Gracious Candor: A Tutorial in Speaking Truth in Love

March 14, 2012

Gracious Candor - A Tutorial in Speaking Truth in Love

Katherine is a wonderful woman in our congregation who loves Jesus, stays at home with her kids, and is trying to be a faithful wife to her husband. A few weeks ago Katherine and I had a conversation. She shared about her struggle with sharing her opinions in a way that does not seem domineering. Katherine is a legitimately kind and Spirit-filled woman who wants to be loving towards those with whom she is in relationship. She is aware, however, of a tendency in her own life—which has been confirmed by others—to come across as bossy, preachy, overbearing, and judgmental.

Katherine is perplexed. She is passionate and full of conviction, and desires to speak truth into the lives of people she loves. She is not sure, however, that she understands how to do that in a way that is not harsh. She very humbly asked me what she could do to be able to speak honestly without sounding insensitive.

Now of course there is Ephesians 4:15 to consider and apply: Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. If we are to grow up in Christ in the context of our conversations, the apostle Paul commands two things about our words.

First he makes a command about the content of our speech—it must be truthful. Second, he makes a command about the method of our speech—it must be loving. Everything we say needs to be both wise and loving. Our speech is to be full of gracious candor. I talked about this passage with Katherine and it helped, but she also was a bit discouraged. The passage points out what she already knows she is not doing. It doesn’t give her steps to change.

So what did I say to Katherine to help her live out Ephesians 4:15? Asked another way: what other biblical principles can we use to help the Katherines of the world know how to lean on the grace of Jesus to have speech that is less harsh, and more seasoned with salt? Ephesians 4:15 describes the goal. That day as we talked, I gave Katherine seven suggestions to help reach the goal.

1. In humility, avoid thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.

These words are, of course, a command from Paul in Romans 12:3, and when the Lord returns and pours out His grace to obey them perfectly there will never again be another harsh word. Sometimes our words sound unkind to others because—even though we were exactly correct, and communicated with perfect pitch—the person who heard them responded sinfully to them. This is possible. But for those of us aware of deep patterns of pride in our own hearts, we should be careful not to assume it is true.

The reality is that, for most of us, our words are wrong before they ever even leave our mouths because they are generated from an arrogant, self-exalting heart. My ideas are correct; yours are wrong. My motives are pure; yours are suspect. My plans are wise; yours are foolish. When words are drawn out of this poisonous well they will not be spoken in love even if they are technically accurate because love does not envy or boast, and is not arrogant or rude (1 Cor. 13:4). My friend Katherine needs to learn, as I do, that before I ever clear my throat to speak I need to repent of the self-righteousness that drives all harshness.

2. In humility, count others more significant than yourself.

These words come from Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2. This consideration is the mirror image of the first point. If we would avoid harshness, our words not only need to involve a flight from self-exaltation, they need also to include a rush towards service of others. Whenever I speak to anybody I am addressing someone whose concerns Jesus wants me to consider above my own.

That means I need to speak as one trying to serve the significant interest of others. So often we speak to serve our own interests. We want others to hear our opinions. We want to air our own advice. We are eager for others to see things our way and laud our insights. We are on the way to speaking wise love when we repent of such motivations, and speak words that we honestly intend to serve others rather than our own interest.

3. In humility, listen first, and speak last.

James 1:19 says, Know this my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak. When I consider myself with sober judgment, and count your interests as more significant than my own, then this command makes perfect sense.

A humble consideration of my own limitations, and an earnest desire to serve you, naturally leads to a listening ear in order to discern how my words can be maximally helpful. We invert this passage and speak first whenever we think too highly of ourselves and too little of the interests of others. People will sense that our words are harsh, insensitive, and irrelevant if they are not aware that we have listened well to their concerns.

4. In humility, deal with the matter as privately as possible.

In the classic passage on church discipline in Matthew 18, the first step Jesus commends is a private conversation between an errant brother and the one who would restore him. This is wisdom. I have been in pastoral ministry long enough to witness on numerous occasions the folly of making a private matter more public than it ought to be.

In our pride we often desire to voice our convictions in such a way that a maximum number of people can hear how smart we are. The wisdom of humility commends a different ethic. If we want to avoid harshness we will usually seek privacy. There is obviously a time and place for immediate, and public rebukes (Gal. 2:11-14), but normally we should hold our fire until we can speak privately.

5. In humility, be honest about your own struggles and limitations.

In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus teaches His people a process of reconciliation that requires confession to precede confrontation. Jesus’ wise command encourages me to come alongside you confessing my own sin and weaknesses before I help you deal with yours.

