The Need for Hard Words in the Life of the Christian

Are you an HSP?  Are you a “highly sensitive person?”  If so, please note that the following book is available to you: Highly Sensitive Person’s Companion: Daily Exercises for Calming Your Senses in an Overstimulating World.  Or, you could go with the classic text on the HSP, The Highly Sensitive Person.  Parenting an HSP?  Check out the website designed especially to assist you and, specifically, to lighten the heavy burden of your wallet.

In all seriousness, we are living in an incredibly sensitive age.  The existence–and best-seller status!–of the aforementioned texts shows the prevalence of sensitivity.  Don’t believe me?  Try telling someone you know a hard truth about them.  Tell them, as gently as you possibly can be, that there is something that they need to work on–their parenting, their interaction with the opposite sex, their manner with people, and so on.  I can almost guarantee you that they will react sensitively.  In a culture that values self-esteem and derides self-control and self-abasement, sensitivity is thoroughly in style.  Hard words are out; soft words are in.

Which brings us to a difficulty reality: the Bible places great value on hard but necessary words.  Consider Proverbs 26:5-6:

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the text reads, indicating that a huge part of friendship, surprisingly enough, is to wound, by which we mean rebuking, warning, counseling, even scolding.  These aren’t “in” words today.  Anything but.  But they are thoroughly biblical words.  They often bring life, though in our highly sensitive age (HSA, for those of you scoring at home), we think that they bring death.  We think that for someone to chastise us is for them to irreparably harm and wrong us.  Sure, once in a while, we’ll tolerate a little counsel, a few scattered suggestions here and there, but we have precious little stomach for anyone who wants to sit us down and walk us through a plan for godliness in an area of weakness.

Do a little historical experiment with me.  When was the last time that someone really searched your soul?  By this I mean, when was the last time that a close friend gave you extended counsel in an area of your life that involved measured rebuke and warning?  Or, to extend this into the realm of the truly alien, when was the last time that you personally sought such counsel from a trusted companion?  Can you remember the last time you did so?  Have you ever done so?

This is not to say that you’re a bad person or some such thing if you never have.  Some people are very shy; some people struggle with spiritual confidence; others have difficulty making close friends in a certain life situation; and so on.  But many of us, I think, fail to receive such counsel because we are not in any way open to it and, furthermore, because we perceive such talk not to be a matter of life, but of death.  If someone criticizes us, that is, we die a little death inside.  Our self-esteem is shaken, we’re shown to be fallen and fallible, and sin reveals itself in carefully managed areas we thought to be perfectly clean.  Like a disappointed Army recruit after a failed inspection, we experience shame at our poor performance.

And so we structure our lives to receive the least amount of rightful shame and guilt necessary, thinking in doing so that we are helping ourselves to live and flourish.  But we are dead wrong.  We are helping our souls to rot and fade.  We die a little each day, each week, each month, that our patterns of sin go unexamined.  And I’m not talking merely about self-examination–I’m talking about the examination of others, particularly members of our local congregations.  It is right and good to examine ourselves, to take careful stock of our spiritual lives and sins, but we also very much–one could say desperately without going overboard–need people to speak into our lives and to address areas of our lives where sin is clinging to us like mold on bread.  The church is not given to us by God as a venue to laud our impressive spiritual performance, our flawless social bearing, our pleasing physical presentation, but as a means of grace, a great funnel of blessing that lifts us on a weekly basis from listlessness and struggle to life and joy in Jesus.

To bring it all together, if you don’t have anyone pointing out sin in your life, it’s extremely likely that you are proud, not that you are sinless.  I catch myself thinking this somewhat regularly–“Man, I’m doing well–no rebukes in 5.6 days”–and thus carry on my merry way.  But this is fool’s thinking.  The Bible teaches me that even after the Spirit inaugurates the new man in my person, I am still shot through with sin (see Romans 7; if you don’t like that interpretation, consider the struggles of the Corinthian church or 1 John as proof that sin continues to infect the believer after rebirth).  The absence of rebuke, of “wounds,” then, likely means not that I’m doing well, but that I’m doing poorly.

We must not be HSPs.  We must revolt against the culture and our own flesh and seek out counsel from trusted friends as to sin in our lives.  We should not do so in a sensitive way, of course, but should welcome their rebukes and warnings.  We should regularly invite evaluation from fellow church members and other friends of our parenting, of the way we’re carrying out biblical gender roles, of our speech, of our academic work, of our job performance, of our church involvement, of our writing, of our blogging (!), of our listening, of our evangelism, of our preaching, of our friendliness, of our devotions, and so on.  In a culture that consigns itself to death due to its unwillingness to invite and hear rebuke, we must show another way.

