivated in our relationships with certain people or groups of people before we can appropriately dispense truth?
NOTE: After posting this, several of the comments on Facebook made me realize that I may have neglected to address a few important issues. First of all, my overall aim with this post was to examine the way we sometimes haphazardly handle the truth. When an issue is one that arouses strong or difficult emotions, we can sometimes find ourselves wanting to come out swinging- fight back, have our say- and speak out of anger or fear without considering or even caring how what we’re saying is received. Our other instinct may be the opposite– to retreat and avoid the issue at all costs. What I’m trying to explore in this post is NOT the idea that we should avoid speaking the truth if it is a hard or difficult truth or may cause some pain or hurt. Rather, I’m proposing that we DO speak the truth, but that we choose the correct context in which to do it. Sometimes that means examining our motives in sharing the truth. Usually it means waiting for the right moment. Almost always, I think, it is wise when sharing the truth to be sure that the person or people with whom we’re sharing a difficult truth know that we care about them and want the best for them. The latter part of my essay explores the ways in which the church sometimes speaks the truth outside of the context of that kind of relationship. I think that the church has pushed away a lot of people because we’ve tried to be truth-speakers without being love-givers. Truth AND love. Truth IN love.