This is not the way we often handle similar situations. In our sin we like to avoid our weaknesses, limitations, and struggles. If we would avoid harshness, however, and attain to the goal of speaking the truth in love we must follow Jesus and learn to lead with our own weakness.  Doing this will soften the hearts of our listeners, and most importantly, honor Christ.

6. In humility, be honest about the graces of others.

In Luke 6:37-38, Jesus says, Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. This passage commands Christians to extend charitable judgment to others.

Avoiding harshness as we speak with others means acknowledging that it is rarely the case that the person with whom we are speaking is defined exclusively by their faults. Everyone has positive aspects that are worth considering, and mentioning. It is an act of love and humility to consider and share with others the good things in their character above and beyond any difficulties you are addressing with them. Sharing such things is not a matter of avoiding difficult topics, or of puffing up their ego, but of fundamental faithfulness to Christ.

7. In humility, speak the truth.

The seventh suggestion returns us to Ephesians 4:15 where we started. We are reminded that we must speak the truth. If you fail in the first six steps you’re unloving. If you fail here, you’re untruthful. Neither is good.

Jesus wants Katherine, you, and me to engage others and minister to them by speaking true things into their lives. It is not loving to avoid giving people the truth. It is not wise, however, to think we have discharged our burden by uttering true statements without speaking them lovingly.  For those of us who understand that God wants us to speak true things, we need to grow in the grace of avoiding harshness in speaking that truth.

I pray these seven suggestions help you, as they did Katherine, by providing seven areas to examine your speech, seek forgiveness, and lean on Jesus for grace to avoid harshness and pursue love as you talk to others.

Join the Conversation

Which of these seven principles would be most helpful in your speaking the truth in love?

What additional biblical principles would you add?

34 thoughts on “Gracious Candor: A Tutorial in Speaking Truth in Love

  1. As a Pastor of Marriage and a Biblical counselor I found this posting particularly helpful.  It is practical, specific and Biblically based. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this article. This whole subject has been on my mind for quite a while since, I have been on both sides of the harshness. The most difficult thing can be the very first words out of our mouth. After reading a few things online, including this article, and listening to a few sermons on the subject, I have come up with this order of speaking to someone about their sin (once all the prerequisites mentioned above have been addressed):
    1. Ask the person if they will give you permission to speak into their life. This may or may not be something you choose to do so, I listed another #1 below that could be your starting point OR, the first #1 could come after what’s below:
    1. Affirmation of love for the person with a mention of their good qualities.
    2. “It seems to me that _______________. This has been a struggle for me too at times. What do you think? Am I off base here?”  Give them a chance to respond and even offer a defense.
    3. Maybe, continue the conversation by asking good questions that might help them see the truth (if we are indeed speaking truth).
    4. Conclude with reaffirmation of your love for them and then pray with them allowing them to lead off or end the prayer. This shows we value their input.
    * If we start off sounding harsh, it may be possible to do “damage control” by gaining  control of ourselves (i.e., desperately praying for the Holy Spirit to take control) and continuing the conversation. Sometimes, the hardest part is just getting the ball rolling.
     What do you (anyone) think?

  3. Thanks for a great article. As a college student at a Christian school I find my trying to speak truth to fellow students specifically in a dorm context. I really found the First and Fourth points very helpful.
    I so often think in my head about the other persons foolishness or the wisdom that I have when its is really in my foolishness that the Holy Spirit brings wisdom to my lips and the first point does such a great job of reminding me that I’m motivated by a sinful heart, I forget that all the time. It is also just helpful because it is very easy for college students, including me, to think we are right all the time and others always wrong and that motivation comes from our self-righteousness.

    Also point four is really helpful because things at college specifically at a dorm seam to always spread, from the smallest to largest issue. And point four is just a helpful reminder to limit the number of people I talk to as small as possible.

  4. Excellent piece. Wish I’d read it 25 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of grief!!

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  6. Great advice. I too struggle with how to speak truth in a way that leads to redemptive engagement.  One of the most frustrating issues for me is that our society has weighted the value of holding an opinion as higher than seeking the actual truth. People take it personal if you challenge “their truth.” I know much has been written about this, but it definitely adds discernment and sensitivity to speaking the truth in love.

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  8. “What additional biblical principles would you add?

    Look at the biblical examples of Jesus and the Apostles Peter, John, and Paul.

  9. Just sent this article to my mom and some women that I lead. Then I wrote the seven principles in my journal for my own keeping. 🙂 

    The hardest one for me would be the first one. I often think far too highly of my opinions and like to hear myself speak, but God is sanctifying me. I’m much meeker than I was a decade ago when I first became a Christian. 🙂

    Thanks for posting!

