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Speaking the Truth in Love

James Freeman Clarke, Chp. 5 in Every-day Religion (Ticknor: 1886), 63-76.

To speak the truth, or what seems to be truth to us, is not a very hard thing, provided we do not care what harm we do by it, or whom we hurt by it. This kind of “truth-telling” has been always common. Such truth-tellers call themselves plain, blunt men, who say what they think, and do not care who objects to it. A man who has a good deal of self-reliance and not much sympathy, can get a reputation for courage by this way of speaking the truth. But the difficulty about it is, that truth thus spoken does not convince or convert men; it only offends them. It is apt to seem unjust; and injustice is not truth.

Some persons think that unless truth is thus hard and disagreeable it cannot be pure. Civility toward error seems to them treason to the truth. Truth to their mind is a whip with which to lash men, a club with which to knock them down. They regard it as an irritant adapted to arouse sluggish consciences.

I recollect once, at an Antislavery meeting in former days, one of the sterner sort of Abolitionists suddenly sprang to his feet, and said, “We are not doing our duty. See how quietly and peacefully the audience are listening to us. If we were doing our duty, they would be throwing brickbats at us!”

In the same way it has been a common theory in the religious world that the natural human heart is so opposed to truth that any doctrine which does not offend men must be false. They forget that the common people heard Jesus gladly, and that when the apostles first preached the gospel, three thousand persons gladly received the word, and were baptized.

To speak the truth is very necessary. More of plain, honest, kindly, affectionate truth-telling is much wanted in the world. Very few people get the truth told them which they need to hear and ought to hear. People say behind their backs what is never said to their face. A fault which they might easily correct, if they knew of it, they continue to commit all their lives, because they have no friend manly enough or kind enough to tell them of it. Therefore if you can find a truth-teller honest, direct, straightforward, and at the same time kind, sympathizing, and loving, you have found a friend worth more than diamonds. And if I had to choose between those who never tell me my faults and those who tell them too rudely, I ought infinitely rather to prefer the harsh and rough truth to the mild and civil falsehood.

Saadi, the Persian poet, tells this story:

A preacher of a harsh tone of voice fancied himself a fine-spoken man; but the croaking of a raven seemed the burden of his chant, and his voice was like the braying of an ass. In reverence for his rank, his townsmen indulged the defect, and would not distress him by remarking on it, till another preacher, who disliked him, came and said, ‘I have seen you in a dream; may it prove fortunate.’ He replied, ‘What have you seen?’ He answered, ‘It seemed in my vision that your croaking voice had become harmonious.’ For a while the preacher bowed his head in thought, then raised it, and said: ‘What a fortunate vision, which has made me sensible of my weakness! I am now aware that I have an unpleasant voice, and that the people are distressed at my delivery. I will try, henceforth, to speak more softly. My friends distress me who extol my vices as though they were virtues, and regard my thorns as roses. Where is that rude enemy who will tell me all my deformities?’

Schiller, the German poet, tells us, in one of his couplets, much the same thing:

My friend helps me; my foe is also useful to me. The one shows me what I am able to be ; the other, what I ought to be.

And Confucius, the wise man of China, says in his “Table Talk”:

I am a fortunate man; if I do anything wrong, I am sure to be told of it.

But we are not all as noble as Schiller and Confucius, and therefore we are apt to resent being charged with faults and follies of which we are not aware. Hence it is important that, while we are told the truth, we should be told it in such a way as to make us feel that it is spoken, not as cold criticism, not in a tone of superiority, not as if the speaker took pleasure in fault-finding; but as the faithful wound of a friend, the truth which is married to love, the higher generosity which is willing to encounter our resentment in order to do good to our soul.

To tell truth in this way is a high art, and comes from a noble temper. Happy is he who has such a friend, — a friend able to see the good and the evil in his heart, whose love is full of insight, recognising every good purpose, every longing after right, every conflict with wrong, and who yet can see and say what more is needed, what better things may be done. What higher compliment can be paid us than faith that we are strong enough to be told of our faults, that we are magnanimous enough to wish to know them? The world is sick because of shams, pretences, empty shows, forms which have nothing left in them but dead habit. Every age needs its prophets to rouse it from its deadly sleep in some dear, delightful falsehood. These prophets have a hard time of it; they are usually stoned, beaten, killed; they have to make their faces hard as a flint, and to speak their word whether men will hear or forbear. They have a prophet’s reward, — hard work, plenty of opposition; but an inward conviction that they are right, and must triumph at last.

Truth is the salt of the earth. What is life good for without it? What is any man good for who does not care for truth? If you ask yourself why you respect any one. you will find it to be because there is in him an element of truth. He has real convictions. He believes something. He cares for matters outside his own selfish interests; he is moved to joy by the sight of what is just and generous; he is thrilled with indignation by the knowledge of what is wicked. He believes in the things unseen; he believes in God; he believes in some great divine power above all, through all, in all. He may be a Pagan, and call God Jupiter; he may be a Hindoo, and call him Brahm; he may be a Calvinist, and believe God an arbitrary being who makes some of his children for heaven and some for hell, — but, at all events, he believes something, and that is better than not believing. Without belief there is no earnestness, and without earnestness life is intolerable. Unless we are in earnest about something, what is the use of living?

