By Bill Mefford
I am not big on cliches. I find most of them cop outs for actually thinking and reasoning with specific contexts for which cliches are ill-served to explain. But one of the most annoying cliches to me is the admonition, "speak the truth in love." Few people realize (even those who regularly use it) that it actually comes from Scripture, Ephesians 4:15.
Here, Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus urging unity among this new collective of believers. As they mature in their faith, he advises they must remember to "speak the truth in love" to one another. It is a picture of Paul speaking to a specific community and one of their challenges is to learn to live in unity with one another. To Paul, it is as important to confront one another with hard truths as it is to live together in unity.
I accept that. But what I find troublesome is how this is so often used. "Speaking the truth in love" is too often said by those who aren't interested in truth or love as much as they are with maintaining a false sense of peace; ensuring that their comfort level not be disturbed by any kind of conflict. Avoiding conflict may guarantee that things remain pleasant on the surface, but maturity is impossible without some level of conflict. Maturity is impossible without truth.
If I had to reword the cliche (I'd rather just chunk it entirely), then I would suggest we advise truth-tellers to "speak the truth in freedom." As someone who is committed to telling the truth - who cannot help but tell the truth even in times that doing so can be personally or professionally costly - I am not so worried about speaking truth in love as I am speaking the truth in freedom.
I have found it all too easy to speak hard truths primarily because so few people are willing or even able to do it. But I also must admit that I have spoken in the past with some level of bitterness or vengeful anger. I don't just say that can often have the tendency to speak in anger because anger is not necessarily a bad thing. If you can speak against this current administration's inhumane practice of separating immigrant families as well as it's inability and unwillingness to reunite those families without feeling some level of rage then you aren't really speaking truth. You are just mouthing talking points.
Anger is an emotion and like all emotions - like ALL emotions - it can be used positively or negatively. Far too many people, especially in the church, innately view anger as negative. These are the people constantly harping on "speaking the truth in love" too. They do not seek unity as Paul did, nor maturity. Instead, they seek to maintain the status quo, which also ensures that conflict will remain unresolved and injustice unchallenged.
The goal of speaking the truth is not to avoid anger. The goal is to speak the truth, which should be plain enough. However, it is vengeful anger and bitterness which can easily cloud the truth and make speaking the truth more about self=defense, self-promotion, or seeking retribution against those who have wronged you, whether in reality or in your own perceptions. In any case, speaking the truth ceases to be about the truth and becomes more about you.
Let me share a personal example I have struggled with, to some degree. A couple of years ago I ended my membership in the United Methodist Church. I left the church freely, but felt very much pushed out the door (and the back door at that!). Understandably, after a life spent serving the church, I felt anger and bitterness at the way in which it ended (the details of which I won't go into here). Since then, some of my writing about the United Methodist Church at times has been tinged with that feeling of having been treated unjustly. In those cases, I wasn't speaking the truth in freedom for I was bound by own hurt and bitterness.
Now, I am not apologizing for what I have written. I still feel the church is overly bureaucratic and institutional, top-heavy, arcane in it's structure, and stifling in it's raising up of new leaders. That isn't bitterness. These are opinions of someone who has served in every level of the church and longs to see the church return our Acts 2 birth.
Further, when I see the church repeatedly trample those who serve sacrificially simply because of who they are and who they love, then I am filled with anger. When I see leaders in the church repeatedly stifle those who long to serve Jesus and his body through creative and innovative ways and they are rejected because they do not fit nicely into preconceived and manufactured slots like robots, then I am angry.
And like I said, anger is not just permissible, it is a good thing.
But when my anger is being directed by a desire to punish or strike back in some way then I am not speaking the truth in love. Even more, I am not speaking in freedom. I am bound by my bitterness and feelings of injustice. I know this because I have done this too often.
So, I welcome you to remind me, or better yet, to ask me if I am speaking the truth in freedom - in liberation to speak hard truths without being bound by feelings of vengeance. Speaking the truth in freedom allows the hard truths to remain hard, as they sometimes need to be. Speaking truth in freedom creates space for those who hear as well as those who speak to experience liberation. And, just as Paul advised the Ephesians, liberation always moves us toward unity and maturity.