“full of grace and truth” John 1:14
“Who can pull that off?” is the question I ask with all the urgency I can muster because I’m more convinced than ever that this is perhaps the only possible solid foundation upon which genuine intimacy can be built. Look at any relationship where love continues to ripen and deepen, year after year, and you’ll find that the couple has managed to express both truth and grace. But there’s more. The couple has also found a way express these elements at the right time, and in the right proportion. Tools, without a sense of proportion or propriety, can be destructive. I may need a cutting tool, but if the object to be trimmed is my fingernails and my tool is a chain saw, the results can be bloody painful. Here’s what I mean:
Too Much Truth: “I’m just being honest” is perhaps one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. It’s usually the preface to some truth that will, in the end, benefit the truth teller much more than the truth receiver. In the name of honesty, we run the risk of inflicting great damage. For all of us, it’s not just a matter of delivering the truth. It’s matter of learning to deliver the timely word “in season”, which means that it’s possible to say the right thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and do terrible damage.
This is my complaint, sometimes, with honest people. They leave a trail of damaged relationships in their wake because they haven’t learned the wisdom of staying quiet. In contrast, consider Jesus: He chose disciples that he knew had tempers, doubts, petty jealousies, selfish ambitions and, at times, slow minds. Still, he chose them. And, rather than offering a pre-emptive assessment of all their strengths and weaknesses, he created an environment where, over time, the light of revelation would expose those areas in need of transformation.
In other words, Jesus didn’t (and still doesn’t) feel the need to change every element of personality in a single day or week. When someone makes me and my transformation (God knows I need it), their personal mission, and major relational focus, I promise you that I’ll find a way to build a wall and prevent you from entering in. As a result, that someone is shut out and frustrated, and my weaknesses remain unchecked. This is using a chain saw instead of nail clippers. After 32 years of marriage, I’m convinced that one of the greatest gifts my wife and I are able to offer each other is timely, proprotional truth – offered in a way that’s tailored to favor maximum receptivity on the part of the other. This way of loving is rooted in the belief that while truth is needed, truth that’s not received is of no value whatsoever, and so truth needs proportion and timeliness, both of which require wisdom and grace.
Too much grace: Ah, but too much grace is damaging too. Drugs that are good for moderating inflammation can also kill you, if served up in too high a dose. There are people in this world who are terrified of either speaking or receiving hard truth. They flatter in the name of grace, but what they’re offering isn’t grace at all, it’s just plain dishonesty. They overlook deep failures and character flaws, refusing to bring issues into the light for fear of what might unfold if the status quo is upset. Counselors call it “enabling”. Because of it, spouses stay in abusive relationships. Addictions go unchallenged, even by the addicts closest so called friends.
Grace in proper proportion provides space and time for transformation, and a place of safety for confession. Too much grace provides space, not for transformation, but for hiding.
Too much truth seems to presume that the time is always now, and the messenger is always us.
Too much grace seems to presume that the time is never now, and the messenger is always someone else.
We could nit-pick here and argue whether too much grace is really grace at all, or too much truth is really truth. But that would miss the point, which is to say that unless we know when to encourage and when to confront, when to speak and when to be silent, when to say the hard thing, and when to let the hard thing go – we’ll make a mess of our relationships. Messes are made by people on both sides of this problem, of course, and each of us would be wise to consider how we need to recalibrate our proportions for each relationship and situation.
Having said that, I’ll observe that I’m more concerned than ever with the fallout I’m seeing from situations where truth is used as a chainsaw. I really don’t care if you can quote chapter and verse about why you’re right and I’m wrong, unless I know that you love me, and I’ll know that you love me because the chapter and verse truth has been delivered (to switch analogies) as an IV drip, in a place of safety and nurture, rather than by sticking my head in a bucket of truth and holding me under, waterboard style.
Sure; I know that I need to receive truth from all sources. I need to recognize my tendency to shoot the messenger when I don’t want to hear the hard word. But if we could all respond perfectly to truth when it’s delivered, we wouldn’t need a savior. That we do need one reminds us that we’re flawed, and as flawed people we need to remember that truth and grace, in just the right proportion for a particular moment or relationship, is what God calls us to pursue.
My valentine’s evening will be spent with someone who knows me better than any person on the planet – knows my doubts, failures, shame, pain, fear. That I know she loves me anyway is why, when she has the hard word to deliver, I will, in the end, listen and respond. This truth and grace in proportion thing is, I believe, not only an important conversation; it’s the very reason I need Jesus. After all, He’s the one who gets this right, and it will be by living in intimacy with that I’ll learn how to do it too.
What do you think? More truth? More grace? Just right?