The Art of Holding Back

I have an acquaintance with a sense of fashion that I can only call unique.

She has never met a pattern or an unusual color that she doesn’t like.  And jewelry?  The bigger and splashier, the better.  She’s not afraid to wear proudly what most people would back away from, and she loudly and proudly shows off her purchases.

If I’m honest, I’m not a big fan of her taste.  The jewelry she buys is too ostentatious and gaudy for me and I cringe just looking at it.  And so, when she shows me her most recent acquisition, my response is…

…well, my response is to lie.

Which is neither good nor preferable nor God-honoring.  But it is true, and so I see no point in hiding it here.  When she holds out her hand or flaunts a scarf, my gut instinct in the past has been to say, “Oh, that’s beautiful!”  or “oh wow that is gorgeous!”

Why do I do this?  I suppose because somewhere in my mind I’ve bought into the belief that the opposite of lying and flattery would be the blatant, ugly truth: “…I think that’s hideous.”  And because I know my saying that would hurt her, or make her sad, or steal her joy, I justify myself into lying: at least then, I think, I’m being kind.

But that’s a false dichotomy, and I think it’s one a lot of believers buy into without realizing.

Many believers see themselves as truth-tellers, and well we should.  The Bible demands that we speak in truth and in honesty and authenticity at all times, concealing nothing and without dissembling; that is, by the way, precisely why it’s wrong for me to tell those white lies.  But many believers also believe that truth-telling means “saying how you feel about everything at all times, no matter how hurtful or cruel, whether asked or unasked.”

And that is not what Biblical truth-telling is.

When I was getting my Ph.D., a fellow believer at my church used to look at me at the end of a week – a week of all-nighters, teaching, and taking classes – and say, with sweet concern, “Oh, my goodness, you just look awful and tired.”

Just yesterday, at church, the woman in the pew in front of me leaned over to her friend and said, about another woman walking nearby, “I just liked her hair so much better before she dyed it.  It looks so fake and yellow.”

I have heard believers comment on other believers’ weight, on their clothes, on their makeup, on their jewelry, on their families, on their children, on their jobs.  And it all happens under the guise of truth-telling. I know because I’ve done it myself, often without ever feeling I was doing anything wrong. What? the thinking goes.  You want me to lie?  I’m just calling it like I see it.  Just telling the truth.

It’s true that the Bible tells us we must speak truth with our neighbors (Eph. 4:25) and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).  The Bible also tells us that restraining our mouths is prudent (Proverbs 10:19) and that only a fool takes pleasure in expressing his opinion (Proverbs 18:2).

What are we to make of these verses?  Well, I think we can extract from them that spoken truth is meant to be edifying, encouraging, or illuminating; it serves some meaningful purpose.  Spoken truth can prompt others along.  It can rebuke.  It can heal.  It can share wisdom.  It is not talk for the sake of talk, or the sake of idleness.  It is not the unsolicited sharing of purposeless opinions.  It is not spirit-withering.  It is not distracting.  It is not cruel.

When we make comments “in truth” that are really nothing more than “putting my opinion out there no matter how hurtful or meaningless it might be,” we’re not really abiding by the Biblical definition of what it means to speak truth in love.  In those cases, we’re using the Bible as a justification for saying whatever we want to say, no matter how critical or hurtful it is.  To lie and flatter someone by praising their taste when you don’t mean it is not godly; nor is it godly to mock someone’s taste by calling it ugly when you know doing so will hurt them.

That’s why there are alternatives.  And one of the best alternatives is to say nothing at all.  To hold ourselves back.  We don’t have to offer our opinion all the time; we’ve just deluded ourselves that we do.  When my acquaintance shows me her jewelry, that isn’t necessarily an invitation for me to opine about my personal stylistic preferences one way or another; rather, she wants me to share her joy with her.  And I can do that with a simple “wow” or a “that suits your taste!” or “whoa, what’s the story behind it”?  If I think someone looks tired, I can express that with a simple, “How’s that crazy schedule treating you?” rather than a “you look awful.”  The woman in front of me could have opted to say literally nothing at all about that other woman’s dye job.

When we twist the concept of truth-telling to suit our own ego, what we’re doing is given permission to ourselves to say how we feel about everything, whether that hurts someone or not, whether it has a purpose or not.  And in the end, surely that’s not much better than the other sorts of hurtful, useless speech the Bible abjures.  In the end, though it takes a significantly greater amount of control, I think it’s best to remember that our speech need not be just truthful but also edifying – and if anything we say fails that test, it might be best to hold it back.



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