Additional Resource: Suffering and Psalm 119 by David Powlison
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of getting a line from a song stuck in your head. Sometimes you actually get a line stuck in your head from other things too, don’t we? From a movie or a book, and I got lines stuck in my head from an essay probably a little over 10 years ago now and it keeps coming back to me. And the line is this, and it’s what I want to spend our time thinking about today, it’s: “Honesty in the raw is always perverted by the insanity of sin.” Let me say that again: “Honesty in the raw is always perverted by the insanity of sin.” Now, I first thought when I read that in the essay it was in by my colleague, David Powlison, 10 years ago was, “Wait? What? What do you mean honesty in the raw is a bad thing? Aren’t we supposed to be honest? Isn’t it a good thing to be honest and immediate and to say what we really think and to be authentic?” Well, my goal for today is to let that little spark of a question, the little mental pebble in my shoe for the last 10 years, lead us into a brief consideration of what really is biblical honesty. What really is honesty that the Scriptures would encourage us toward?
Well, let me start by giving a little context for that particular quote. It’s from an article that David Powlison, our former executive director at CCEF and a long-time faculty member here, it’s from an article he wrote on Psalm 119, and it’s all about: how do we engage honestly with the Lord in the midst of suffering? The article’s title is “Suffering and Psalm 119.” We’ll actually make that a free on our webpage next to this podcast until the next episode goes up. So if you want to read that article, I highly recommend it. We won’t be getting into most of the article here. It’s one of the most impacting articles I have ever read, up there with “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis. But anyhow, he’s talking about how we talk about the things that hurt.
Let me read us a brief excerpt from the essay containing the line I mentioned.
“Psalm 119 is the thoughtful outcry that rises when real life meets real God. It’s not just naked candor. That’s important to notice. Raw honesty is always perverted by the insanity of sin. Should you get in touch with your feelings and say what you really think? That will always prove revealing, of course, and you do need to face yourself and your world, acknowledging what is going on. And the opposites of unblunted honesty are other madnesses: indifference, busyness, stoicism, niceness, ignorance, self-deception or denial. But how on earth will you interpret what you feel? Is what you really think true? Where will you go with it? Where is it heading? Honesty in the raw always smells. It’s godless, willful, opinionated, self-centered, and truth to tell, personal honesty never actually faces reality if it does not simultaneously face God. You can be frank and frankly wrong. A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions (Proverbs 18:2). But Psalm 119 is different. It demonstrates the salvation of honesty. When you simultaneously face yourself, your circumstances, and the God who speaks, then even the most painful sharp-edged honesty takes on the fragrance and sanity of Jesus.”
Here’s the core point I want us to draw from this initial listening to David’s words. It’s this: the things that just spill out of us, especially when we are feeling upset, are not going to tend to be very godly in their content or their tone for that matter. Now, does this mean we should get ourselves together before we go to the Lord? Of course not! He already knows the problems with our heart before we even put them into words. We can’t hide our hearts from him and we shouldn’t try. It simply means that when we bring our unfiltered heart to God, as he urges us to do, we should expect that the words of our prayer are going to need corrections and help and growth.
What I want to focus the rest of our time on, however, is actually how we do honesty with other people. Now in fleshing this out, rather than reading through all of Psalm 119, the longest chapter of the Bible, I want to focus us in actually just on two verses in the book of Ephesians that speak to this question of biblical honesty, of biblical truth. The first is quite well known, the second less so.
Let me start with Ephesians 4:15, which really sets the core framework for how we are to use our words. It says that we are to speak truth in love. Speak truth in love. And that framework says something very important, both explicitly and implicitly, which is this: you cannot separate truth and love and have them truly exist separate from each other. We must speak words that are true, and they must be words that are loving. And it is frighteningly easy to at least attempt to pull those apart, isn’t it? Self-righteousness so easily says, “Well, what I’m saying is factually accurate. What I’m saying is true in the sense that it’s describing things that are real and therefore it doesn’t matter if I hurt people. It doesn’t matter what my motivation is. I get to say what I want to say because it’s in some sense accurate.” On the flip side, the fear of man (“What will people think of me?”) so easily tries to remove truth from the equation and just be loving. If I’m just nice enough and, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say that because that would hurt someone’s feelings.” How easily some of our temptations to feel good about ourselves, whether because we’re making a good impression on someone or because darn it we have the moral high ground, if we separate truth and love, or if we try to, we end up losing both. Truth without love ceases to be true in the deepest sense, just as love without truth ceases to be loving in the deepest sense.
Now keep going through the chapter. A few verses later you get to Ephesians 4:29, and I think it adds enormously helpful practical flesh onto this idea of what does it mean to be biblically honest, to speak truth lovingly. Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Think about the core distinction in that verse. On the one hand you have words that tear down, words that corrupt. I mean, think about: What is corrupting? What does corrupting mean? It means something that comes into something else and starts to tear it apart. You know, when bacteria corrupts food, it starts to poison it and makes it, rather than being nutritious, it makes it actually going to make you sick or potentially fatal if it’s bad enough. Corrupting of a file on a computer destroys the file, something that comes in from the outside and wrecks it. That’s not what we want our words to do. We don’t want our words to come in and to destroy people. We want instead our words to build up as the verse puts it, or to edify, as other translations say, to give grace to those who hear. If we are people of the God of grace, if we serve the God of grace, if the words of God and the word of God is utterly full of grace, then any true words we say ought to be full of grace as well. They ought to be targeted to build up the people to whom we are speaking.