To believe something, even if it be mixed with error, is better than to believe nothing; for belief implies the love of truth, and this is the first step toward truth itself. There are two kinds of truth: inward truth, truth to one’s self, or truthfulness; and secondly, knowledge of reality, or outward truth. Both kinds of truth are essential to goodness and happiness. They make the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, going forward and going backward.

But, beside truth, there is another and an opposite virtue, which is love. These two make up the whole of goodness. Truth is one element, and love the other. They are different and opposite qualities, but necessary to each other. Neither will suffice alone.

Some men have truth but have not love. Their truth is hard, cold, overbearing, dogmatical. They do not speak it in love. They drive men, they do not lead them. There is nothing attractive, magnetic, about them. They scold and rail at those who differ from them. We cannot but feel a certain respect for them, but we do not like them. What they say may be the truth, but we are not attracted by it. Truth without love does not seem beautiful.

So there are other men who have love but not truth. They are full of good-will, overflowing with sympathy, but do not help us, because they have no stamina, no strength of their own. They are disposed to give to others, but they have nothing to give. They sympathize with us whether we are right or wrong, good or bad. They are a “mush of concession.” Their love, being without truth, does not do us good.

If you try to carry out truth or love to its ultimate separately, you spoil both. Take for example the case of a man who is in love with truth. “I will tell the truth always,” he says, “regardless of consequences.” What, will you tell a madman the truth? Will you tell a child the whole truth? Will you always tell all the truth to every one? Will you have no reserve? By such a course society would be dissolved. The early Quakers tried this plan. They tried to be perfectly truthful; to have their yea, yea, and their nay, nay. They said thee instead of you, because to use the plural number when speaking to one man seemed to them false. One Quaker refused to wear clothes which had been dyed, because it involved deception. But what was the result? Avoiding forms and wishing to follow the immediate impulse of the Spirit, they present the curious anomaly of an outcome of the most rigid formalism. Truth in the letter at last seemed to harden and freeze, and to destroy truth in the spirit. This is the inevitable result of a one-sided development.

Every good character is composed of truth and love. Think of the person you have loved best in the world. It was some one who had a character of his own, rooted in the love of truth and right, who would not give way, but stood firm according to his conscience; but who, while thus strong in himself, was tender and generous toward others. He could forgive others, and be more tolerant toward them than toward himself.

It is this union of sincerity and good-will which constitutes the nobleness of man. The man who is strong in some rooted convictions, who stands firm on his sense of right, and yet whose generosity flows steadily in a current of helpfulness to those around him, is the pillar of society. Such men are the pivots around which progress and improvement turn. They give beauty and dignity to a community.

This twofold element of truth and love must go into every action to make it good. Every good deed must partake of both qualities. If I do a kind act simply from good nature; if I give money merely because I am asked to give it, without stopping to think whether it is right to do it and if it will do real good, then my good nature is the merest weakness; it has no substance in it. It is only the selfish desire to escape trouble. On the other hand, if I am honest, just, and truthful in anything merely for my own sake, and do not care how my honesty or truth helps or hurts others; if I blurt out unnecessarily and harshly whatever I think to be truth, then my truth ceases to be truth, and becomes only self-will and obstinacy. You cannot find a single good action which has not involved in it this twofold element, and in proportion as they are well balanced, goodness grows into beauty, and conduct is not only right, but also lovely.

One of the peculiarities of Jesus was that in him the love of truth and the love of man were in complete harmony. His truth was never hard, his kindness never weak. His justice was not cold law; his tenderness no effeminate good nature. His love had an edge to it; it was no rose-water philanthropy. He was the most earnest reformer who ever appeared in the world; and yet we do not think of him as such, because his severity was so filled with warmth, and with that actinic ray which makes all seeds swell, all buds open into blossom. Yet look at it. He came to take up many things by the roots, this most uncompromising of radicals. He seemed to the Jews to overthrow all that was most venerable in their religion. Jerusalem was no sacred city to him. Man may worship God everywhere. The Sabbath is no holy day in itself, but only good as it serves man; the Temple must pass away, with its awful and holy ceremonies. He instituted a religion without priest, temple, altar, book, or day. In the destructive analysis of his criticism all forms and creeds were dissolved, and nothing remained but love to God and man. And yet all this destruction was so constantly for the sake of something positive, that he could say truly, “I came not to destroy, but to fulfill.” The Jewish Sabbath went, but it was fulfilled in the profound peace of hearts resting from all anxiety in the grace of God. The Temple passed, but worship remained, the worship of a little child clinging to his father’s hand. The law of Moses came to an end, but that also was fulfilled in a joy which was its own security, in love which was an unerring light. Jesus in his word and in his life was truth spoken in love. His love went out further than human love had ever gone, so that it reached those furthest out and furthest away. His perfect holiness and purity led him to condemn all sin, but his perfect humanity led him to save every sinner. Thus in him mercy and truth met together, righteousness and peace kissed each other. Since he, so pure and holy, could yet love the sinner and give his life for him, we see how God can love us, even when we are most sinful and evil.

