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Is It Possible To Be Too Truthful?

It was Winston Churchill who said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” There is an unfortunate tendency in the culture in which I grew up, to treat truth that way not only in wartime, but all the time. Another cultural tendency is to tell people what you think they want to hear.

This makes for some interesting situations. For example, if you go the train station and ask someone, “Is this the train that goes to city A?”, more than likely he’ll say, “Yes.” So you get on the train and find out, after it’s already left the station, that you are headed in the opposite direction, to city Z. You have to learn to ask the right question, like, “Which train goes to city A?”

Growing up surrounded around this kind of thing, I started to pick up those kind of values. One day when I was a teenager, my father asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was, nor do I remember what I answered. I just know that instead of getting right to the point and answering the question, I danced all around it. Dad stopped me cold and said, “You have become altogether too devious. You need to correct that or it’s going to cause you a lot of trouble later on in life.” And he gave me a look of disgust, turned on his heel and walked away. I was left standing there with my mouth hanging open.

In the years since then, I have made a conscious effort to be transparent. I’ve tried to be truthful even when it’s painful to tell the truth. It’s not always easy. Every once in a while I’m still tempted, or prompted by fear, to beat around the bush or to shade the facts.

But sometimes the effort to be transparent and tell the unvarnished truth leads to other problems. In the culture in which I grew up there is a tendency to think that you must always look beneath the surface to discover what someone really means or what he’s really after. “What you see is what you get,” is a foreign concept. It comes as a shock to people that there is no hidden agenda. At times people have become angry with me because I must have meant something other than what I said. After all, if they were the ones saying it, they would have meant something else!

This leads to a second problem with being totally candid. More than once I’ve been told that I’m too blunt. I can really relate to the protagonist, Wallace Wallace, in the young-adult book “No More Dead Dogs” by Gordon Korman. In it he gets suspended from the football team for being upfront in a book review. For example, in response to the question, “Who was your favorite character?” he answered that he hated them all equally. He went on to criticize the plot unfavorably. Unfortunately for him, the book happened to be one of his teacher’s favorites. Personally, I found Wallace Wallace’s candor refreshing. He had the guts and conviction to say what I often wanted to say to my teachers when I was in school. I have to admit, though, that I don’t necessarily appreciate that level of candor when it is directed at me!

This raises a question. Is it possible to be too honest? Is it ever permissible to shade the truth to avoid trouble or to spare someone’s sensibilities?
The answer to this conundrum is in Ephesians chapter 4. The overall theme of Ephesians 4, is living a life “worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1), unity (4:3), spiritual maturity (4:14) and building the body, that is, the church (4:16). How do we attain to maturity? In 4:15, Paul writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (NIV)

Yes, we must not hesitate to speak the truth. Later, in verse 25 Paul tells us to put off falsehood and speak truthfully. But the piece which is often missing is speaking the truth in love. It’s an area where I still have room for growth.

What does it mean to speak the truth in love? Unfortunately, the NIV translation obscures an important concept in verse 29 when it says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The ESV puts it this way, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In this verse Paul is contrasting talk which is unwholesome or which corrupts with talk which gives grace.

If you study it out, it appears that the word “grace” refers to the blessings we receive when we are in covenant. Putting it all together, what Paul is saying is that the way we speak should help others to keep covenant with God and with each other. It is perfectly possible to speak the truth, yet it still be “unwholesome” because it weakens the bond of covenant. Therefore it is “corrupt” even though it is true. In contrast, “wholesome” speech is not only true, it also encourages others to remain committed to their covenants. To rephrase, speaking the truth without love is unwholesome and corrupting, while speaking the truth in love builds up, is fitting and strengthens covenant ties.

So, is it possible to be too truthful? In a sense, yes! Truth without love tears down and destroys. Does that mean that we should shade the truth or lead people to believe things that inaccurate? Can we lie in the name of love? No! As Paul writes in another place, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6 NIV) To put it another way, if it isn’t truthful, it isn’t love either!

I think one of the reasons we (or at least I!) have trouble in this area is that we put too much emphasis on words – that is, what we say – without paying enough attention to what prompts our speech. When you get right down to it, speaking truth in love is not merely something we should do. It is something which reflects our inner character. Jesus put it this way in Luke 6:43-45, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (NIV)

When I am a truthful person, speaking truth will come naturally. When I am a loving person, it will be natural for love to temper the truth I tell. May the Lord grant me the ability to “be” so that the doing is a natural extension of my inner being!

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