A fellow pastor once shared with me about a time when his 5-year-old daughter was stealing cookies.
The rule was one per day, but he began to notice that the amount of cookies in the jar was rapidly decreasing.
“Have you been taking cookies when you knew that was breaking the rule?” my friend gently asked.
“No daddy, I haven’t been doing that.”
He pressed, “Are you sure that you haven’t been stealing cookies?”
His daughter wouldn’t look him in the eye. “No, daddy, I don’t know where the cookies went.”
He let it go for a while. A few hours later, his daughter came to him in tears.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” he said.
“I took the cookies,” she replied. “I’m sorry.”
The father related that story with tears streaming down his own face.
He knew that if his daughter had continued lying, it would corrode her from the inside out.
Even worse, over time she could develop a hard heart: a heart insistent on maintaining a falsehood and pretending to be something she was not. She would have felt a growing distance from her father.
In the U.S., we have a crisis of truth-telling. It’s among our top leaders, but also throughout our culture. If people don’t like the news, they call it fake news.
The effect of such a casual approach to the truth is demoralizing. We’re in confusion. What’s true? What’s not true? If there’s nothing really true, what can we trust? There’s only my truth, your truth.
The greatest lie is there are no lies. The greatest untruth is there is no truth.
The immediate impact is that we’re collectively developing a hard heart. My sense is that the heart of the U.S. is callousing a little more each day.
That’s what happens when the truth is undervalued, exploited or flat-out ignored.
Our heritage as followers of the man from Nazareth is that we are people of truth: about God, ourselves and the world.
We must stand for truth and tell the truth. We have to be different. That difference lets people know there is something greater than ourselves at work in us.
Ephesians 4:15 counsels us to speak the truth in love. The context is the truth of the gospel, in the myriad ways that apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers share the truth of who Jesus is, what God has done and what God continues to do through the Holy Spirit.
That truth points to the power of the gospel to redeem and transform.
How do we speak the truth in love? Here are five guidelines.
1. Listen before you speak.
Make sure you understand the other person’s perspective by asking good questions, taking time to hear their perspective. Ecclesiastes 3:7 teaches that there is a time to remain silent and a time to speak.
2. Check yourself.
Do you harbor hidden motivations? Are you dismissing your role in a perceived offense? Are you speaking in order to “set someone straight”? Ask God to reveal the meditations of your heart (Psalm 19:14).
3. Watch your words.
Keep it simple. Speak with kindness. You can’t take back some things that you say.
It’s OK to be angry, but don’t sin in your anger (Ephesians 4:26). Your words have the power to restore and creatively rebuild, but they also have the power to harm relationships in a lasting and damaging way (James 3:9-10).
Don’t be afraid to speak words of love throughout the exchange. Keep returning to the home base of love, the reason why you’re needing to speak the truth.
4. Pray before, after and during the conversation.
Ask the Spirit to help you to have the right words to say and that your words will be saturated in love. Search the Spirit’s counsel before your exchange and rely on the Spirit in your weakness (Romans 8:26-27).
5. Trust in God.
Speaking the truth in love will be difficult and may seem costly in the short run. It’s like an investment; it pays more long-range dividends rather than short-term gains. God is able to use your words to create a better relationship, beyond what you imagine it can be (Ephesians 3:20-21).
We must speak the truth in love, and we must always love when we are called to speak the truth.
If we don’t, our hearts can become hard. We’ll create distance between ourselves and our Heavenly Father. We’ll create widening chasms in our relationships.
The good news is that Jesus said the truth – the gospel truth in all its power – will set us free (John 8:32).
We must trust him enough to speak the truth in love.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.