“Speaking the Truth in Love,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 51–52
“Speaking the Truth in Love”
One of my favorite stories, perhaps the one that best conveys to my heart the spirit of priesthood leadership, concerns President John Taylor. While he was president of the Council of the Twelve, two men came to him for resolution of a bitter quarrel that had alienated them from each other. President Taylor was an exceptionally good singer with emotional power tempered in such experiences as singing for the Prophet Joseph in the final hour at Carthage Jail; he told the two, “Brethren, before I hear your case, I would like very much to sing one of the songs of Zion for you.” When he had finished, he commented that he never heard one of the Church’s hymns without wanting to hear another and so sang one more—and then another, and another. Finally the two men were moved to tears and left, fully reconciled, without any discussion of their problem. (Improvement Era 43:522.)
An example of singing may seem a strange beginning to a discussion of how to tame our tongues toward more effective speaking, but that singing by John Taylor, it seems to me, is a perfect illustration of my main point: what we say is important, but even more significant is how we speak, with what emotional and spiritual effect. The example gives the extreme case where the power for reconciliation lay entirely in the feelings communicated—the manner rather than the specific content. Most of us must—and can, I believe—learn to improve the quality of both what we say and how we say it.
Christ was concerned about our tongues. He knew, as his apostle James taught, that the tongue, like the bridle of a horse or the helm of a ship, has power to steer—potential to determine good or ill—greatly out of proportion to its size. James emphasized the harmful results, calling the tongue “a fire, a world of iniquity … an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:6, 8.) And Christ warned his disciples in former times, “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.” (Matt. 15: 18.)
But Christ also knew the power of the tongue for good, if properly tamed and trained: He has said to Latter-day Saints, “Take upon you the name of Christ, and speak the truth in soberness” (D&C 18:21), and he has promised us, “First seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men.” (D&C 11:21.)
A familiar missionary scripture (“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets … for the perfecting of the saints …”) is followed by an explanation from the apostle Paul to the little branch at Ephesus of the reason we must have Christ’s true Church—properly organized and lead—to guide us toward perfection in the image of Christ:
“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
“But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” (Eph. 4:14–15; italics added.)
One major source of the power of Christ, not only to save mankind from death but to redeem us from sin and ignorance, is that he spoke the truth in love and soberness.
But how can we, the Saints (which means we are trying to follow Christ), learn to speak the truth in love, that we might, rather than defile ourselves, bless and redeem others with our words? Our examples, of course, should be Christ and his apostles, both those who wrote his words and their own in the standard works, and those who speak to us today. The Savior’s language is spare, without the vain repetitions he warned against, absolutely sincere to the point of vigor and courageous, near outspokenness, but always motivated by love and aimed at redemption, even when he scolded the Pharisees:
“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. … cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matt. 23:24–26.)
We could do nothing better to help “tame our tongues” that they might speak the truth in love than to read often and carefully the words of Christ, in the Gospels, Third Nephi, and the Doctrine and Covenants (which consists mainly of the Lord’s words to Joseph Smith). Next in value as models are the speeches and writings of the prophets and apostles, both those in the scriptures and those from the special witnesses today who know him best and are often called to speak directly for him. Especially would we do well to read and listen to President Spencer W. Kimball, the literal mouthpiece of the Lord Jesus Christ for our own time, whose plainspoken vigor combined with incisive imagery and humbly recounted personal experience can, if we will have ears to hear, convey the quality of redemptive love in the truth he speaks.
Let me make a few suggestions that might help us do specific things to translate such examples into our own ways of speaking and writing:
First, it would seem obvious that we must be sincere in order to speak sincerely, that we must deeply value truth and care about people to be able to speak with redemptive integrity. As the Lord expressed it, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34); we must “cleanse first that which is within … that the outside … may be clean also.” The apostle Paul came to a similar realization:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1–2; charity is defined in Moro. 7:47 as “the pure love of Christ.”)
But this becomes a chicken and egg problem (which comes first?), because consciously cultivating sincere, loving speech will help us become more loving and sincere. As Lowell Bennion reminds us in his fine lesson on this subject (Gospel Doctrine class manual Teachings of the New Testament, 1953, p. 84), “Speech not only mirrors the man, it also molds the man.”
