When American Idol was in its Simon Cowell heyday, the musical pundit and caustic judge would frequently say to inept singers, “If I’m being honest…” and then go on to eviscerate the hopeful stars. Most of the time Cowell hit fairly close to the mark. He couldn’t know the contestant was “the worst singer in America,” but we all knew they weren’t very good. While many people disliked Cowell and brushed him off as mean-spirited, his criticism fueled the show and just as many people loved Cowell for “being honest.”
When I was junior at Abilene Christian University I was a part of a spring break ministry trip to San Francisco. One afternoon, we walked the campus of UC Berkeley looking for students to talk to about Jesus. There in the quad a man stood, literally on a soapbox, holding bull horn and yelling students about homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and a host of other activities he viewed as “sin.” How he knew if these students were gay or sleeping with their boy- or girlfriends I don’t know, but he seemed to have a burr in his saddle about it. In response, students yelled back at him and made fun of him.
Because of that response, we agreed his approach was a less than effective way to manage conversations, so we sat down at table with people and had conversations.
After we left, our group discussed the soapbox guy. More than one person lauded the man for “speaking the truth.” There was something about the way he stood up there, in the face of anger and ridicule, that was inspiring to some of us, even though – as far as we had eyes to tell – it was completely impotent.
I get it! Christians are frequently inspired by people willing to speak the truth. Maybe we shouldn’t be…not always, at least.
Throughout Christianity and the Judaism which gave birth to her, there has always been an important, powerful call for followers of God to speak the truth. But what we oftentimes forget is that speaking the truth is not the same as speaking the facts.
Here’s what I mean (and this is simply used as an example): A few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner (I call her Caitlyn because I think people ought to be called what they want to be called regardless of the reasons why), was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair as the first Trans-Gendered cover model. Many people lauded it. Others called it sinful and twisted. Fair enough: This is something we all have opinions about.
What caught my attention, though, were the Christians who called him/her disgusting and repugnant. They felt they could use these words because they were “speaking the truth.”
This kind of conversation passes as speaking the truth, but it’s a dishonest truth. NT Wright calls it “the dishonest honesty of truth meant to hurt.” Here the truth isn’t designed to perform truth’s duty, that is, to set free, but rather to hurt and wound. It’s flippant, frivolous speech borne out from our anxieties about the nature of the world more than any desire to bring freedom or light. It’s like seeing an obese woman in Wal-Mart, calling her “fat” just because she is. It’s truthful, but it’s malicious.
Here is the uncomplicated truth: When we speak cruel words to and about other people, we are sinning. What ever sin others commit (or sins we perceive they’re committing) is simply beside the point! Sinning through words is just plain sinning and Christians are doing it all the time. It’s past time for Christians to hold one another’s feet to the fire about the popular, daily iniquities we commit with our words, our Facebook posts, our blogs, and Tweets. It’s is a dishonest honesty, and if Jesus is “the truth,” every pitiless word we speak moves us away from God.
There is no hierarchy of sin; no Class-A and Class-B categories, no felonies and misdemeanors. All sin is sin! All sin is an affront to God. We don’t get to injure others with our words and use attendance at last Sunday’s worship service as a “get out of sin free card.” St. Paul wrote it this way:
Don’t let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them. It’s time to stop bringing grief to God’s Holy Spirit; you have been sealed with the Spirit, marked as His own for the day of rescue. Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts—these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. – Ephesians 4:29–32a
Simon Cowell may be “being honest,” but no one is made better by his presence. He adds darkness to incompetence. And should we join him in comforting ourselves in the deceptive blanket of believing all facts serve the truth, we help usher more darkness into a world increasingly devoid of light.
Paul says the measure of our speech is that our “words…communicate grace to those who hear them.” In a stunning reversal of what we might expect, God’s measure of our words isn’t their accuracy, it’s whether they communicate grace to those who hear them. I need to be more mindful about that. Maybe you do too.