What does it mean to speak truth? What does it mean to be a faithful friend? Is there any tension between the two?
Because Jesus himself is called “Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11) we know that to be faithful and to be true are not contradictory in the least. Actually, they are virtually synonymous. Yet, too often, we separate them in our lives.
In the West, we historically value truth, especially in terms of accuracy. We tend to be blunt, and when relationships suffer because we have spoken accurately (even if insensitively) we say, “Sometimes the truth hurts!” In these cases, we fail to be true friends.
Those in other cultures historically place a higher value on faithfulness in relationships. Speakers are indirect and may even lie because they do not want to be seen as unfaithful friend by speaking hurtfully.
Nik Ripken helpfully details the mindset of those from such cultures:
In sub-Saharan Africa, relationship is such a highly regarded value that for many tribal Africans that value often takes precedence over truth—which most westerners usually consider the higher of the two values. That difference in perspective can create serious misunderstandings, unnecessary conflict and sometimes even tragic consequences. An African might choose to massage or shade the truth, or withhold important information, because he doesn’t want to cause offense. He might refuse to say something that others might not want to hear.
When that happens, it would be easy for an American to see the African as deceitful and untrustworthy, even lacking in moral character. The African, however, might feel that he has actually demonstrated the highest integrity and trustworthiness by honoring what he had always been taught to believe was the more important cultural value. For him, consciously saying something that he feared could damage or strain a relationship would have been the far greater wrong (The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected, Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2013, 209-210).
Ripken summarizes these differences by noticing that, in indirect cultures, relationship earns and elicits truth. A strong and deep relationship is seen as necessary to survive the most difficult truth. In the West, or in other direct cultures, truthfulness and honesty, usually defined first and foremost by factual accuracy, is the essential foundation for the development of any good relationship.
In Christ, faithfulness and truth cannot be pitted against one another as separate values. While it is easy for those of us in the West to critique the weaknesses of other culture’s speaking habits, we need to first ask how we should conform to the image of Jesus who is Faithful and True. The careful wording of the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” does not merely command accuracy of speech. It requires faithfulness as a true witness.
How can we in the West grow to value more than mere accuracy in words and cultivate relational fidelity with our speech?
Calvin Troup, now president of Geneva College, taught a public speaking class in which I was a student and addressed this subject memorably. He outlined five elements that must be present in order for us to consider our speech to be truly true.
- Accuracy: What is said; is the message correct?
- Relevance: To Whom it is said; should the message be presented to this audience?
- Timeliness: When it is said; should the message be presented now?
- Discretion: Where it is said; should the message be presented here? In this manner?
- Justice: Why it is said; what are the motives for the message?
Life requires wisdom. Knowing if our speech is consistent with these criteria is not always easy. Each context is unique, and cross-cultural ministry will always present challenges. But there is no need to choose between faithfulness and truth. When our words fulfill these criteria, we can speak with confidence knowing that the fruit of our lips is pleasing to God. And, we will be confident that we are being faithful and true to our friends.