Don’t Pervert the Truth by Misusing It

Speaking the Truth in Love

Among the characters in Disney’s 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid is a seagull named Scuttle, whom Ariel mistakenly considers an expert on humans. Scuttle explains the functions of various manmade trinkets; for example, he identifies a fork as a “dinglehopper,” which he says humans use to straighten their hair. Demonstrating how he thinks the fork is supposed to work, he says, “Just a little twirl here and a yank there and voila: you got an aesthetically pleasing configuration of hair that humans go nuts over.”

On occasion, I may or may not have been reminded of this scene when forced to tell one of my growing daughters, “Stop putting that fork in your hair.” In response, none of my daughters has ever asked, “Should I not comb my hair?” or “Should I never use a fork?” And with good reason. They instinctively know I have nothing against fork usage or combing hair.

The point of my command is not that hair combing is unimportant, or that forks are useless. The point is that forks should be used properly. As useful as they are, forks don’t lend themselves to creating an “aesthetically pleasing configuration of hair,” no matter what Scuttle says. That’s not what they were designed for.

Similarly, those of us in the body of Christ can use truth improperly. We can mischaracterize, minimize, or overemphasize its role. And in so doing, we wield truth contrary to how it was designed to function. The result is, shall we say, a “morally unpleasant configuration of haziness that makes humans act like nuts.”

There are, unfortunately, many ways we can do this. Let us look at three examples.

1. Equating truth with love

The command to speak the truth to our neighbor (Ephesians 4:25) is different from the command to love our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). The two are not synonymous, just as combing hair and using a fork are not synonymous. Obedience to one command does not equate to obedience to the other.

And yet, there are those who have conflated truth and love, imagining that it is inherently loving to speak truth to someone. Thus, the more you speak the truth, the more loving you are. However, love knows there are times when it is better to listen rather than to share truth, and even to overlook a wrong rather than confront it with the truth (Proverbs 19:11). There are occasions where we just need to pray and let God do the talking to the other person. It takes wisdom to know when and how to speak, and when to remain silent (Proverbs 15:23, 25:11; Ecclesiastes 3:7b; Amos 5:13).

One functional effect of the “truth equals love” paradigm is the devaluing of love, as if it were an automatic appendage of the truth, achieved effortlessly as long as truth is spoken. If that were the case, one might expect Jesus to summarize the law of God as “truth.” Instead, he summarizes the entirety of God’s law as “love” (Matthew 22:40). Paul echoes this sentiment when he says the law is “summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

It is important both what we say (the truth) and how we say it (with love). We cannot separate the what and the how and imagine that only the what is of consequence. Motives and methods matter just as much as our message. The wrong methods won’t fly under God’s radar simply because they are attached to “the truth.”

Let there be no mistake: one can speak the truth and be unloving at the same time. That is why the apostle Paul encourages us to always be “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). If we don’t speak the truth in a loving way, we will forsake “building up the body of Christ” (v. 12) and instead act like “children” (v. 14). Love is designed to guide and direct our use of the truth so that we communicate effectively and redemptively.

2. Reducing truth to the realm of belief

We can minimize the application of truth by limiting it to catechesis. Put another way, we dishonor truth when we reduce Christianity to merely “proper beliefs.” Our faith involves both orthodoxy and orthopraxy—i.e., rightly handling the truth (2 Timothy 2:15) and rightly living the truth (2 John 1:4). In fact, when John writes to Gaius, he shares, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4)—not simply that they know or profess it.

The Apostle James defines a “pure and undefiled” Christianity, not as a succinct number of truths, but as a succinct number of behaviors: “[to] bridle [one’s] tongue,” and “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” and “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:26-27). He also points out the stark difference between “faith by my works” and “faith apart from works” (2:18, 26; emphasis added). In other words, believing the truth in a way that evidences itself through action is worlds apart from “believing” the truth without doing anything about it. The former is righteous, while the latter is “dead” (2:26).

Both belief (orthodoxy) and behavior (orthopraxy) are indissolubly linked. What you believe determines how you behave. Thus, a person who touts sound doctrine while also being arrogant and rude is not just demonstrating bad manners; he is either failing to truly grasp what he professes, or he is pretending to believe what he actually does not. Honoring the truth with one’s lips does not negate dishonoring it through unbelief or hypocrisy.