And that leaves us with this really important phrase, kind of in the middle of that second stretch there: that our words ought to fit the occasion. And I think it’s here that maybe most of all it’s easy to go wrong. So often we might think, “Okay, well I have words that I want to say,” or maybe even, “I have words that so-and-so needs to hear,” but we don’t think about the occasion. We don’t think about where is this person? What are they likely to hear? Have I prayed over these words before I speak them? Is my heart in the right place? Is this the right time? What are the right words that will help in this particular moment?
As a parent, it makes me think of times when I’ve chastised a child in a moment where they were not well set up to hear it at all. They are in the midst of a fight with a sibling and they’re in the middle of a tearful sense of injustice and they’re frustrated and their toy just got broken or taken, or something unkind has been said about them and they’re furious over the matter, and instead of trying to lovingly settle them and come back and have a conversation when they’re going to be in a better place to hear important critique constructively, important rebuke, important reframing, and perspective giving, I launch right in and I go after them and usually it’s because I’m frustrated that I’m having to deal with this situation. My heart is rarely in the right place in the middle of those moments. Their mind is not in a good place. Their emotions are not in a good place. My words might be in one sense accurate that they need to understand, “You know what? What you said to your sister wasn’t very nice and that might have something to do with her response to you, even if what she did was wrong.” But if I am offering those words in the moment of high emotion, I am not picking a good opportunity to build you up. I am not giving you a good sense of what the occasion is. Or let me put that differently, I am not choosing my words to fit this particular occasion.
I know lots of marriages, including my own, in many seasons, currently included, where we’ve just said, “You know what? It’s pretty rare that good and helpful, wise and loving conflict resolution happens after 10:30 PM.” You know, what’s going to fit the occasion at 11:00 PM when you’re both exhausted and trying to get to bed and you’ve got to get up the next morning… probably not the best time in general for a long weighty conversation about matters that need serious engagement. So think about the occasion. Think about the context. Think about what you are doing. And think about how different that is from honesty in the raw. Honesty in the raw is likely to say factually accurate things and to do that in a way that corrupts and tears down.
I mean, think about Job’s friends. They say lots of true things to Job. God is good. God is just. He punishes sin. Those are all true. And though they also did say some untrue things, the vast majority of the things they say are accurate, but they do it in a way that is crushing to their friend, that is trying to push him towards a foolish and needless repentance.
Think about speaking in anger. Words like, “I hate you.” That word might be an accurate description of your emotion in the moment, but that is a horribly corrupting word to speak to another person. Think about blame shifting. “Yeah well you always do the same thing and you do it worse.” Well you know what? That might be largely true. Okay, “always” is an exaggeration, but there might be a lot of truth and accuracy to the fact that you do in fact do the same thing and in fact you may do it worse, but is that, especially in the tone you just heard me deliver it, is that biblical honesty? No, far from it. It is honesty in the raw trying to evade my own responsibility in the moment. There may be a time to discuss what you do, but it’s not when my concerns and my failures and my sins and my need to repent are on the plate in front of us.
Think about self-pity. “Oh, of course, yet another thing would go wrong today. It’s so not fair that I have to deal with this right now.” Well, it may not be in one sense fair. It may be yet another thing. And yet your words can so easily produce a snowball in yourself that can be used to manipulate others, and so on. Think about Satan. He says to Jesus, “Throw yourself down and you won’t be harmed. The angels will protect you from the stones below.” He quotes Scripture. What could be more accurate factually than to quote Scripture to someone? Yet Satan does it in a horribly twisted way that is the definition of perverted and insane.
This means that actually sometimes silence may be the thing that is most honest and most fits the occasion. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t confront someone. I’m not saying, “Oh yeah, your job is just to make the other person feel good with your words and only speak if you think you have something nice to say.” No, sometimes we have to speak words that are very uncomfortable to hear and usually when you do, those words are uncomfortable to say. The point is simply this: when we use words, biblical honesty is more than simply factually accurate statements. It is statements that are accurate and statements that are made in love. Statements that are made because they will build up, because they will give grace, because they will fit the occasion.
So here’s the bottom line. If we want to speak truth in love, if we want to do Ephesians 4:15 and 4:29, then anytime we hear ourselves saying, “Hey, I’m just being honest,” it’s probably a good guess that we’re doing honesty in the raw rather than honesty that is biblically loving. It means that when we think about the other person and the occasion, we ask: “What is most helpful to say right now? Is this the moment for me to speak the words that I’m wanting to?”
And on the flip side or the follow-up of that, if there is something hard I need to say, let me seek out a wise occasion to do that. Let me be proactive and thoughtful about when and how I say these words. If there’s something on my mind let me be especially careful to find a good occasion for it. Perhaps I will need to pray for courage to launch the conversation at some point and not just delay forever. That can be my temptation as a conflict avoider is to say, “Oh yeah well let me just keep thinking about that and eventually I’ll get there, but not today, and well not today again.” And so again, there’s this balance, but we want to be people who proactively seek a good occasion and pray over that occasion.
And that would be my last thought is, whenever we have words where honesty is going to be difficult, where honesty and love is going to be difficult, it is a call to prayer. And it’s a prayer both for our own hearts, that we would speak in love, that we would really have love at the center of our motivation, and it’s a call to pray for the outcome. Lord, will you help these words build up and give grace? May I find words that fit this occasion?
So let me take this last moment then and just pray for all of us as we fall into many situations in the next week where we will need to use our words in ways that are honest in the fullest, deepest, and richest biblical sense. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, I pray that we would be people who are honest in ways that are wise, in ways that fit the occasion, and in ways that really do flow from a love in our hearts placed there through the deepening work of your Spirit for those around us. We pray this in your name. Amen.