I find that my children—like most young people in our time—are especially sensitive to the danger of being hypocritical; they sometimes find it difficult, for instance, to respond right away to the exercises suggested in our family home evening lessons, such as going around the table with a word of praise from each for each family member or setting a goal to try consciously to respond with a patient, loving word when we are offended during the week (“But, Dad, what if I don’t feel patient?” or “Mom, you wouldn’t want me to just make up something, would you?”).
Obviously we must work on both our inner nature and our outer expression at the same time, possibly beginning with some thoughtful reflection about what we really do care most about and then making some conscious efforts to see that our speech accurately reflects those central values, rather than our temporary moods (“But, Becky, you do sincerely want to become more patient and constructive, don’t you?”). We all need to learn the value of trying to speak the way we want to be—that is, not as a substitute or mask for our sincere feelings (which is hypocrisy) but as a means of helping us develop those feelings.
Sometimes we are blasphemous or profane or sarcastic because we seek attention or too much let our associates influence us, or are merely lazy and careless. Some reflection about whose opinion we really care most about—God’s or our peers’—and how much it matters to find and be our own true selves would, I believe, help us begin to change. We sometimes flatter—and encourage flattery in others—because we forget that our first loyalty must be to Christ and the truth, that excessive praise for ourselves or the shallow regard of those we give it to are ultimately ashes in the mouth and that to be eternally happy we must care about eternal values more than the honors of men, position, comfort, security, or even safety. Christ rejected flattery, and scathingly rebuked:
“Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26.)
That example and consciousness of our own priorities can help us begin to be more courageous in speaking and requiring the truth.
And that suggests a second way to develop our ability to speak with integrity and love: We need to cultivate moral courage. It seems clear that most forms of insincere and unloving speech arise from fear: fear of serious reflection on what we most care about and want to be, fear of exposing our limited selves, fear of the opinion or power of others, fear of demonstrating a whole-souled commitment to Christ when it might be unpopular or even dangerous to do so. We need to read often Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian saints, where he reminds them he has served the Lord “with all humility of mind, and many tears” and has “kept back nothing that was profitable unto you”:
“And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there:
“Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.
“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:22–24.)
But how can we develop such courage? John has told us that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18), which love is the fruit of the Spirit when we try to live the gospel fully, relying on the Lord. It’s something of a chicken and egg problem again, but again we can start by reflecting on what we at least want to be our true values. Can we, for instance, really say with the apostle Paul, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me”? (Heb. 13:6.) Can we have the confidence of Nephi: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them”? (1 Ne. 3:7.) God has commanded us not only to tell the truth but to actively speak out the truth to bring redemption, assuring us that we can succeed because he is our helper. If we will only begin to take some risks, speaking the truth lovingly and boldly even though we feel inept or weak or exposed, the Lord will keep his promises and we will be surprised at the response in others and in ourselves.
Let me give some examples, one personal, if I may. Not long after becoming the first Mormon on the staff of a Lutheran college, I was invited to speak at the daily chapel service. My first inclination was to talk on some general Christian principle; but I had recently heard some comments on campus about Mormons not being Christians. As I thought and prayed about what to do, I felt that I should meet the prejudice head on and finally, with what I admit was much uneasiness and fear, spoke forthrightly in defense of the central and unique principles of the restored gospel of Christ and bore personal testimony concerning them. There were some raised eyebrows and cold shoulders, but the response from the students and most of the faculty was very positive and I was often called upon or found opportunity thereafter to preach the gospel directly in that academic community. Such exposure quite likely offended some of my colleagues, but on the other hand some students joined the Church and many others more carefully examined their own beliefs and values.
As another example, a new member of our ward spoke in sacrament meeting some years ago on how gospel principles might be translated into politically liberal social and economic action in our nation. The next week, a politically conservative brother used testimony meeting to rebut the newcomer and to question by implication his faith and religious orthodoxy. Offended, the first man was tempted to lash back or retreat into haughty silence, but as he reflected he remembered times when such reactions by others had led to extended feuds, inactivity, and even apostasy. He finally decided, though with little confidence, to try the Lord’s counsel: he made an appointment and went to the brother who had criticized him, asked forgiveness for alarming him, and bore his testimony concerning the fundamentals of the gospel. The brother responded in like spirit, sharing his testimony and asking forgiveness. They became good friends, continuing to differ and sometimes openly disagree, but serving as a powerful example to all of us in the ward of brotherhood and the value of open, sincere, but loving, expression.
