Tempering the truth with love
I delivered the following message at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, February 13, 2022.
Today, we continue our study of the book Graciousness by John Crotts. The subtitle of this book is, “Tempering Truth With Love.”
As we learned last week, we never have to make a choice between speaking the truth or speaking in love. Love rejoices in the truth, so the truth is the only loving thing we could ever offer someone (1Co 13:6). If we’re not speaking the truth, we cannot be speaking in love. Of course, as Jason showed us, it is possible to speak the truth without love, so that’s our primary challenge. We need to have the courage to always speak the truth, but we also need the wisdom and discipline to speak the truth in love. As the subtitle of the book says, we have to learn to temper truth with love.
Admittedly, speaking the truth in love can be a difficult balance to strike. Again, I don’t mean we are balancing truth and love as though these two things are somehow at odds with one another. I simply mean that as we speak truth, it can be challenging to know how much sugar to sprinkle on it, if you will. The problem is, we sometimes sugarcoat the truth so much that it no longer resembles truth. People may not recognize the truth we’re speaking if we’re too indirect about it.
For example, a gay woman visited my church several years ago and very bluntly asked me, “Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?” Keep in mind, I already knew she was gay. I also knew she was searching for a church. My dilemma was that I wanted to answer her question with the truth, but I didn’t want to scare her away. I wanted her to stay, and I was tempted to do what every politician on television does, which is evade the question. I wanted to find a way to appease her without giving a direct answer to her question. I’m not sure how I might have done that, but we can be quite clever under pressure.
As I thought about it during the brief moment I had, I decided to answer her question directly. “Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?”
“Yes, I do, and here’s why.” Then, I proceeded to guide her through several relevant passages of the Bible.
The reason I chose to give a direct answer on that occasion is because she asked me a direct question. Did I temper the truth with love? I certainly tried. First, I spoke as calmly and gently as possible. Second, I tried my best to understand where she was coming from. Right or wrong, I imagined she was accustomed to conservative churches of the Bible Belt talking about homosexuality as though it is one of the most heinous sins a person can commit. While a lot could be said about that, I wanted her to understand that no one in our church was innocent before God. We were all guilty. There is no one righteous, not even one (Ro 3:10).
Thankfully, she received what I said very well and continued to come to the church for quite awhile. But that’s the kind of situation where it can be very challenging to know just how much sugar to sprinkle on the truth. Imagine the same conversation if I had not plainly stated that homosexuality is a sin. What if I had merely said that we’re all sinners? That’s true, but do you suppose she would have walked away with an opportunity to feel convicted about the particular sin of homosexuality if that’s all I had said? Probably not. She would have likely walked away thinking, Yep, we’re all sinners, so the person who’s not engaged in homosexuality is really no different than me.
As we learn to temper the truth with love, we never want to sacrifice the truth for love because that’s an oxymoron. If we lose the truth, love is no longer an option.
Jesus graciously confronts self-righteousness
With that in mind, let’s consider some biblical examples of tempering the truth with love. Go with me, first of all, to Mark 10. Perhaps it goes without saying, but we have no better teacher than Jesus Christ himself. So, let’s examine some of the interactions he had with people.
Starting at verse 17, we read, “As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mk 10:17). We’ll pause right there for a moment.
How would you answer this man’s question? Most of us would probably feel a little giddy. It’s not every day someone blatantly invites you to share the gospel with him. But where do we begin?
Do we talk about God’s love? Do we jump to the sacrifice Christ made for us? Do we begin with an exhortation to have faith in Christ? All of these things are true, of course, and necessary to talk about, but there’s an underlying issue that we have to address. God’s love, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, putting our trust in him for salvation— As true as these things are, they won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t yet recognize his or her sinfulness.
In Romans 6, Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). While we love to proclaim the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus, that announcement has little significance apart from the first half of Paul’s statement—“For the wages of sin is death.”
The contrast Paul presents is important. It’s like seeing a commercial for a weight loss program. If they merely guarantee you’ll lose weight, you’ll think, Okay. How much weight? What would I have to do? So, instead, they’ll show you before-and-after shots along with a caption that says something like, “Lose x-number of pounds in only thirty minutes a day.”
It’s great to tell people about salvation, but it stands to reason that we’ll also have to tell them why and from what they need saved. At some point we have to talk about sin, hell, and the wrath of God. The question is, how do we speak these truths with graciousness?
Look what Jesus does here. I’ll skip to verse 19. Jesus says, “You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother” (Mk 10:19). If we didn’t know any better, it would sound to us as though Jesus is suggesting a person can save himself by keeping the commandments. If that’s not what he’s doing, what is he doing?
