I used to have a friend named Charlie. We lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same elementary school. He was quiet but friendly. Even among fourth grade boys those qualities usually made for a good friendship. Charlie lived next door to another boy in our class and one day after school we were all going to Taylor’s house to play basketball. First, we had to stop at Charlie’s house.
Charlie was the only boy in a house of women. He and his sister lived with their mom. I never met his dad. And Charlie didn’t talk about him much. Our other friend, Taylor, and I had both our parents at home and we both had a brother. Both of our dads did well for themselves, and by extension, us and our siblings. Our moms were always home when school was over. And the chores were evenly distributed among us all.
But Charlie often carried the lion’s share. Even as a young boy he did a lot of the messier chores. And this day he had strict instructions from his mom. Before he could play he had to finish a few chores. Taylor and I had no intention of helping Charlie with his chores — we expended enough effort avoiding our own chores — but we didn’t want him to be alone in a dark house.
So, the three of us walked home from school, down their street, and straight into Charlie’s house. Fall in the midwest, with it’s iron-gray skies, could make a house feel cold and dark — even at 3 in the afternoon. Standing in their dimly lit kitchen, in alternating blues and reds against a backdrop of white, I recognized the familiar pattern of a sponge-painted wall.
I have no idea if that was popular in the early 90’s. As a nine year-old boy, I had no interest in home decor or design. It was a familiar pattern to me because we had painted my room the same way. Despite our many differences, we shared the porous pattern of a sponge-painted wall.
I hadn’t told Charlie all of that, though. Neither did I tell him that my wall was blue and yellow, not blue and red. I also failed to mention that I wasn’t a big fan of red. All I told him was: “I don’t like that.” It wasn’t malicious, just honest. Yet my honesty did not stop all the smile from draining from his face, down his legs, and out of the room entirely.
But he didn’t ask my opinion. He hadn’t even mentioned the wall. It didn’t matter to anyone how I felt about the color-scheme they had chosen. No one asked how I felt about it and we didn’t have a strong enough relationship to freely share my opinion about anything at any time. It was true, but not everything that is true needs to be spoken. Sometimes “your truth” needs to stay in “your mouth."
Growing up in the church, I was always taught that Christians have the truth. Jesus, himself, is truth. Jesus is truth in flesh. He even says as much (John 14:6). We are quick to quote Paul, when he tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In real life, this looks like a stubborn insistence on speaking the truth — regardless of whether or not anyone asked; and especially regardless of whether it needs to be said at all. Paul’s words are used as justification for saying whatever we like because we interpret Paul’s words as if he means: “speaking the truth is love.”
But that’s not at all what Paul means. And it’s not even close to what Jesus taught. Jesus taught what is true. But by stating that he is the truth, Jesus rebukes every attempt to insist that truth is merely a proposition. An idea can be true or false, but the timeless truth is embodied in the person of Jesus. In fact, all of the truth contained in Paul’s epistles or Peter's correspondence, or John’s vision, are nothing more than Spirit-inspired reflections on the ways that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Because of this realization—truth is more than an idea or a quality, it is personal—it requires engagement with another person. Jesus spoke to truth to everyone, but he did it face to face. He did it in people’s homes and over meals. He spoke the truth directly to individuals. And his silent answer to Pilate’s question — “what is truth” (John 18:38) — is an indictment on anyone who attempts to reduce truth to an impersonal concept.
Embodied truth was also embodied love. John states clearly, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Truth and love come together in the person of Jesus. No one else lived and spoke with absolute truth and in complete love.
When we consider this and begin to observe his interactions with people, Jesus spoke honestly at all times. He also spoke tenderly, but only with those “outside” the faith. To the “truth-is-love” crowd, he spoke only the truth and dropped the love. To those who used truth — and their possession of it — as a club and a wall, Jesus speaks directly and bluntly. To the self-righteous, Jesus — absolute truth in the flesh — resorts to using truth as a club, not to beat but to humble. Jesus uses truth against the self-righteous to shatter their hard hearts. But, to those “living in sin," to the “perverted,” to those with questionable politics and even worse associations, Jesus speaks truth lovingly.
Another interesting thing to consider: Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are, “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:14). Rather than make us guess what that means, Mark shows us. He calls the disciples to follow him and learn to imitate him; he heals the sick and the paralyzed; he delivers demonized men and women; and he teaches. In Matthew, his first words are to tell John that his baptism “is necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). In Luke, the pre-teen Jesus asks Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49); John, also, has Jesus asking a question, “What are you seeking?” (Jn 1:38).
Jesus always spoke the truth and calls his disciples to do the same. Yet, the very first words in each of the four gospels provide a powerful corrective to our “truth-is-love” oppositional approach. Jesus spoke the truth that he was the faithful King who makes unfaithful people righteous (Matthew). Jesus spoke the truth that the Kingdom of God had come near enough that all a person needs to do is reach out a hand (Mark). Jesus spoke the truth that he came that all who follow him would be welcomed as sons and daughters in his Father’s house (Luke). Jesus spoke the truth to reveal what’s really in the heart of every person (John).
In other words, Jesus spoke the truth because there is no other way for him to speak. Truth is the only language he knows. Truth, in the dialect of the Kingdom of God, is always about God’s promise, his invitation, his welcome, and his presence.
You know what I wish I would have said to my friend, Charlie?
What I know now, is that a little boy like Charlie would have felt love and acceptance just knowing that his friends were with him. I wish I would have had the maturity to keep “my truth” in my mouth and, instead, speak the truth in the way of Jesus—picking up the broom or the dustpan and joining my friend in completing his chores. And not so that we could get them done quicker or have more time to play. No, speaking the truth of the Kingdom to my friend would mean helping him with his chores, so that in some small way the truth of Jesus’ love could resonate in his heart: “I am with you."