We need to become HSPs, in sum: Heart-Searching People.  If that sentence is too cheesy for you, then focus on this one: we need hard words.  We need wounds.  If we don’t have any, we have to wonder, are we in the fight for purity at all?  Have we grown so culturally attuned that we cannot hear the voice of God calling us to repentance and change for the glory of the risen Christ?

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  • Al

    This is a good word. As a pastor, I need to give out hard words, not just generalizations. Will I be liked?
    Or will I be a friend? And of course I need hard words directed towards myself too.


  • dave

    Good thoughts. I think you brushed against what may be, if not THE root cause, at least a significant root cause; namely, the decline of biblical friendship. In your article I noted that you move from “friend,” to “close friend” twice, and finally to “trusted friend.” I agree. Hard words are not shared between casual, “drive by and wave” sort of friends. But, are we not looking at a “chicken or the egg” scenario? What comes first? Deep friendship? Or, hard words? Hard words are risky, like tossing the relationship up in a strong wind, maybe not to come down in the same spot. Maybe to come down in a very different spot. After all, I reason, is not our relationship to some degree conditional? Based upon the image of you and your image of me? Not perhaps birthing in the real you and me? Thus, realizing my hards words may send you packing, I hesitate. And in hesitating, I miss the providential opportunity for our “drive by and wave” relationship to take deep roots. So then, in response to your fine article, do we work on being truly committed as friends? Or, do we start sharing hard words, regardless of what we are in our friendship? If the former, is that possible apart from hard words? If the latter, will that not cut short the opportunity for developing committed friendships? Such a headache you’ve given me! 🙂

    thanks for your thoughts, dave

  • owenstrachan

    Wow, Dave, I don’t think that a post of mine has ever stimulated quite that much thought! You ask great questions, and your comments on closeness of the relationship being key to speaking truth ring true. My general response would be that we need to create cultures of truth in our churches in which brothers and sisters are comfortable gently confronting one another (Gal 6:1). At the same time, we don’t want a church of people firing off at one another all the time. There needs to be a balance, and usually hard words go down best with a strong shot of friendship.

  • M

    This article definitely had some truth in it. I am a Christian, and think that accountability relationships can be very useful in spiritual development and growth.
    However, I take issue with how quickly you dismissed HSPs. Do you know anything about them? They are not simply overly emotional people who need to get over it… their nervous systems are actually wired differently and so they get overstimulated by sensory information more easily. Sometimes this manifests itself emotionally (with increased empathy and becoming emotionally drained more easily). Sometimes it also manifests itself in tactile, olfactory, and auditory modalities. Asking them to simply grow thicker skin would be like asking an introvert to become an extrovert. (Again, there are actual physiological differences between introverts and extroverts. Introverts expend energy when they are with other people because they naturally, and extroverts expend energy when alone. This has to do with their levels of dopamine in the brain.) Even if you’re not an HSP, try to be a bit more sensitive, please…

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Excellent post Owen.

    If we would “confess sins one to another” it might prevent the problem of fearing to provide “hard words” to another Christian or to receive “hard words” from another Christian.

  • L.M.

    Hi! Please don’t think I have missed the point of your well written post. I have not, and agree with your thoughts. However, I take issue with your opening examples. It appears that you have no clue what a “highly sensitive person” (HSP) is about. This does NOT (repeat does NOT) mean these people are touchy, emotional, and get their feelings hurt easily! It is inaccurate, unfair, and a misrepresentation to portray these books as such. What it does mean… Some people have nervous systems that are more “sensitive” or in-tune to the environment around them. Perhaps you could say they are more observant, but that implies a conscious decision to be observant. But an HSP takes in more of their environment whether they want to or not. They notice little things and small changes that are overlooked by many. They are more “sensitive” to moods, noises, lights, etc. A “regular” person arrives at work, sits at their desk, and starts to work oblivious to much around them. An “hsp” walks in and…immediately picks up on a tense atmosphere in the office, notices a pile of papers that was not there yesterday, notices that the person in the next cubicle seems sad, notices that the desk lamp seems brighter (maintenance replaced the 40 watt with a 60 watt), etc. So, just fyi, these HSP books are not about people who are touchy and easily offended.