Towards the end of my high school years, I developed this very noble ideal of always telling the truth, of being a deliverer of truth where truth is lacking. Even if the truth was bad news, even if it was going to hurt the recipient, I thought it would be right to deliver it.
My rationale was this. If I deliver some piece of correct information to someone, and it is clearly very bad news to that person, and as a result of hearing this news their happiness is significantly diminished, and perhaps it wasn’t news that they necessarily needed to be made aware of – am I morally blameworthy? Have I done the wrong thing? Well no, I’d say, because all I have done is told them the truth. All I have done is give them an increased accuracy in their understanding of the world. Their unhappiness isn’t really in reaction to something I’ve done; it is in reaction to the way things are. What gives them pain is the state of the world, to which I was merely a mediator. Had I not told them the truth, their happiness would have been based on ignorance. I have removed the barrier of their ignorance and released them to the freedom of assessing reality as it is.
Now I still believe this, really. I think we probably can’t be fully blamed – we are never unjust – for telling the truth. But, I think, we can do even better; we can go deeper. There is some higher justice to be reached in the grace with which we tell the truth.
The first thing to realise here is that our duty to tell the truth is entirely contingent on, subservient to, our duty to love one another. Honesty is a derivative of love. I’m not making this up! For those of you who believe the Bible, Paul said that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, [etc.]’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Rom 13:8-9) And Paul wasn’t making this up either. He got it from Jesus (Matt 22:34-40). So the whole reason that we are supposed to tell each other the truth all the time, is because we are supposed to love one another, and honesty happens to be one of the best means of loving people.
Now the next thing to realise here is the meaning of love. And what a simple, yet brilliant idea it is: to seek another’s wellbeing. To love is to place others before yourself. And most importantly, to love is to give someone not what they deserve, but what they need. Love is blind to the failings and wrongdoings of its object; its only office is to give to a person whatever it is they truly need.
And so here’s where I’m going with this. When a person comes up to you and asks you a question, what is it that you are to do? Why, answer it truthfully of course. Ah, but here comes the question: what truth are we to give them?
The natural response, when someone asks us a question, is to speak to them some true statement that logically satisfies the conditions raised by the question – a textbook answer. Lachlan, what’s 38 x 2? 76. Lachlan, what’s the most common element in the universe? Hydrogen. But Lachlan… am I fat? Hey Lachlan, should I not have raped that person just now? Hey and if God’s so good, why do bad things happen?
See, there are a lot of situations in life where it’s not as simple as just giving a textbook answer, where there’s a lot going on behind the question, and a textbook answer might even make things much worse. But don’t we have to tell the truth? Yes. But again I say: which truth?
At any given moment in time, there is an almost infinite number of statements I could say that would be true. There is so much to choose from! The sky is blue, lions are awesome, light is the only constant in the universe, and I don’t own a car. Now if somebody comes up to me and asks me a question, and I’m supposed to respond to it by telling the truth, what should I do? I could tell them any one of these myriads of statements and I wouldn’t be deceiving them. If they ask me why bad things happen to good people I could tell them what I had for breakfast that morning, I could tell them how to assemble a wheelchair, I could tell them all the wonders of the universe without uttering a single falsehood. But none of these would seem to be the thing I’m supposed to say. So what is the principle with which we choose one truth over another when we talk to people? I’ll tell you what it’s not: it’s not that we should find whatever truth logically satisfies all the conditions raised by the question. That simply won’t work when things get complicated.
The principle is love. When a person asks you a question, what you have before you is not a question that requires an answer; it is simply a person who has given you an opportunity to speak into their lives. So what are you going to do with this opportunity? I believe what we should do is not just figure out what answer the question itself calls for, but figure out what it is that this person needs. What truth do they need to hear? What truth can I offer them that would benefit them most in this moment? A lot of the time, the truth that will benefit them most is the textbook answer to their question, but here the textbook answer only enters in is a servant to the principle of love.
When I examine myself, I notice that a lot of the true things I say to people are not said because I’m seeking to tell a person what they need to hear at the time. A lot of the time I say things because it would just be satisfying to get it off my chest, or because I think they just deserve to be told. “You suck dude.” “Damn right you shouldn’t have done that! …asshole.” “Man she is a way better singer than you.” “Hey remember that time when you did that really stupid thing? Gosh that was stupid.” There are so many contexts in which all these things can be completely true, and they can be so satisfying to proclaim. And I dare say that we would not be unjust in saying truths like these, but we can do so much better than this. We can aim so much higher. We can excel in grace and love. We can disregard what people deserve; we can disregard what we desire for ourselves. And with our words we can seek to give to those around us only, and all, the words they need.
This idea will come as a revelation to some. A mere reminder to many. But I thought I should come along and rationally justify this principle of speaking the truth in love, so that we can actually understand why.
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:2