If we can develop the courage to take some personal risks and can learn to rely on the Spirit as we break out of old inhibitions and prejudices, we can be more effective in both vigorously defending the faith in the world and in lovingly challenging people in the church to live the gospel better. From Christ himself, his disciples from early times have learned to “speak the word of God with boldness” and thus to bring redemption to mankind. It may seem a contradiction to encourage boldness when we’ve been talking about speaking in love, but true love is redemptive and redemption may require boldness, pain, suffering, even—as the Atonement itself manifests—unto death. Of course, in all our boldness, we must be true to the great principle of giving milk before meat and to Paul’s great lesson (when he advised the Corinthians not to eat meat previously offered to idols if only because it might offend a brother trained in orthodox Judaism) that we consider the harm we might do to the faith of others with a truth or action, however harmless to ourselves. These too are part of speaking the truth in love.
All priesthood leaders and parents need to develop this ability to speak the truth boldly yet in a way that will bring those in their stewardship to salvation. We can err in both directions: I have had the experience of speaking in a sacrament meeting, or to my own wife or children, with a self-righteous zeal that made my words, though true, not only ineffective to bring about the change I sought, but offensive and, to my bitter regret, destructive of the spirit of the meeting or of my home. On the other hand, I have, in counseling situations, or in interviewing those responsible to me in my Church leadership positions, sometimes been too nondirective, too timidly vague, or merely supportive when I should have called to repentance or account. The Prophet Joseph taught us the proper balance:
“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
“That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” (D&C 121:43–44.)
If we can follow that counsel, each of us can learn more fully to speak the truth with a kind of love that changes and redeems ourselves and others. And in my experience (and this is a third suggestion) we can help prepare to do this by learning to be more open about our own opinions, convictions, experiences, our mistakes, even our shortcomings. When President Kimball, at the close of last October conference, shared with us his feeling that his life could be improved and that he intended to do so by applying principles he had jotted down during the conference, we were moved to increased trust and desire to follow his example rather than any lack of confidence. We must gain trust and understanding through sharing our whole selves before we can be in a position to move others with our words. The Church community is blessed, not fractured, by those who express themselves sincerely and openly—even their disagreements and their vulnerability—rather than those who keep silent in public but criticize in private or harbor resentment or guilt or gnaw alone on the bones of their failures and hurts.
One of our family’s finest home evening experiences occurred when our teenage son took what I’m sure seemed an enormous risk and called the family to repentance for a spirit of bickering and uncooperative self-concern that had been increasing over a few weeks—but only after first gaining our hearts by confessing in tears his own failures and his sorrow at what we had lost.
Christ told his former-day disciples (Matt. 5:23–24) to go and be reconciled to their brethren before offering their gifts at the altar (the equivalent, I would think, of taking the sacrament) and told us latter-day disciples: “On this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.” (D&C 59:12.)
We can do some things, then, to tame our tongues in a positive way—to learn to speak the truth in love and thus “grow up into Christ in all things.” I have made three interrelated suggestions to guide our efforts:
1. Be sincere; reflect on what we truly care most about—or want to—and then consciously work, even with specific exercises, to make our expressions true to those values.
2. Especially cultivate moral courage, the ability to be loyal, despite the costs, to our ultimate values, having confidence that the Lord is our helper; as a specific effort consciously work more forthrightly (but with the understanding and love that will make us effective) to preach repentance to this generation, both outside and within the Church.
3. In the strength of that courage strive to gain the confidence of others, so they truly can hear us, particularly by sharing more openly our defeats and our uncertainties—but also our victories, our spiritual experiences, and our deepest convictions—that they may be open to our words (even when we “reprove betimes with sharpness”) because they know that “our faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”
Finally, it would seem that sincerity in speech and life depends on the nature and strength of our ultimate convictions, and that the most powerful sincerity, the only kind sufficient to bring redemption, is that based on a whole-souled commitment to Christ. It is really only his example and the truth revealed in his gospel of salvation that will move us to tame our tongues until we can speak the truth in love.