By itself, speaking truth isn’t sufficient

Recently I read aloud this two-line stanza from a poem composed approximately 3,000 years ago. And as I did, I noticed the juxtaposition, the tight linkage of lovingkindness and truth.

Your lovingkindness is before my eyes,
            and I have walked in Your truth.

I realized in that moment that coupling truth with love is obvious in theory and poetry. I also realized it’s much harder in practice. “There are two major factors that make a good teacher,” John Seel says, “intellectual competence and relational connection. Every teacher scores higher or lower on one of these two variables… Both are equally important.” Perhaps this is why I remember only a few really good teachers in all my years of schooling. Still, I have no cause to be critical—I also tend towards one end of the show-love/speak-truth spectrum. Thankfully, my wife tends towards the other. Between us there might be one good person.

Luthier Martin Schleske, whose ear is finely attuned to the requirements of harmony in a discordant world insists this linkage by the psalmist is intentional. This is because, he says, when coupled together, truth and lovingkindness are life-giving and redemptive. When separated they become impotent, or worse.

Don’t walk in the truth without having God’s kindness front and center! For without kindness your truth will be deadly hard and sharp. Where kindness is missing, truth becomes a nightmare. It becomes a lie against a grace-filled, merciful, and patient God… Truth protects kindness from arbitrariness; kindness protects truth from lovelessness… Truth told at the cost of kindness is like a harsh, vulgar sound. Kindness overvalued at the cost of truth sounds anemic and dull. [p. 80-81]

At the intersection of lovingkindness and truth is a winsome spirit. This is where healing occurs, where hope flourishes and where reality comes into sharper focus. This is where we find the Spirit of God, for the One who is truth is also love, and is never one without the other. It is where an attractive welcome is given to unhurried conversation. It’s where listening with care is practiced not as a technique but because at the moment nothing is more central to being human and faithful. Being winsome is rare, a confluence of virtue and verity so countercultural as to seem radical.

Jesus identified himself as the truth (John 14:6), a delusional claim if untrue. And he was tenderhearted, weeping at a friend’s death (John 11:35), so that even bystanders were impressed. “See how he loved him!” they said (11:36). Against all religious and social protocol Jesus not only met but had forbidden physical contact with a man considered unclean and untouchable (Matthew 8:3). He kindly exalted a bankrupt, ill and socially isolated woman not only with healing but by identifying with her as family (Mark 5:34). He also spoke truth to power, and not in flattering terms but sharply, calling the Jewish scribes and Pharisees hypocrites. “For you are like whitewashed tombs,” he told them, “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). But even here his intent was not to devalue them by weaponizing truth, but to jolt them into recognition of their spiritual poverty, saying he wished he could gather them to safety as “a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (23:37). In Jesus there is no discontinuity between lovingkindness and truth telling, a winsomeness that remains attractive even to unbelievers two millennia later.

Even in the best of times being winsome is difficult, requiring a courageous choice and a life of quiet discipline and slow maturity. And this is not the best of times. Our world is a harsh place, where grace and beauty remain hidden in the shadows so that only determined searchers uncover them. It’s been this way for a long time.

From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
            of glory to the Righteous One.
But I say, I pine away,
            I pine away. Woe is me!
For the treacherous deal treacherously,
            the treacherous deal very treacherously. (Isaiah 24:16)

People are passionate about their beliefs and values, many holding worldviews impervious to facts, evidence and reason, committed to ideologies with religious fervor. Minds tend to be closed, reinforced by teachers and pundits that mistake correlation with causation, and verbal bullying with persuasion. In a politicized world the only acceptable aim is to defeat those with whom we disagree, whether at the ballot box or in discussion. It doesn’t help when national leaders and media personalities engage in name calling and personal insults, undignified and mean-spirited behaviors parents rightly seek to discourage in their children. Civility in conversation—both personal and in the public square—isn’t merely a social nicety but an essential fruit of virtue. When being winsome is lost, relationships and society become increasingly toxic.

In an online conversation hosted by The Trinity Forum, Arthur Brooks argued we live in a “culture of contempt.” It can be appropriate, he said, to feel a proper anger over nontruth and lies that are disseminated and believed, because nontruth is always damaging. Such righteous anger will animate us to care for one another and make us want to help each other understand better and live and love differently. Today, however, he said, it is not merely anger than ripples through American society and the church. Much of the anger is linked to disgust, a revulsion one feels for what is revolting, rotting or repellant. This distaste, an appropriate response to deadly pathogens or decaying roadkill is now felt for those who disagree with us, transforming them from neighbors into enemies.

Anger + Disgust = Contempt.

In contrast, what we as Christians are called to is shaped very differently.

Lovingkindness + Truth = Being Winsome.

And if you think about it, “lovingkindness” is really shorthand for the entire fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). So, the full equation is:

Love + Joy + Peace + Patience + Kindness + Goodness + Faithfulness + Gentleness + Self-control + Truth = Being Winsome.

In a sermon, Tim Keller mentioned that Christians often rate spiritual growth by an increase in theological knowledge. Though growing in knowledge can be admirable, he said, the real measure of spiritual growth is in the fruit of the Spirit, especially the ones in which we are most deficient. Are we growing there? If not, then we are not maturing in Christ.

Being winsome reveals the paradox of righteousness. Being filled with contempt makes me feel strong, morally superior, and able and eager to crush wrongheadedness. In contrast, being winsome requires me to be vulnerable, willing to serve even at cost, to care even for those who refuse to consider what is right and true. In the rough and tumble of a politicized world, lovingkindness looks weak. So, if you choose to be winsome, expect to be unwelcome in the relentless and ongoing sparring over ideas and ideologies, policies and politics. Expect to be misunderstood. None of this is a surprise for the follower of Jesus. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus told us more than once. The paradox, of course is that the reality is precisely opposite to the feelings, though hard times makes it harder to believe. Living in that paradox requires courage and is at the center of what it means to walk by faith. “But take heart,” the Lord Christ added. “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

And that should be sufficient for us to embrace speaking the truth in love, or to remain silent.


Source: Psalm 26:3 (NKJV); Study Smart: A Christian Guide to Academic Success by David John Seel, Jr. (Lake Almanor, CA: Whithorn Press; 2021) pp. 29-20; The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty by Martin Schleske, translated by Janet Gesme (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing; 2020) 366 pages + notes + index; The Trinity Forum, Friday September 25, 2020, “Redeeming a Culture of Contempt” with Arthur C. Brooks.

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