There’s a song by Paul Simon with a line that is worth noting. Now I don’t consider “Rhymin’ Simon” to be one of the great theologians of our time, but in this instance at least he stumbled into a trustworthy saying: you don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.
How many families, marriages, jobs and churches could have avoided disaster by humming that tune? In fact it’s a part (whether Mr Simon knew it or not) of Paul’s exhortation to Christian growth in Ephesians 4:15. Specifically in context, Paul was writing about our obligation to deal with false teaching, introduced to the church by unscrupulous and deceitful men: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
Peter offers similar advice, but this time he is writing to Christians who are being challenged, even persecuted by outsiders, and sometimes backed into a corner to defend their faith to a hostile unbeliever. Peter, famously the most impetuous of the Apostles, says this: but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.(1 Peter 3:15)
Again Paul, in a much earlier letter, this time to the Galatians, gave counsel to those who would need to appropriately confront any who were overtaken in sinful circumstances. Paul’s concern – even towards the end of a fairly severe letter – was that the fallen brother should be restored in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).
So here are at least three situations, all different, where tenderness of speech is to be used while the truth is being said: When bad teaching rattles the doorknob of the church, looking for itchy ears; when unbelievers and outsiders speak badly of us as a community of faith, taunting us and goading us into explaining our beliefs; when a brother or sister (perhaps even son or daughter) is caught up in some sinful trap. I believe the application of tender speech can soften a callous heart when there are hard truths to be said. And today we still have our fair share of wayward teaching, condescending atheists, and sinful traps to blunder into.
How often do we scold and humiliate when we should be about the tender business of restoration and correction. Sometimes like old-school headmasters we instinctively reach for the spiritual cane to administer a good thrashing to the offender – be they heretic, pagan or sinner. We wade in without thinking to stop to pray for gentle words and a tender heart. We flail out from the panicky ledge of emotion instead of taking a calm stand on the firm foundation of the truth. It’s the truth that we need to speak, and the truth can always be seasoned with grace (Colossians 4:6). So make sure there’s some tenderness beneath your honesty.