3. Treating truth as the Christian’s only tool

This third misuse of truth is an outpouring of the previous two. When truth and love are considered synonymous, and when faithfulness to Christ is reduced to “believing the correct things,” Christianity can be functionally boiled down to convincing others of the right doctrines. The problem with this paradigm is that it lacks the vitality of the Christian’s full arsenal, as if the manifold fruit of the spirit was in a straightjacket: “love (but only if it doesn’t interfere with the truth),” “patience (except when others aren’t quickly grasping the truth),” “gentleness (unless the truth is really at stake),” and so on.

As the old adage goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is an expression of the “law of the instrument”—i.e., a cognitive bias that leads to a dangerous overuse of a particular tool. For professing Christians, when truth is your only (or favorite) tool, everything will start to look like lies, and those who disagree with you will quickly appear heretical (regardless of whether or not they actually are).

Please don’t hear what isn’t being said. The point is not that we shouldn’t convince others of the right propositions, just as the point with Scuttle’s dinglehopper is not that we shouldn’t comb our hair. Rather, the point is that we want to use truth as it was designed to function—not like the weapon of a Wild West gunslinger, but like the accouterment of a diplomat from a heavenly country: “[W]e are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

The truth, like any other valuable tool, can be abused as a weapon, bringing about destructive rather than constructive results. In the process, the Christian’s true aim—love for God and others—is discarded in favor of a piety that gives an appearance of wisdom, but lacks the beating heart of Christianity. Addressing and critiquing unsound doctrine is a critical component of a faithful witness. But the believer’s purpose cannot be reduced to correcting error anywhere and everywhere it pops up, as if life were some bizarre version of whack-a-mole.

Truth isn’t a dinglehopper

In an increasingly relativistic culture, it is imperative that we remain committed to God’s truth. It is an indispensable asset and a precious commodity—one that transforms our minds, increases our wisdom, affects our speech, guides our steps, anchors our emotions, equips our ministry, and informs our worship. As such, we want to rightly handle this truth, in full accordance with our Lord’s created purposes.

That means avoiding uses of the truth that go against divinely-ordained purposes. God did not design truth to be a substitute or a synonym for love. He did not design truth to cloak our ungodly words and actions. He did not design truth to be the only tool in our arsenal.

We would do well to heed the following exhortation of the great hymn-writer, John Newton:

If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. . . . [M]ay [we] persuade our readers, that, whether we can convince them or not, we wish well to their souls, and contend only for the truth’s sake; if we can satisfy them that we act upon these motives, our point is half gained; they will be more disposed to consider calmly what we offer; and if they should still dissent from our opinions, they will be constrained to approve our intentions.

There is no conflict between truth and love. Any tension we feel between the two is of our own making. They are not enemies, but friends. They were designed to work in tandem, not independently.

In our love for the truth, let us not mischaracterize, minimize, or overemphasize its role. For when we do so, we sabotage the very truth we claim to honor.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Cap Stewart

Cap Stewart a contributor to the anthology Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues. He is publisher of the online course Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. He has been published in Crosswalk, Christ and Pop Culture, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today. He publishes at his substack and can be found on X @capstewart

4 thoughts on “Don’t Pervert the Truth by Misusing It

  1. I don’t believe that our modern era suffers from an overabundance of bold and direct sharing of the truth. In fact, I think we tend to make the opposite error far more frequently. We withhold the truth out of fear of the world rejecting us. It is impossible for someone to believe in the gospel without understanding their own culpability in their sin.

    Perhaps in a different era, this message might be edifying and prudent, but not in our modern day. We need to be encouraging our people to speak the truth in boldness, because lies ARE everywhere. People are being enticed to believe that their sin is good and that which is good is sin. We have to speak the truth and discouraging it is not what is good and prudent at this time.

    1. As the author of this piece, I am in total agreement that we need to speak the truth in all boldness. Indeed, the whole purpose of my piece is to encourage a stronger–not a weaker–fidelity to the truth. Is there any specific verbiage I used that led you to interpret me as discouraging people from speaking the truth (rather than encouraging them to use the truth rightly)?

  2. I am not sure how helpful this article is. Another commenter mentioned that our age is suffering from an abundance of lies. An unintended consequence of this article is paralyzing believers by having the hyper-analyze their actions when presented with an opportunity where they can tell the truth. I believe this could have been shortened to Ephesians 4:15 and left there, without the other hooplah that binds consciences.

    1. To help me better understand where you’re coming from, could you give some examples of how my piece “binds consciences” (which I would interpret to mean, “adds imperatives/duties onto the backs of Christians that aren’t Scripturally warranted”)? Would you consider the John Newton letter I linked to (either in full or in part) to be unhelpful and/or not appropriate for our current age?

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