All conflicts of duty resolve themselves at last into this antagonism of truth and love. If you ever feel a real difficulty as to what your duty is, you will find, on looking into it, that truth seems to be pulling you one way and love the other. A man comes to you with a tale of woe. Love says,” Help him.” Truth says, “No. Perhaps he is an impostor. In that case, your helping him will do harm, not good.” You hear things said and done in society which seem to you false and evil. Truth says, ” Protest against them. Denounce them. Expose them.” Love replies, ” No. What right have you to stab, cut, wound people who may be right after all? And what good will it do? It will only displease and offend them.” You see many customs and habits which appear false and evil. Truth says, “Come out and be separate from them. Do not conform. Go your own way. Do what seems to you to be right, no matter what others may think or say.” Love says, ” No! That will do no good. They will not understand you, and you will lose all your influence by such eccentricity.” We are constantly tormented by these difficulties; these cases of conscience come every day to every conscientious person, and most of them at last will be found to resolve themselves into this eternal antagonism of truth on the one side and love on the other.

And the solution of such difficulties is to be sought, not in thought, but in life. Intellectually, many of these difficulties are insoluble. The old Catholic writers wrote volumes of casuistry, or works on cases of conscience, in which they tried to find an  intellectual solution for these moral difficulties. That literature is forgotten, for it was ineffectual and useless. But if a man is living in the spirit of Christ, if he is full of the love of truth, the sense of justice, honor, purity, virtue, and at the same time full of humanity, good-will, charity; then, when a difficulty comes, he will discover some practical solution. In proportion to the fulness of his religious life the solution will be the most profitable and satisfactory.

Truth without love, in religion, is dogmatism. It is overbearing, cold, bitter. It hunts for heresies, and persecutes the heretic. Truth without love founded the Inquisition, tortured and burned unbelieving Jews and Protestants. Its zeal is cruel. In modern times, truth without love does not persecute, but it slanders — it is unrelenting, unsympathizing. It is a curious fact that a religious newspaper, carried on in the interest of a sect, is often just as one-sided and partisan as a political newspaper, and has as little Christianity in it.

Truth without love, in education, created that harsh system in which knowledge was driven into the minds of children by blows, and the beauties of science, literature, art, were made odious to the child’s mind by associations with scolding and punishment. Fortunately for the coming generation that brutal system is passing away, and little children can hereafter take their fill of knowledge with gladness of heart.

Truth without love, in the home, makes it cold and cheerless. The inmates may do their duty to each other, but without any genial sympathy. Thus home becomes prosaic and uninteresting, and life grows gray and the vital spring is gone.

The cure for these evils is more faith in God and a better religion. We can unite truth with love, love with truth, only as we are in communion with Him, the fountain of spiritual life. That union makes the soul at once tender and strong, pure and generous, just and merciful. We can pardon weakness in others, because we know we so much need pardon ourselves. When we see in God the infinite, all-embracing tenderness, the power which is also goodness, the Father who cares for every child, who seeks and saves the lost, and rejoices over the repentance of every sinner, we also can care for the souls of others and take a real interest in them.

The true atonement of Christ was not that he made it possible for God to forgive his penitent children, for God always could and did forgive the penitent. But it was showing, in his own person and character, how truth and love are one, how righteousness and peace kiss each other, and that there is no contradiction between justice and mercy. By thus uniting them in himself, he showed that they are one in God; that God can be just and yet forgive his penitent child; that as Jesus was holy and yet loving, God, the all-holy, can be all- loving too. Thus he enables us to trust in God, notwithstanding our faults, and come confidently to the throne of omnipotence to find grace to help in time of need.

And as Jesus has manifested this in his life, and revealed God’s holiness and love as one, so every good man and woman can be a revelation of God in the same way. Every one whom we have known in whom justice and mercy were united, has helped us to see the same union in God, and so has brought us near to him.

Let us, therefore, aim high; let us not be satisfied with a one-sided virtue. If we are naturally sympathetic, let us add to this, strength of principle and the love of truth. If we are by nature conscientious and truthful, let us also be tender, kind, merciful and generous; and so become the true children of our Father in heaven, who lets his sun shine on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust.

In order that the love of truth may not pass into empty debate and verbal controversy, it must be joined with the spirit of love which comes from Christianity. The man who leads a religious life, who is sensible of God’s presence and his own accountability, who breathes every day a prayer to Heaven that he may be saved from evil and helped into good, who looks up every day for pardon, comfort, and strength, and looks abroad every day to find how to serve his Master and Saviour, — he will speak the truth, but speak it in love. He will avoid both extremes. The spirit within him will guide him aright. That which no study of the casuists could teach him will be done for him by the spirit of Christ in his heart. That will lead him along the narrow path of duty, will make him faithful, yet gentle; true, yet kind; firm in his purpose, mild in his method; inflexible in his principles, liberal in his judgments. When such a one speaks or acts we feel in him this completeness or fulness of the moral nature; he is not one-sided, not extreme; he walks at liberty and he walks securely; being led by the spirit of God, he becomes a son of God.