Let’s continue to quietly sit back and watch the Master at work.
The man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these commandments from my youth.”
Looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions. (Mark 10:20-22)
What is Jesus doing? He’s leading this man to a point of conviction and repentance by exposing his sinfulness. Unless the young man recognizes his desperate need for the Savior, there would be no use in him following Jesus, so Jesus probes the most sensitive part of this man’s heart. He loved his earthy possessions, and his reluctance to sacrifice them for treasure in heaven revealed his heart was not as pure and his devotion to God was not as sincere as he once believed (Mk 10:21).
What is Jesus doing? He’s confronting a self-righteous man with his own sin. More to the point, he does so in a remarkably gracious way. He doesn’t raise his voice and shout, “You liar. You depraved wretch.” He doesn’t even correct the man’s ignorance regarding his supposedly perfect record of keeping God’s moral law. Instead, he gently leads this man to see it for himself.
Granted, Jesus is the God-man, so we may think, Of course, Jesus can do that, but I don’t have the ability to see into someone’s heart or read his thoughts. No, we don’t have that ability, but that’s what makes Jesus’s graciousness in this story all the more remarkable. He knows just how sinful this man is. Christ knows the depths of his depravity. Furthermore, his anger against sin is inevitably more zealous than our own, yet he displays incredible patience. The text says, “Jesus loved him,” and everything Christ says or doesn’t say here is an expression of love intended to draw this man to himself (Mk 10:21). Though he is leading this man to a point of conviction, Jesus isn’t trying to tear him down. In the grand scheme, he’s building this man up.
I read these conversations Christ had with people, and I am in awe of our Lord. I kept help but pray, “Lord, teach me that kind of graciousness.” Sadly, my impatience, my pride, sometimes my anger, and certainly my careless tongue get in the way far too often for me to be as effective as I should be, which leads us to an important point in this discussion.
The gracious character of Jesus
Turn back with me, if you will, to Isaiah 42.
While you make your way there, I’ll remind you of something Jesus taught. He said, “The mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Mt 12:34). In other words, the kind of speech that comes most naturally to us is an accurate reflection of our character. We can study many examples of Jesus speaking to various people, but we should understand that he’s not just speaking the right words at the right time in the right way. If we look a little deeper, we’ll see that his ability to temper the truth with love comes naturally because of his character.
Here is what Isaiah prophesied about Christ:
This is my servant; I strengthen him, this is my chosen one; I delight in him. I have put my Spirit on him; he will bring justice to the nations. He will not cry out or shout or make his voice heard in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed, and he will not put out a smoldering wick; he will faithfully bring justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)
Commenting on this text, Sinclair Ferguson writes:
Here we find reference to [Christ’s] meek and gracious spirit in the pursuit of righteousness. He does not break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick; he does not draw attention to himself or parade his own abilities. This is the consequence of the divine gift, “I will put my Spirit on him” (Isa 42:1). What Paul will describe as “walking in the Spirit” and bearing “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-26) finds its prototype in Jesus himself, as does Paul’s rich description of love as the first and most essential mark of the Spirit (1Co 13:1).
Jesus is not a model of graciousness because he read and memorized How To Win Friends and Influence People. He very naturally spoke the truth in love because both truth and love flowed from his heart. His very character was marked by graciousness.
Once again, however, we may argue that Jesus is the God-man. As wonderful as his example is, we’re not God. How can we, mere mortals with sinful natures, be expected to have hearts and tongues overflowing with graciousness? The answer is, the same way Jesus did.
Notice again what God says about his Son here in Isaiah. “This is my servant,” he says. “I strengthen him. I have put my Spirit on him” (Isa 42:1). Does that sound familiar?
In Ezekiel 36, God makes a similar promise only he’s not speaking about what he will do for his Son. Instead, he’s describing what he will do for all of his elect people under the new covenant, and here is what he promises:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
Do you see the similarities? We, too, have the Spirit of God. We, too, have the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22, 23). I would argue all of these things are needed to treat others with graciousness, but we do not supply them ourselves. We are equipped by none other than God himself.
Yes, the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart, but according to Scripture, God has given believers a new heart capable of following his Son’s example of graciousness (Mt 12:34; Eze 36:26). If you want proof, let me give you an example.
The most fantastic display(s) of graciousness
I cannot think of a more gracious instance than when Jesus hung on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). After these people falsely accused him, falsely convicted him, mocked him, spit on him, tortured him, and literally nailed him to a cross, the first words out of his mouth are, “Father, forgive them.”
