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Obstacles to speaking the truth in love

Obstacles to speaking the truth in love
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15 NIV)

It’s easy to see why this is important in any group of people and any relationship. However at times it can be hard to put into practice. This is an exploration of why it is hard, how to be wise and, where needed, to face up to our fears and trust in God’s plan.

This article could be used for personal reflection, teaching to a large group or small groups. Questions for reflection or discussion are suggested. Also some scenarios for discussion or role-plays are given at the end.
Without honesty coupled with kindness we will find it impossible to build each other up in Christ, maturing as his followers. This will be true for those called to shepherd from a position of giftedness to the church as a whole (Ephesians 4:7-13). But it also applies to all disciples as we practice the one another commands. Think about the following passages:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29

“We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

There are lots of examples in the Bible of people who were afraid to speak up (e.g. Mk 16:8, Luke 9:45). Jesus acknowledges this fear (Matt 10:26-33) and urges us to speak up anyway. Consider the following reasons we avoid ‘speaking the truth in love’.

1. Culture

Not wanting to hurt feelings is a very English trait considered ‘good manners‘ and drilled into children here from a young age. The same behaviour tends also to be strong in many Asian cultures but is not part of Italian or many African cultures. It is less strong in the US than northern Europe. Some cultures place a high value on frankness and exposure of issues. The apostle Paul acknowledged that culture can powerfully influence our behaviour (Titus 1:12).

I have been trying to grow in speaking up more. The result at work is that I have been given a rude, unrepeatable nickname by a work colleague! The nickname has been given in jest because I’m generally a ‘nice’ person and tend to allow myself to be ‘put upon’ by others at work. However I don’t exactly feel spurred on to speak up by my new name!

Question: What level of honesty is acceptable in your culture? What is considered more important – being nice and not hurting feelings (running the risk of dishonesty) or being brutally honest (running the risk of upsetting people)?

2. Uncertainty

What if I am wrong? Can I be sure my opinion is correct? Sometimes it seems clear that what someone has done is not right, however it may just be our opinion.

Question: How can we manage this uncertainty?

Pray about your concerns before speaking up. Consider the following passage:

Ps 32:8 “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.”

Seek advice from another person before speaking up:

“Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.” (Proverbs 13:10 NIV)

When you do speak up, acknowledge your uncertainty. “I’m not sure, but what I think I saw was ....... Am I right?”
Remember it is best to express an observation first, and give the other person a chance to explain the situation. An observation is different from an accusation. You are simply reflecting back to the person what you have seen - or think you have seen, at least. Depending on their response you may then find it appropriate to offer some advice. But remember that it is a good idea to first ask them if they’d like to hear what you have to say!
Jesus does this in Luke 10:38

‘As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

In this passage Jesus makes an observation about her feelings which would have helped Martha to know that he understood how she was feeling. He was then able to give her some advice.

3. Reaction

We can worry about the immediate reaction of the person we are trying to help with our truth-in-love observation. Will they be hurt, upset, angry, shout at me, be retaliatory, and if so – what on earth will I say and do?

It can be very discouraging if observations are rejected, or offers to help are spurned. If in doubt it’s usually better to speak up than not, but remember it is not our place to make someone repent. This is the work of the Holy Spirit!

2 Tim 2:25 “...those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

When you feel you’ve been ‘put down’, take a deep breath and ask kindly, ‘What could I do that would be helpful for you?’ or ‘What would you like me to pray for you?’ Even, ‘Can we agree to disagree?‘.

We are advised by Paul in Romans 14:1 to “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” However, if the disagreement is over something you think might be an issue of sin and righteousness, then please seek advice from a mature Christian about how to proceed.

4. Worry

We often are tempted to worry about what people might think of us. Will they think I am being disrespectful? For example we tend to worry most about authority figures in our lives: older family members, parents, employers, church leaders and so forth. Do you feel like you need permission from someone to speak up?

The answer to this includes prayer:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6 NIV)

Question: With what kind of people do I find it hard to speak up? What strategies can you employ to speak to someone who intimidates you in this way?

5. Treatment

Are you worried about how you will be treated after speaking up? You may be ignored or gossiped about.
Question: What personal experience have you had in this regard?

I was once nominated by my friends at school to speak to another friend about her severe body odour problem. She did freshen up but the poor girl felt so upset she never spoke to me again. I remember her reaction very clearly and was deeply hurt. It puts me off speaking up even now!

Now that we have thought through some of the difficulties we face, consider the following scenarios. You could use them for group discussion or as role-plays. In each scenario ask yourself, ‘How do I feel about this? What approach might I take to discussing the issue?’

1. A church member has a reputation for being late for dates and doesn’t seem to be bothered about it.

2. Parents of a small child do not seem to want to quieten or take out a noisy and disruptive child during the quiet parts of a church service.

3. During a group prayer session, one member dominates the prayer time, allowing little time for anyone else to pray. At the end of the prayer time the person does not notice what they have done, either!

4. You have spoken to a member about repeatedly forgetting to bring their share of refreshments to family group and they say they are unable to be consistent in this area.

5. You are concerned about the pictures of ‘wild parties’ on a member’s Facebook page.

Penny Cox, Oct 2010