Speak the Truth, or Keep Silent?

If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be candid, talk to my mother. If she didn’t like something, she’d say so without mincing her words. If she felt we were making the wrong decision, she’d harp on how the cons outweighed the pros. If she was facing any problems, she’d tell us exactly what they were and ask for help without any hesitation.

Pretty characteristic of most mothers, you may think. But unlike most mums who would be blunt only within the family, my mum was equally blunt with everyone.

Once, she gave my cousin a piece of her mind for not spending enough time with his parents. Another time, she told her colleague to give her son more play time instead of just sending him to one enrichment class after another. On another occasion, she cited statistical data to prove to my brother’s friend that the copious amount of sugar in soft drinks was detrimental to his health.

Every time she dished out her unsolicited advice, I would observe the reaction of the receiving party. Most of the time, they laughed awkwardly. Sometimes, they nodded sheepishly, and every once in a while, I could see them squirm in their seats.

Keeping silent

Although I’m my mother’s daughter, I find it very hard to be that frank and honest. When forced to give an opinion, I tend to adopt the “sandwich approach”: start with a compliment, slide in the criticism, then end with another compliment. Most of the time, however, I keep my mouth shut to avoid any awkwardness or confrontation. The main problem with the latter approach is that people end up taking my silence as consent. Actually, I may completely disagree with their point of view, but they won’t have a clue because I don’t say a word.

That is one of the reasons why I admire my mum’s directness. At least if she says she likes something, I can trust that she actually means it. But a far more important reason is that underlying her painfully honest and at times almost cruel comments, is the fact that my mother really cares. When she opens her mouth to give her two cents’ worth on an issue, it’s because she really hopes we’d do the right thing. And when we do get things right, she is genuinely happy for us.

In contrast, I don’t offer my views a lot because—I’m ashamed to admit this—I don’t really care that much. I’d much rather maintain a superficial, cordial relationship than risk spoiling it by telling others what I really think. Many times, I find myself smiling or nodding when hearing an opinion, but actually thinking about how absolutely ridiculous that person’s view is. I speak up only if it’s with people I’m close to or care about. And if you have the privilege (or misfortune) to hear what I really think, it can get pretty unpleasant.

Recently, a thought crossed my mind about why voicing my opinion bothered me so much. Did it really matter what my opinion was? The answer was clearly no. But what if it was a matter of right and wrong? Would I speak up? I found these questions difficult to answer.

A dear sister in Christ showed me what was the right thing to do when I was in my second year in college. She had asked if I could help lead a group of juniors in Bible study; I replied that I needed to focus on studying for my A-level examination at the end of that year. I can’t remember exactly what else she said, but her final question has been etched in my memory ever since: “If God were to ask you, ‘What have you done for Me at the age of 18?’, how would you reply?”

Convicted of my selfishness, short-sightedness, and lack of love for my sisters in Christ, I broke down in tears.

Till this day, I count this as one of the most painful but precious lessons God has taught me through a friend. This sister of mine, in daring to speak up on something she felt was wrong, had exemplified what Proverbs 27:5–6 says about “wounds” inflicted by friends: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

Speaking the truth, without love

Of course, the motivation behind any rebuke or advice must be love. Far too often, Christians have been guilty of being bigoted, unloving, and intolerant in our attempt to uphold the truth in our lives and around us. As an ignorant and impudent 10-year-old, I remember telling my classmate about Jesus on one occasion and urging him to put his faith in Him. When my friend said he didn’t believe and turned to walk away, I remember yelling out to him: “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.” I’m just grateful my friend didn’t turn around to punch me in the face. His reply, on the contrary, left me stumped: “If I’m going to hell, so be it.”

Looking back, that episode was a perfect example of me speaking the truth without love. If I had genuinely cared about my friend, I would have taken the time to find out why he didn’t believe, try to address his concerns in the best way I could, and pray for him—instead of simply pronouncing judgement in a vindictive manner.

Speaking the truth, in love

In Ephesians 4:15, Paul tells us to speak the truth in love to help our fellow brothers and sisters grow in maturity and Christ-likeness. There is a need to speak the truth in love, even if it hurts, and even if it is not sought after. In his article on “Truth and Love”, pastor and author of more than 50 books, John Piper, notes that speaking the truth in love doesn’t always mean speaking in a soft way—or else Jesus could be said to be guilty of lacking love in dealing with some of the folks in the Gospels. My mother too is a good example of how truth need not always be dished out in a soft-spoken way.

Piper went on to explain that speaking the truth in love however, “does ask about what is the most helpful thing to say when everything is considered. Sometimes what would have been a hard word to one group is a needed act of love to another group, and not a wrong to the group addressed. But in general, love shapes truth into words and ways that are patient and gentle.”

Truth and love go hand in hand. Pastor and theologian Tim Keller put it perfectly in one of his sermons: “Truth without love is imperious self-righteousness. Love without truth is cowardly self-indulgence.”

So far, I’ve been guilty of both—self-righteousness and self-indulgence. I still have a long way to go, but I pray that through time, I will learn to speak the truth again—but this time with genuine love.

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