Fitting Words or Fighting Words

As a kid, when faced with the cruel words and name-calling so common among children, I usually retorted:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

Did ever a less true statement pass the lips of a child? I knew then what we all know: words can hurt deeply, and the wounds can last a long time – even a lifetime.

Despite the potential for hurt, sometimes hard-to-hear words must be spoken. Jesus himself spoke explosive words – “hypocrites…blind guides…blind fools…whitewashed tombs…serpents…vipers” – when speaking to the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23:13-36). One might see these words as utterly hateful epithets, and yet, even as Jesus pronounced his “seven woes” upon these men, we find him weeping over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39) because its people would not accept him as Messiah and Savior. As harsh as they were, lurking beneath those words was a long-suffering love ready to embrace any one of those religious leaders had they humbly repented of their sinful obstinacy. Jesus perfectly incarnated Paul’s exhortation to believers that they must be seen as those “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Finding ways to speak honestly, but sensitively, can be challenging at times. But whatever we say must be truthful because  we place a high value on truth – “…having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor…” (Ephesians 4:25). Truth must always be wrapped in love.

Perhaps you have heard the story of a pastor who received a pie from a woman in the congregation. He took it home, and upon discovering how awful it tasted, promptly threw it into the trash. Seeing the pastor a few days later, the woman asked: “How did you enjoy the pie?” Cautiously he replied:

“All I can say is that a pie like that doesn’t last long in our household!”

We might question the pastor’s reply, but the story does highlight an important dimension of conversation – we must always speak truthfully even if we do not say everything we could say.

However, there are times when failure to say something difficult is the unloving approach, as the ancient wisdom writer reminds us: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5). Quoting several Bible commentators, Allen Ross writes:

Direct reproof is better than unexpressed love … ‘Open rebuke’ is a frank, direct word of honest criticism or disapproval (from either a friend or foe). ‘Hidden love’ is a love that is too timid, too afraid, or not trusting enough to admit that reproof is a part of genuine love … A love that manifests no rebuke is morally useless … In fact, one might question whether or not it is sincere.

Allen Ross, “Proverbs” in Expositors Bible Commentary Vol. 5
Zondervan Publishing House, 1991, p.1095.

There is a time to encourage, and there is a time to exhort – wise Christians know the difference. For unlike the perverse, “the lips of the righteous know what is acceptable” (Pr. 10:32).

About David Daniels

Evangelical Baptist Pastor. Reformed Soteriology. Enjoy freelance writing & reviewing.
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