Those were questions I received from someone who, like me, spent many years as a “Martha,” vexed with much serving, until God called them into the wilderness to sit at his feet like Mary and just listen to Him. I understand the frustration of closed hearts and doors all too well.
In my earlier days of ministry, my whole existence revolved around “truth.” Speaking, teaching, preaching, writing, proclaiming and defending “the truth” was my whole concept of life and ministry. There is a place for truth-telling and truth-speaking. Yet, along with this determination to share “the truth” comes the inevitable flip slide: discerning, exposing, debunking, attacking, criticizing, judging, condemning, tearing down, ripping apart, shredding and destroying whatever (or whomever) we perceive to be “untruth.” Defending truth and attacking untruth becomes the great purpose. The sense of people’s unwillingness to receive the truth we want to speak becomes the great hindrance to that purpose. This creates a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction. It’s not a happy way to live.
The trouble, I think, is that we all have things we are convinced to be “truth” that may just be our truth, or a partial truth, or not a truth at all – especially if we have muddied it all up with our own stereotypes, assumptions, biases, perceptions, and prejudices. We think we see clearly, but Scripture says we see through a glass darkly. We think we know everything, but Scripture says we only know in part. We think we know exactly what God is saying, but Scripture says we prophesy in part. What we are convinced of as true today may turn out to be different from what we believe to be true ten years from now. Certain things we once believed to be true ten years ago we find to no longer be true. Not because truth changes (it doesn’t) but because we change.
Let’s assume we do have the truth. Is there always an obligation to share that truth? Is that truth only valuable to the extent that it is freely shared and widely accepted? Is it possible that we are making assumptions about sharing truth that are incorrect? Perhaps the time is wrong, the people are wrong, or even we are wrong. Perhaps the truth is correct but the way we go about sharing it is so misguided that it does more damage than the error we think we are correcting – we become the proverbial sledgehammer trying to swat a mosquito on someone’s nose. Perhaps we need to spend more time living the truth and less time sharing it or explaining it to others. Perhaps that truth is meant for us and for us alone. Perhaps all we should do is just pray about it instead of preaching it to others. Perhaps we have become a little too invested in the whole idea of being specialized experts in exposing everything we think is wrong with everyone and everything else. Perhaps that is just a way of deflecting attention from the things we need to correct in ourselves.
But let’s take a step back. What if “truth” is not the main thing after all? What could be greater than truth? Going back to the lesson of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the essence of the law is not, “Love God and share the truth with your neighbor,” but rather, “Love God and love your neighbor.” We are to love our neighbor and show mercy to him, whoever and wherever they are. Of course, “speaking the truth in love” is important, but how easy it is to rationalize that (1) we have the truth, (2) we are supposed to speak it, and (3) we are really doing it in love and not for some other self-serving reason. Sometimes the most merciful thing we can do for a neighbor is to shut our mouths and open our arms.
That’s because the effectiveness of our “speaking the truth in love” is not in the quality of the truth we share but in the quality of the love we demonstrate. Loving God and loving our neighbor qualifies us to perhaps speak the truth in love if there is an opportunity – but speaking the truth in love, and getting people to agree with that truth, is not a condition for loving them. In fact, if we lead with “speaking truth” rather than “sharing love” then the truth (no matter how true) is all too often rejected. What sounds like “speaking the truth in love” to the speaker often comes across as “I’m right and you’re wrong” to the listener. “Speaking the truth” can become a rationalization for subtle (or not-so-subtle) manipulations designed to convert someone to our narrow opinion of something, or to correct something we perceive to be wrong, broken, imperfect, or flawed in someone else. Like the lawyer who could quote the Law of Love verbatim but wanted to test Jesus and justify himself by parsing it, we can speak truth and even hide behind truth in such a way as to justify ourselves – “This is what the Bible clearly says!” or “God told me to tell you this, so I’m right and you’re wrong!” Such pronouncements have little appeal to the hearer and tend to make them shut down rather than open up. Worse, these thundering statements actually avoid the hard, difficult work of just loving our neighbor unconditionally as they are, where they are – without judgment or condemnation, and without trying to change them, teach them, correct them, fix them, or get them to hear, see, or do anything – and regardless of whether they receive us, listen to us, accept us, agree with us, or not. The lawyer had “truth” on his side but could not fathom the kind of unconditional love for all that God requires.
Our very judgments into what is flawed in others are usually flawed; we sin even in our condemnation of sin in others; our skill at spotting the speck in someone else’s eye invariably makes us less skillful at spotting the log sticking in our own eye. This rather comical truth about human judgment is intended to show us how laughable and absurd it is to judge our neighbor instead of love our neighbor; it is as hilarious as the alcoholic judging the cigarette smoker, the cigarette smoker judging the drug addict, the drug addict judging the porn addict, the porn addict judging the food addict, and the religious addict judging them all as sinners while secretly indulging in things they condemn in others, claiming God’s grace for themselves and God’s wrath on everyone else.
Having spent most of my life making “truth” the foremost thing, I am beginning to see the wisdom of just loving everybody and letting God sort them out. Speaking truth is still important, but showing love is more important than speaking truth. Love can melt cold hearts, open closed minds, and help people become more receptive to truth – assuming we truly have it, and assuming we are truly led to speak it. But love can be expressed without any words at all. The Good Samaritan did not say a word to the man he helped, but his actions illustrated what loving your neighbor means. Jesus does not tell us to go and think likewise, go and believe likewise, or go and hypothesize likewise, but, “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37). When people experience love they know it without words getting in the way; and when they fail to experience it, they notice that lack of love, even if the words are factually correct and technically true. Perhaps this is why Jesus said the world would know we are His disciples, not by our great rhetorical skills or by our amazing ability to locate error in people and hit them between the eyes with the unvarnished truth, but rather, “by the love you have for one another” (Jn. 13:35). If we cannot love our brothers and sisters, how can we love our worldly neighbors? And if we cannot love our worldly neighbors, how can we claim to have the love of God at all? We may quote Scripture and speak absolute truth “with the tongues of men and of angels” but without love it profits nothing and just adds more noise – sounding brass and tinkling cymbals – that hinder the still, soft, gentle voice of the Spirit.
Love is a more excellent way because it perfectly balances grace with truth. And, although I certainly have not attained that perfect balance, I think a step in the right direction is to lead with love instead of leading with truth. “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). Jesus is Love Incarnate, the embodiment of both Grace and Truth. Why both? Because Grace without Truth brings deception, but Truth without Grace brings destruction.