What should we do when someone we know is doing something that hurts themselves or other people?
Do we keep quiet and remind ourselves that we want to be respectful of that person and their choices?
Do we keep quiet out of fear of rejection, out of a sense of self-preservation, or out of a need to be inoffensive, liberal, tolerant? A desire to “keep the peace”?
And then how do we cope with our silence? Do we reassure ourselves that this is what Jesus would want us to do? Do we repeat the verses about the log in our own eye, or the one about not judging, or perhaps even the one about the peacekeepers being blessed?
Do we allow ourselves simultaneously to feel that we have been humble and kind towards our friend and to feel superior to the other person, who continues the behaviour we so disliked unchecked?
Perhaps we want someone else to deal with it.
A pastor maybe. Or a counsellor or psychiatrist.
Perhaps we are so confused that we feel we can’t speak truth into someone else’s situation. Perhaps we are confused about “the truth” itself. How to define it, how to speak it. Whether it even exists.
Or do we go to the other extreme, unwisely opening our mouths to speak condemnation – hellfire and brimstone – to the one whose actions we dislike? Do we unleash our pent-up frustration upon our friends? Does our sense of righteousness hide our deeper selfishness or lack of empathy or irritation – how dare you disappoint me? I always knew you were too good to be true! Are we so sure that we, and we alone, know “the truth” that we don’t care how we wound people in the process?
I have been reading Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge. I am not going to attempt a book review at this point, because I want to read it again before I do that, but in summary, and to borrow its tagline, it is a book about the “playful, disruptive, extravagant personality of Jesus.” Eldredge is particularly concerned with debunking “religious” myths about Jesus, which he sees as unhelpful human constructs masking the true personality of Christ as revealed through the Gospels.
I was particularly struck by the chapter called “Disruptive Honesty.” The book is worth buying for this chapter alone if you have ever felt confused by the contrast between the”Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” idea and the Gospel stories in which he destroys small businesses (John 2:13-22), pronounces himself the only way to know God (John 14:6) or calls his own friends “faithless and perverse” (Matthew 17:17). Eldredge’s point is that Jesus spoke the truth – it is impossible to be honest without the truth – in all situations, and that he spoke it out of love, even when the words seem harsh to our ears. He also points out that Jesus knew exactly how to speak to different people he met – using an entirely different tone to speak truth to the Pharisee in Luke 11 than he used to speak to Martha in Luke 10. His disruptive words were the right words, at the right moment.
Most people don’t manage to get this right. I know I don’t.
Most people go through their entire lives without anyone, ever, speaking honest, loving, direct words to the most damaging issues in their lives. […] We chitchat. We spend our days at a level of conversation as substantive as smoke. We dance around each other like birds in a mating ritual, bobbing, ducking, puffing out our chests, flapping our wings, circling one another, now advancing, now retreating. If we filmed a week of it in time-lapse photography, it would make the Discovery Channel. Let’s be honest – why aren’t we more honest with each other? Because it will cost us.
Beautiful Outlaw, John Eldredge
It is not helpful, of course, that Western civilisation has gone from ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ to ‘do you want the truth or something beautiful?’ or, more bluntly “facts do not exist, only interpretations.” * The time we live in does allow a lot of wiggle room around morality. Everything is relative.
A friend of mine, not a Christian, shocked me not too long ago by (in a slightly tipsy moment) telling me how he saw me. He didn’t get it all right, but he hit upon some real truths about my life. I didn’t like it. It was shocking, like someone had thrown a bowl of cold water over my head. It doesn’t happen often that someone risks everything to speak uncompromisingly, disruptively, honestly to someone else’s personal situation. I respected him for it, but only after I had stopped being furious at him. We stopped doing the “mating ritual” (NB, not an actual mating ritual!) and peered at each other from our separate branches, not quite sure what to do next.
Another friend of mine, a Christian this time – one with a pretty clear gift of discernment – told me recently she suspected I was “diluting myself.” The more I have thought about it, the more I can see it is true. It is part of my personality to value honesty and to challenge others. A few people in my life have appreciated this – my pastor, for example, who will ask me my opinion on something and will really want to know what I think. It is very important to me to learn the right ways of delivering my opinion – I would like to be more like Jesus, who knew how to speak to each person’s heart when he challenged them, sometimes directly, sometimes gently. However, sometimes instead of speaking I have suppressed what I wanted to say. In the past I have really upset people by saying, unguarded, what I think. I have yet to work out whether this was because I was too harsh with them, or just because, like me, they were unaccustomed to being spoken to in such a direct way. And this has made me loath to say what I really think. But when I suppress this, something inside me withers a little, leaving me feeling like I have compromised myself. I do not want people to know a false version of me, masked by the smiling, inoffensive version. I am praying that God will show me what to do with this…
And I’d love to know what you think.
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace. Zechariah 8:16
*Keats, Paloma Faith and Nietzsche. Unlikely bedfellows…