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  11. Great article! Best definition of this concept I learned from a counselor years ago: Speak the truth without vomiting all over the other person. In other words, don’t just assault them with truth to make yourself better.

  12. I would also add James 4:17… “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” As someone whom God has used to be a truth teller in many instances, we must be obedient to God’s leading, but do so with compassion, grace, and a desire to see others grow in their maturity. In addition, I would add Romans 13 as truth when the law is broken.

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  14. Really helpful, thank you; I’ll be linking to this.

    I would add this one: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1). Sympathy and gentleness win the heart and soften criticism. Sometimes they win people so greatly that criticism becomes unecessary! But always, rebuke or criticism should be clothed in gentleness. 

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  17. #6 – Everyone has positive aspects that are worth considering, and mentioning.  This is so often missed, and a great reminder.

     Gary Coiro, nonprofit leader and former pastor

  18. Thanks so much for this article!  I’ve been really pondering this very issue for some time now, especially as a woman.  We live in a culture that says, “don’t judge” (which sometimes really  means, “don’t tell me that my sin is wrong”), and so, in our fallenness, we all tend to veer one way or the other – either we give up on speaking the truth at all, because it might offend, or we hammer away at people’s sin with an unloving heart. 

    I would add that the more we deal with people in ministry, the more we’re all going to have to know how to speak truth in love, and that we’re not always going to do it right; but that just as we receive grace from the Lord and others when we fail, so we need to extend that same grace to others in their growth in their fight againt sin.  Not everyone is on the same time-table with the Lord, and the Lord is using even another’s sin to make me more like Christ in some way.

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  20. I just had this conversation yesterday with a friend, in discussing moral issues. I feel that if we speak truth, with love and with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, this truth brings LIFE. If we speak truth, but with no love or unduly harsh or at a time when its not fruitful to speak, we cause death. This piece explains it so well, I think I will have to pass it on!

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  23. Our city had a flood 2 yrs ago in which I organized and set up/led worship in motels for a 1 1/2 years. It was challenging but I thought I did good and the pastor/congregation confirmed it. I came to a team leaders meeting one night recently and had a bad attitude; something that I think was from just being worn out. I received an email from my pastor the next day; at work in the middle of the day; with ‘stepping down from leading worship’ as the subject line and he proceeded to inform me that basically I was spiritually lacking, I needed to tend to my marriage (which, if he got the chance to know me, is great) and he didn’t know if the step down was permanent or temporary. He then left for a meeting in another state without personally contacting me to talk to me or see if I was doing OK. I wasn’t. It devastated me. I’ve met with him since and he stated the intent behind his words was love. My own adult son approached me and ‘spoke the truth in love to me’ as I feel I had taught him and it resulted in healing. My pastors version did not. God uses all things, but I don’t think email is one of them as a ‘face to face’ medium. Your words in this article as so very true and I’ve used the above approach to people I love and God blesses in it. Be Blessed.

  24. Excellent article and powerful insight on how to be gracious. Nevertheless, I was hoping for more insight on point seven; in our seeker-friendly mega- church era how do we avoid losing site of the “truth” in our concern not to offend? Avoiding extremes seems to be the real challenge.

  25. I was once confronted about sin in my life by another man whom I had just met. With tears in his eyes he simply said, “you don’t need that in your life”. I was hit between the eyes with truth spoken in love. It changed my life.

  26. That’s awesome! I think that the genuineness of our hearts will naturally flow into words and/or actions that accurately reflect the heart of Christ. That’s why mere head knowledge can do damage; people know when you actually care. I think it helps tremendously to have our eyes opened to the hidden depths of our own personal sin. Even as spiritually regenerated people, we still sin of course and I am seeing more and more just how horrible that sin really is in the eyes of God. This increased awareness of those hidden depths produces greater appreciation for grace and compassion for others. So, it’s not a focus on sin but a proper awareness of it so we truly have the mind of Christ…..that’s where I’m at in understanding this subject currently.

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  28. Thank you for this. I come from a verbally and emotionally abusive background, and am constantly struggling to overcome that learned behavior.

  29. I love this post! But I would like to add that sometimes, no matter how “loving” and gentle we may try to approach certain subjects, there are things that will always offend people and cause them to label Christians are judgmental or hateful. I’ve seen some of the nicest, sweetest Christians share things in true love and gentleness, but get completely lambasted and attacked. The Pharisees sought to kill Jesus because He shared truth, and sometimes it was very straightforward and bold. The litmus test for how well we are saying something should not be how well the message is received.

  30. Woww! You are SO on it, Mike…thank you so much for what you’ve added to this already FANTASTIC article. Your additional commentary has helped me as well. May blessings be upon you and your family always brother.

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