I’d like to pause here because that kind of graciousness deserves a moment of reflection.
I was watching a movie with my daughter the other day. She’s at a stage in life where she asks the question, “Why?” a hundred times a day. As we were watching the movie, a movie I had never seen before, she averaged approximately one why question every sixty seconds or less. Ten minutes into the movie, I couldn’t answer her questions because I wasn’t sure what was going on, but she persisted. “Why did she do that? Why is he wearing that? Why is she going that way?” To be candid, it was a little frustrating.
Later that night, I was sitting at my desk, thinking about this subject of graciousness, and I turned in my Bible to Luke 23, where I read, “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). I thought back to earlier in the evening. I was slightly annoyed by my three-year-old daughter’s ignorance, so I encouraged her to sit quietly and watch the movie. Jesus is crucified, and his response is to pray for God’s forgiveness of the ignorant. You can imagine how petty and ashamed I felt even if I wasn’t blatantly ungracious.
That’s an example of graciousness Jesus provides. Peter, in turn, says to believers—I’m reading from 1 Peter 2:
When you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.
For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23)
Notice that Peter does not believe following Christ’s example is out of reach for us. In fact, he says Jesus has left us an example by what he did and did not do, what he said and did not say while suffering on the cross (1Pe 2:21).
In the most fantastic display of graciousness, Jesus prays for the men who are crucifying him. Peter tells us to follow in his steps (1Pe 2:21). Lastly—and this is what I was leading up to—we read of a man by the name of Stephen in Acts 7. Starting at verse 54, the story goes:
When some of the Jews heard what Stephen had said in defense of his faith, they were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him. Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And after saying this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
Despite all appearances, Stephen is not a superhuman. As you know, he’s not the God-man. He’s a mere mortal like us. He’s a sinner, but full of the Holy Spirit, he expresses the same level of incredible graciousness as our Lord on the cross (Ac 7:55). As Peter taught, he followed Christ’s example. His heart was full of truth, so he spoke the truth even in the face of peer pressure to do otherwise. His heart was also full of love, so in this moment of severe testing, gracious speech flowed naturally from his lips.
Blaise Pascal once remarked, “[Kind words] soothe and quiet and comfort the hearer. They shame him out of his sour, morose, unkind feelings. We have not yet begun to use kind words in such abundance as they ought to be used.”
Can you imagine what Stephen’s final words might have done for the souls of those men standing around him as he died? We can only speculate, but at least one man in the crowd that day likely never forgot what Stephen said. His name was Saul (Ac 7:58).
Paul’s lack of graciousness
To be clear, Stephen’s graciousness did not have an immediate impact on Saul. As we discover in Acts 9, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (Ac 9:1). He continued to be a tenacious, violent, angry persecutor of the church, finding any men or women who belonged to the Way, an early reference to Christianity, so he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Ac 9:2). Evidently, he murdered his fair share of Christians as well, which the death of Stephen alone proves.
Saul, who would soon become the apostle Paul, later confesses in Acts 26, “In all the synagogues I often punished believers and tried to make them blaspheme. Since I was terribly enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Ac 26:11). In other words, Paul was anything but gracious. He refused to listen. He was impulsive. He thought he was defending the truth, but as it happened, he was utterly blind to the truth. Even if he had been defending the truth, he never made the slightest effort to temper the truth with love. He was quick to punish anyone who disagreed with him.
Perhaps that version of Paul is an extreme example, but I still believe he’s one to whom we can relate. Maybe we’re not throwing our opponents into prison, but how many times have we shown our impatience, anger, and spite to someone during a disagreement? How many times have we treated our Bibles not as a light, but as a weapon? How many times have our words, tone, and demeanor in a conversation accomplished the exact opposite of what we intended? I’m sure it’s happened more times than we care to admit.
Escaping an ungracious reputation
Paul, however, was an unregenerate unbeliever at that time. We wouldn’t expect him to speak the truth, let alone speak the truth in love. So, perhaps the more relevant question for us is, what can we learn from Paul after his conversion?
First of all, we need to realize that it takes time to shed our reputations. For example, let’s say you have the reputation of being ungracious. Let’s say people think of you as a Pharisee in a religious context. Let’s say they think of you as unloving in the same or another context. Furthermore, let’s say you’ve developed a heart to change that aspect of yourself. God has opened your eyes to see yourself as others do, and you don’t want to be that person any longer.
By the grace of God, you may change the way you speak and act, but you may also run into stumbling blocks. You may find that some people in your life refuse to believe you’ve changed. Why? You have a reputation of being ungracious, so people still think of you as ungracious despite any progress you’ve made to the contrary.
