A True Friend Stabs You In The Front

You’d think a friend would be someone that doesn’t stab you in the back.  Oscar Wilde, a playwright from the last generation, disagrees.  True, a friend does not stab you in the back.  But a friend is not indifferent towards you, either.  You know your true friends, Wilde says, because they care enough to stab you in the front.

The Selfishness of Being Nice

My parents instilled in me that if I had nothing nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all.  It’s a good lesson, and it’s served me well.   The idea is that, when your mind comes up with something that tears down, the last thing you should do put it out into the world.  When something hateful enters your mind, the loving thing to do is to keep it from escaping.

Over time, that good lesson morphed into something else: I should only say nice things.  Instead of restraining my sin so it doesn’t cause more hurt than it has to, this new way of thinking suggests that the only way to love somebody is to be nice.  It dovetails nicely with our natural desire for others to like us.  If we are always nice, always accommodating, always saying pleasant things, then our relationships with others will always be nice, accommodating, and pleasant.  And isn’t that the kind of peaceful life together we all want?  Won’t that make for an attractive Christian community that others want to be a part of?  They shall know we are his disciples by how nice we are.  

It took time for me to realize how naive this is.  First, being nice can be code for being insincere.  In other words, “nice” can be a pleasantry, a superficial covering over what we really think.  We take our thoughts and say them “nicely.”  When this characterizes a group of people, you don’t have a community that is attractive because of its depth and honesty.  You have a community that is attractive because it is shiny and happy.  Most people have grown to be wary of communities that are too “nice” in this way.
Second, being nice can be extraordinarily selfish.  Someone once said, “Your success in life is determined by the amount of hard conversations you are willing to have.”  I’m not sure about life success, but I think this is true of loving relationships in spades.  You can tell how much you love someone by the amount of hard conversations you are willing to have with him or her.  It is far easier in life and friendship to take the path of least resistance.  If I see something in your life that needs to be addressed, I instantly categorize it as a “good conversation” or a “hard conversation.”  (Notice the dichotomy—good conversations are always pleasant!).  But why should that matter?  If I think I can help you thrive, why am I asking what kind of conversation it will be?  I can obfuscate at length, but the truth is simple: I’d rather be nice than be loving, if being nice means getting out of a hard conversation.  Being nice can be selfish, especially when it means putting my comfort ahead of your well-being.  

Speaking the Truth In Love

The solution, of course, is not to swing the pendulum and “get real” by voicing all your sinful thoughts in the name of authenticity.  This is too often a way of avoiding self-control, that fruit of the Spirit which insists that saying what we think isn’t holy by default.

Instead, Scripture tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).  Paul is being very balanced here, and we would do well to follow him.  He is not advocating using the truth as a hammer on any problem you can find.  (There are plenty out there who regularly find themselves saying, “The most loving thing I can do is tell you the truth, so why are you crying?”).  Nor is Paul advocating a kind of empty love, with lots of feeling but no movement (“Now we’re both crying, why don’t we feel any better?”).  Instead, Paul says that love is the context from which all truth is to be spoken.  The metric is not how nice you are being, but how loving.  And the truth is spoken not as a bludgeon to force change, but as the only way to push past sentiment in a loving friendship.  You’ll know I love you when I stab you in the front.  

Christ and The Risk of Love

The gospel is the story of God speaking the truth in love to a people who would consistently reject him.  But his love was undeterred, and he spoke his most loving truth when his word became flesh—Jesus Christ, who would die for you and me. There is a steep cost to speaking the truth in love to someone else.  It brings with it significant risk: they might turn on you, reject you outright, slander you when all you were doing was trying to love them.  And yet isn’t that what Christ has done for us?  He not only took the risk but embraced the certainty of the cross so he could speak the truth into our hearts in love.  
Let me ask you: how many risks have you taken in the name of love for your friends and family?  Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  This is not license to be harsh, but a command to risky, self-sacrificial love.  Who is God calling you to love today?