When entering into a conversation with other believers about engaging our world with the love and grace of Jesus, I have come to accept that the discussion will probably include someone immediately and compulsively offering the righteous-sounding caveat “But we need to speak the truth to people!” And what we mean by “speaking truth” is telling others they’re wrong and sinful. It’s a defensive impulse, one which presents itself with every impression of being right and good, but simultaneously possesses a wall-building quality that can shutter us off from our mission, leaving us disconnected and ineffective. Understand that I have no quarrel with the idea of speaking truth. I’m not willing to compromise what I believe, and I’m not afraid of using the word “sin.” But I have to ask, why is the need to speak truth so often our first reaction when we think of relating to the people around us? Why have we seemingly, and with a nearly militant posture, elevated this to the position of priority above all priorities?
Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink and engaged in conversation before he confronted the truth of her sordid relationship history. Before repentance happened in Zacchaeus’ life, there was an unexpected dinner around his table. When confronted by the self-righteous, Jesus turned the questions of condemnation back on them before telling the adulterous woman to go and “sin no more.” Before words of truth were spoken, we see an expression of love and acceptance that was surprising, extravagant, and scandalous to some. His truth revealed itself in the warm, healing light of His grace.
When truth is stripped bare, ripped from the context of grace and shot like a defensive missile across the border, we no longer bear the image of the Jesus we claim to follow. When followers of Christ are more willing to tell people they are wrong than we are to sit down at the dinner table with them, we do more to hinder the mission of God than fulfill it. If we assume it is our job to bring conviction into the lives of others, we deny any trust in the power of God’s Spirit to do His work. If our first priority is to speak words of correction or condemnation, we neglect the words of Jesus when he clearly said the identifying mark of His people is how we love. And love, in its way and in its time, will push open the doors, allowing truth to speak; but when truth takes the lead, rushing ahead before love makes itself known, the doors turn into walls.
Our first priority is not to “speak the truth” to people; our first priority is always to live as the embodiment of The Truth. If our proclamations of right and wrong are not preceded by a life of love, our words will stand as an expression of arrogance rather than a reflection of Jesus. To be like Christ, our words of truth must reside in the context of a life that reveals the greatest of all truths and the first words of our message: God so loved the world.