If I were to try and make a list, I couldn’t possibly recall all the conversations I’ve had with others that I wish I could take back. Unloving comments to cause a sting. Hurtful jokes to get a laugh. Biting sarcasm to prove a point. Harsh criticisms to show superiority. And as I think back on some of these instances, I remember many times when I felt completely justified in my words because I was simply “telling it how it is” – I spoke the truth, but I did so without reminding myself of Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:15: “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” How frequently do we tell it how it is by “telling it how it is?” In other words, how often do we speak the truth without love?
When attempting to correct others who have used harsh words, or perhaps in our own efforts to rationalize, it is common to hear the phrase “I’m just telling it how it is” or “it’s the truth isn’t it?” But it’s fully possible to say something that is true, in a sinful and hurtful manner. “Sometimes the truth hurts” isn’t necessarily a biblical concept. In fact, it’s the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). Solomon reminds us in Proverbs 18:21 that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Death and life, sword thrusts and healing. Undoubtedly, our words hold tremendous power and we have a great need to be instructed to “let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). So how shall we speak the truth in love? How can we tell it how it is without “telling it how it is”?
1. Discern Your Motives
What fuels your desire to speak the truth into a person’s life?
It is possible to speak the same words with a desire to simply prove your rightness and ignite your pride as opposed to seeing a potential harm in allowing another person to walk in falsehood at that specific point in time. In other words, is your concern for yourself, or for the other person? Your demeanor and approach will prove which is true to the one who receives your comments.
2. Remember the Power of Words
James reminds us of the incredible power of the words we use: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:3-5). James continues by comparing the tongue to a fire, setting an entire forest ablaze, reminding us that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). What a deadly weapon we can wield! Truly, as Jay Adams remarks, “Truth without love becomes a wicked weapon.” I try to remind myself that sticks and stones can only break bones, but words have the ability to kill.
3. How Am I Going to Say it?
We should always ask ourselves this question before we let loose with what we perceive to be true. A big part of speaking the truth in love is in how we say it. An arrogant, down-looking approach will never receive the same response as the side-by-side at the foot of the cross approach. It’s important that we take the time to figure out how our words will be perceived by others, knowing that we are all stained by falsehood and sin. I can tell another person that they are wrong and affirm that I am right, or I can explain to them why their words, actions, or beliefs are not consistent with the Scriptures, and remind them that Jesus is our measuring rod.
4. Is it Necessary?
I must question whether or not what I’m going to say is kind and/or even necessary. It is possible to speak too quickly, and too often – perhaps we need, from time-to-time, to gather more information prior to approaching another person about an issue of concern. James reminds us to “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Asking questions of clarification prior to offering personal commentary will more times than not change ones perception of how an issue should be addressed. My rule of thumb is to be able to state a person’s position back to them in a way that they agree with prior to offering what I see as the truth in the situation.
5. Remind Them of the Gospel
Most importantly, we must always remember that the essence of speaking the truth in love is doing so with the gospel at hand. C.J. Mahaney reminds us, “Never correct without reminding the individual, at some point, of the gospel. Any conversation including correction must also include the gospel, because biblical correction is incomplete apart from the gospel.” Ken Sande recounts his experience in this area as well: “The Lord is graciously working to teach me a better way to approach others about their failures. Instead of coming at them with the law, I am learning to bring them the gospel. In other words, rather than dwelling on what people should do or have failed to do, I am learning to focus primarily on what God has done and is doing for them through Christ.” Correction with the truth is worthless without the gospel – it offers no foundational reason why one should abide by the truth, and offers no hope for the one who has walked outside of truth. The most loving way to address another person is with the gospel. And not just unbelievers – Christians need a daily reminder of the gospel. So remind them of Jesus. And don’t forget to remind yourself.
Speaking the truth is crucial in this life – it is so often under-valued and under-emphasized. Nevertheless, when our heart’s desire is to “tell it how it is” without considering how to do so in love, we do damage to the very truth we are seeking to communicate. Let us strive to tell it how it is with the same heart as David: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
 Jay Adams, Shepherding God’s Flock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 386.
 C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Sisters: Multnomah, 2005), 119.
 Ken Sande, The Peace Maker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 163.
(By: Nick Kennicott)