Truth isn’t popular. It was G. K. Chesterton that said some 60 years ago that: “humility has moved from the organ of ambition to the organ of truth.” We are humble about the wrong thing—about what is true not our ambitious agendas to be loved. If truth is out, speaking truthfully certain isn’t in, unless it serves your agenda (see presidential campaign). Yet, in Ephesians four St. Paul reminds us that the church, God’s new humanity, are to be a people who “speak the truth in love”, who put away lies, and speak truthfully to one another.
The Discomfort of Truth
We don’t like the truth, as a culture, unless it serves us. A local T.V. station recently interviewed locals about their presidential votes. When asking a hipster whom he was going to vote for, he replied: “I’m not voting.” When asked why he said: “I’m apathetic and uninformed.” What should we think about his response? It is admirable that he told the truth about why he isn’t voting…but his commitment to the truth has limitations. Notice that he didn’t embrace the truth that voting in democratic society isn’t just a right but a responsibility. Why? That truth forces him to act, to register, to get informed, to go to the voting site and make a choice. Here we see two values in conflict: truth and comfort. With the hipster, comfort trumped truth. He prefers apathy over principle. He’s committed to the truth only as long as it serves him. Many of us are like him. We prefer comfort over truth.
But wait a minute, there’s a flaw in following this line of thinking. It assumes that truth sometimes is for your good and other times it isn’t. But the truth actually always serves our good, no matter how uncomfortable it is. The discomfort of voting contributes to flourishing democracy and freedom. If I yell at my 17 month old to tell her the truth about putting her finger in the outlet (“That will kill you”), it serves her well, despite the discomfort of her tears. Or take the first example of speaking truthfully in verse 26. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” It’s true that it’s unwise to let anger stew (Prov. 16:32). Yet, we are often slow to correct one another over frustration, complaining attitudes, and anger. Women let gossip go by and men empower anger. We sympathize with anger because it’s more comfortable than correcting it. But unchecked anger is destructive. Anger starts as a mild complaint, festers, and then creates distance in relationships and eventually dissention in the community. Anger tears marriages and community apart. But what would happen in that marriage if someone had loved them enough to speak truthfully? To exhort them to resolve conflict before the sun goes down, to go and be reconciled with their brother or sister (Matthew 18). Sure, it’s uncomfortable but its better, wiser, and true. Who would argue with acting for a saved marriage, a reconciled friendship, a flourishing democracy and yet we refrain from speaking truthfully. Why?
The Fear of Community
I’d like to suggest one general reason why we don’t speak truthfully with one another, then point to a specific reason underneath the reason. In general, we don’t speak truthfully with one another because we perceive no obligation to our community. We don’t live with a mindset that says: “I should look out for others.” We tend to live with a mindset that says: “I should look out for myself.” Marketing is built on this grand presupposition of self-interest. Michael Lerner, author of The Politics of Meaning comments: “The overwhelming majority of people who shape our national media hold the belief that human beings are rarely motivated by anything beyond material self-interest.”
Fundamentally, we see ourselves as individuals, who take for self, not as persons-in-community who give for others. We make withdraws but few deposits. How do we know this is true? I know the temptation in social settings to dodge the deep, to take from others but not to give. Do you encounter this? Do you ask questions, inquire deeply, look to discuss what’s true in social settings? When you walk into a room are you looking to get beyond self-interest? The great news for the church is that we don’t have to live by pure self-interest. In fact, we have a grand motivation for speaking truthfully to one another: “let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25). We’re body parts that belong to, rely on, one another, connected by truth and sustained by grace. As Christians, we are not individuals motivated by self-interest but interdependent members that love one another enough to keep the truth circulating in our body. We just need to get back into our own skin. The skin of our collective new humanity.
The Good of Truthful Community
Here’s where the deeper reason comes in. The obstacle to speaking truthfully isn’t just a case of mistaken identity (individual vs. interdependent members). The deeper reason is that we fear the community. Sounds silly, I know. But we really are afraid of what the community thinks of us, particularly if we discuss, correct, exhort or encourage them in the truth. We are fearful of losing their approval. We are like teenagers, dominated by the fear of what our peers think. This is the reason under the reason. We won’t speak truthfully with our church family because we worship their opinion. This is a massive idolatry we sorely need to repent of. Why repent? Because only God is worthy of our fear. He is worthy because he is great enough to worship, but our community, they’re not worthy of worship. That’s why it is silly to fear the community. They aren’t great enough to adored that much. But this fear keeps us bound from blessing one another with the truth, from sharing the gospel with others, exhorting people to live a holy life, and encouraging one another with words of Scripture. We value comfort over truth. We fear the loss of social comfort. And before we pass off our reluctance to speak truthfully as love, we do well to remember 1 Corinthians 13, where we find that love rejoices in the truth because the truth sets us free. It always serves our good.