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On Speaking the Truth in Love

[This article is a follow-up to a brief review I wrote of Bernard Goldberg’s book, “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.” I have chosen not to post that review, for reasons that will become obvious below. In the absence of the review, I still think you will be able to understand my concerns.]

There’s a very fine line between speaking the truth concerning sin and human folly, on the one hand, and slandering one’s fellow-man, on the other. One of the things so impressive about Jesus is that he always knew the difference. When it was appropriate, he called the Pharisees “hypocrites” and referred to some religious leaders as children of Satan (see John 8:39-41)! He knew precisely when to affirm and heal with his words and when to cut deeply into the soul of unbelief and immorality and corruption. That’s because he could see perfectly into the human heart and discern its motives. I can’t.

Several people have responded to my recent summation of Bernard Goldberg’s book, “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.” Most were letters and e-mails of support and agreement. But a few were bothered by his rhetoric and the fact that I quoted him, and in doing so gave the appearance of unqualified endorsement. Although I personally did not, and would not, describe people as “morons” or “blowhards”, my lighthearted citation of Goldberg doing so struck a few as inconsistent with Christian charity and humility. They may well be right.

By the way, let me say right now that if I end up apologizing in this e-mail, it won’t be one of those pathetic “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry” sort of apologies. To my way of thinking, that’s no apology at all. An apology, at least the sort that God requires of his people, would go something like this: “I was wrong. Whether or not anyone was offended, I was still wrong. I’m sorry for what I said. I wish I hadn’t said it. Please forgive me. What can I do to make restitution for what I’ve done?” I’ll come back to this once I’ve settled on whether or not I was wrong in the way I “reviewed” Goldberg’s book.

Some would say, “But doesn’t the Bible use rather harsh and pointed language to describe those who persistently mock the things of God and unrepentantly flaunt their sin?” Yes, it does. I immediately think of the book of Proverbs and its repeated reference to the “fool”. Psalm 15:4 refers to the “reprobate” (NASB) or the “vile person” (ESV). The apostle Paul spoke of “dogs” and “evildoers” (Philippians 3:2) and Peter likened the false teachers of his day to “irrational animals,” “blots and blemishes” whose hearts “are trained in greed.” They are, he says, “accursed children” who fulfill the proverb concerning the “dog” that returns to its vomit and the “sow” that wallows in the mire (see 2 Peter 2:12-22). Perhaps Jude (v. 16) is most explicit of all, calling them “grumblers” and “malcontents” and “loud-mouthed boasters” (what may be the first-century equivalent of “blowhards”).

Clearly the Bible demands that we call evil what it is and not whitewash wickedness out of some misguided sense of propriety or, worse still, political correctness. But I’m not entirely satisfied with this, nor am I any longer convinced beyond doubt that it justifies the sort of language Goldberg used and I quoted.

Permit me to quote from one e-mail that was sent by a former student of mine who has both a remarkable intellect and a gracious and humble spirit, a rare combination these days, or perhaps in any day. It was, he said, less the partisan slant of Goldberg’s book and my comments that bothered him and more

“the tone with which the book (and to a lesser degree your review) is written. I too came across the book at Borders some weeks ago and glanced through it. While there were undoubtedly humorous portions, it seemed to me mostly a sad example of the plight of much of today's popular journalism: one dimensional caricatures painted in sound-bytes without regard to counterargument, all of which amounts to a legal but nonetheless unhealthy form of slander. . . .

Of course, the previous critique is not unique to Christianity. What is, however, is the importance of humility and grace in thinking, writing, and talking about people with whom we disagree. Referring to people as ‘blowhards’ and ‘morons’, and labeling their social contributions as ‘crap’ (or endorsing the same) are simply inconsistent with Christian humility and grace (in addition to being a cheap substitute for rigorous argumentation as to the relative merits of competing ideas and ideologies). As to humility, we must always hold our social opinions with open hands, knowing that we are as susceptible to error, miscalculation and pride as our opponents (especially when they too are believing Christians). As to grace, we must be a people of both truth and grace, and the latter should always season our proclamation of the former. Anything less undermines our efficacy as Christ’s ambassadors by giving the watching world the impression that followers of Jesus are largely haughty, unthoughtful, or politically partisan. . . .

Maybe my critique is off-base – that’s very possible. But please consider prayerfully whether it contains a kernel of truth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, and feel free to send back a counter-critique to the extent you feel my concerns are misguided. I love your ministry and have greatly benefited from (and continue to appreciate) your insight, wisdom, and friendship; please don’t let anything written above suggest otherwise.”

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these wise comments. Whether or not you agree with them, one cannot question the importance of humility and grace bathing our words and reactions to those we regard as “fools” in the sense that word is used in Proverbs.

I make no apologies for my convictions concerning the immorality and intellectual silliness of many who were listed in Goldberg’s book. As I wrote to another respondent, yes, there but for the grace of God go all of us. But we should not let this humble acknowledgement mute our voice when it comes to identifying and denouncing the depraved and corrupt influences in our world.

So where is the balance? How does one humbly call a person, who bears the image of God, a “fool”? How does one stand firmly against what he/she believes is error without mocking those with whom one disagrees? How does one graciously refer to another human being as a “loud-mouthed boaster”? How does one fight for intellectual integrity and the triumph of truth without yielding to arrogance and unkindness? How does one stand firm in the recognition that there are “moral reprobates” in our society who are undeniably contributing to its gradual demise without crossing the line into uncharitable, unChristlike, unloving territory? The answer to these questions isn’t immediately evident, at least not to me.

I can say, as I have read and re-read the article, that some of my words now strike me as an arrogant mocking of others that falls outside the boundaries of what is biblically permissible. For that, I do sincerely apologize.

Returning to the questions posed above, I suppose we should spend a lot more time in the gospels, analyzing how our Lord reacted to those who were hardened to the overtures of grace. What an amazing person, who could speak unapologetically with such uncompromising power and at the same time turn the other cheek to those who spit in his face and mocked him mercilessly!

So, do I feel it necessary to extend a blanket, biblical apology, and am I ready to do so? I think, with God’s help, I can say yes to the latter. But I need more time and wisdom to know what to think about the former. I’m tempted to say, in the meantime, what I said I wouldn’t say, namely: “If I offended anyone with my quotation of Goldberg’s words, please forgive me.” I find such language woefully inadequate, but at least it’s a start until I can formulate a more substantive position on this issue.

I welcome your critical comments, not just from the political right but also from my many friends who are pro-life, theologically conservative, political liberals (yes, such folk do exist!). We need each other. At least I do.

You can write me at [email protected]

Blessings to all.