When I first moved from Missouri to Tennessee, I was welcomed by sweet tea, potluck dinners, and people waiting to hold doors for each other. I’m grateful to have soaked in the warmth of Southern hospitality all these years. The shadow side of Southernness, however, is that sometimes I wonder if people say what they really mean. Admittedly, I too have sugar-coated the truth. But I want to speak the truth in love, and I want to hear the truth in love.
When I read the gospels, I’m refreshed by the language Jesus uses with his friends. It makes me want to be a better friend. But I’m also startled: When I read his conversations with Peter or with the disciples or the woman at the well, I realize that I have a lot to learn about telling the truth. Jesus not only spoke frankly but encouraged his friends to do the same.
Consider Thomas, after the Resurrection: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). My discomfort with this demanding statement probably has more to do with my own doubt than with Thomas’s confrontational personality. (Here in the South, disappointments are best kept hidden.) But Thomas speaks up. Jesus graciously hears him and invites him deeper in: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (v. 27).
What makes this kind of mutual forthrightness possible, I believe, is hinted at in 1 John: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (3:18). Whole heaps of words can amount to nothing, but in relationships forged of authenticity and deeds, even a few honest words can transform.
Unfortunately, in our modern world determining what is honest feels more difficult than ever. Lies today are so adept at dressing up as truths, and their wardrobe is expansive. This sows chaos into all our relationships.
A friend and Greek scholar explained to me recently that, for early readers, one of the clearest symbols of chaos and fear in Scripture was water. This unlocked something for me from John’s vision of the future in Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” The promise of the new heavens and the new earth is that they will be brought out of chaos and into order.
Until that day, we feel the chaos of our lives like rivers, bays, and sometimes an ocean. We build bridges over those divides where we can, with sturdy cables woven of love and truth—not unlike the Spirit hovering over the unformed waters in Genesis 1. Such bridges hold the weight of our doubts with grace and give. Strong bridges can handle storms; weak or disconnected bridges, built of words and formalities alone, cannot.
I think of a similar structural image when Jesus says, “I am the gate” (John 10). By his strength he empowers us to build bridges across the chaotic waters, and he himself is the gate, the safe passage over the bridge. He opens a way for us to overcome division.
When I use a lot of words but fall short of telling the truth, it’s like building a bridge that can’t reach the other shore. When we fall short of loving the way that God loves, we are confronted with our doubt and disappointment. We, like Thomas, have a deep longing to be convinced of what is true.
Of course we all want to be free from the chaos and doubt caused by our sinfulness, but Jeremiah calls out the root problem: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (17:9). I need a new heart to step forward to love in deed and in truth. “Truly, truly I tell you” is something Jesus says often to his friends. His words can be trusted. His words bring life. Grace follows.
Fortunately Jeremiah’s diagnosis is also the remedy, the promise that indeed, for those in Christ, God “will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:26). So pour a glass of that sweet tea and tell it like it is.
Cheers to friendship and speaking the truth in love.
Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter @Sandramccracken.
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