I make this point because those stumbling blocks may very well discourage you from following Christ’s example. You may think to yourself, Well, if everyone believes I’m still ungracious, I may as well be ungracious.
Paul faced the same dilemma. After his conversion, he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues (Ac 9:20). He went from murdering people who preached Jesus to boldly preaching Jesus himself. Was that enough to convince people he had changed? I’m afraid not. According to Acts 9:
All who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man in Jerusalem who was causing havoc for those who called on this name and came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)
Then, even after Paul becomes a hated man among the Jews just like every other Christian, he arrives in Jerusalem, tries to join the disciples there, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple (Ac 9:26).
It took time for Paul to escape his own reputation, but that didn’t stop him from pressing on.
Paul’s inconsistency regarding graciousness
The second lesson we can learn from Paul is that old habits die hard.
I think we all understand that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, but that does not mean we lose all temptations of the flesh (2Co 5:17). That does not mean we instantly become perfectly holy Christians. We still struggle against our flesh. We still have to fight our old nature. Our former habits may still rear their ugly heads from time to time, which was true for Paul.
Do you remember the argument between Paul and Barnabas at the end of Acts 15? As they prepared to set out on a missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to take his cousin, John Mark, as a ministry companion, but Paul did not. “Paul insisted that they should not take along this man who had deserted them and had not gone on with them to the work,” we’re told. “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Ac 15:38, 39). The argument became so intense that Paul and Barnabas wouldn’t even travel together any longer.
People have speculated about who was right, but that hardly matters when the truth is spoken without love. I’m not sure who was right about John Mark, but there’s a decent chance they were both wrong in how they handled the situation. Two friends serving together in Christian ministry do not suddenly refuse to work together unless they allow a disagreement to continue while failing to love one another.
If you study Paul’s life and words carefully, you will notice hints that he probably had a temper. That was certainly true before his conversion, but we see glimpses of it even after his conversion. Look at Acts 26, for example.
In Acts 26, Paul is standing trial, if you will, before the Sanhedrin. Seemingly out of nowhere, the high priest Ananias ordered those who were standing next to him to strike Paul on the mouth (Ac 26:2). Granted, Paul’s response is pain-induced, but as we know, the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Mt 12:34). Paul says to Ananias, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You are sitting there judging me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law are you ordering me to be struck?” (Ac 26:3).
To be clear, Paul wasn’t incorrect. He spoke the truth, but even he quickly realized that he had not tempered his words with love. He, then, confesses he did wrong and quotes Exodus 22, saying, “You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Ac 26:5).
In short, Paul displayed some inconsistency in regards to graciousness, which is probably true for all of us. Thankfully, we have the sanctifying presence of the Spirit to slowly but surely conform us into the image of Christ, who was a perfect model of graciousness.
Paul’s gracious ministry in Ephesus
Lastly, let’s consider a positive example from Paul. In the time remaining, go with me to Acts 20.
As far as we know, Paul spent more time with the church in Ephesus than any other church. He was in Ephesus for approximately three years. In Acts 20, he’s passing by Ephesus once again, and he calls for the Ephesian elders, so he can see them one last time. Starting at verse 18, we read his final address to them.
Skipping down to verse 25, Paul says:
And now I know that none of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will ever see me again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, because I did not avoid declaring to you the whole plan of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears. (Acts 20:25-31)
I love this passage. First, we clearly see that Paul spoke the truth. Over the course of three years, he never avoided declaring the whole plan of God (Ac 20:27). Even in this moment, he continues to speak the truth, though the truth is hard. He has to look at these men, whom he’s loved and ministered among, and say to them, “Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth” (Ac 20:30).
Second, we see that Paul spoke the truth in love. He says, “Night and day for three years I never stopped warning each one of you with tears (Ac 20:31). Those last two words seem to capture the very essence of graciousness.
True graciousness begins with God. His grace changes our hearts. It changes us from the inside out. Our new hearts, then, transform the way we treat others and communicate with them. True graciousness is not exclusively about saying the right words or even speaking the truth. True graciousness runs deeper than words. It is a byproduct of genuine concern for others. It’s the kind of concern that brings us to tears as we strive to lead them in the truth. It is desperate to find a humble way to ultimately build others up. It is patient and kind. It does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, and is not irritable (1Co 13:4, 5).
If we are gracious, we will never hesitate to speak the truth, but when we do, we will do so out of sincere love for both the truth and those people to whom we speak.