My feelings were hurt by something I had overheard and I was determined to get even. So, I wrote a nasty letter. (This was back in the days when people wrote letters.) In it, I said the things I knew would be hurtful to read. There was no kindness in them, just anger. It was truth, but it was vengeful truth.
Two weeks later, a friend called me on the carpet. He didn’t know exactly what I’d done, but he could see the hurt I’d caused. The rift I’d torn wide open was glaring.
He told me to make it better and to do it that day. So, I did.
It was difficult to swallow my pride and apologize for the angry letter. But I figured if one friend cared about me enough to do the hard thing of confronting me when I was wrong, I could do the hard thing of making things right with another friend.
A year went by and another friend pulled me aside. His words stung, too.
“People really like you,” he said. “Everyone thinks you’re great. And that’s the problem. You are less of a leader than you could be, because you work so hard to make sure you don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
Ouch! I sacrifice truth for popularity. But I had to admit it: He was right.
When these two friends spoke hard but necessary words to me, they became true friends. They risked my rejection of their words and their friendship. But I accepted what they had to say, because I could see that they spoke out of love, not anger.
Just because I didn’t like what they had to say to me, it didn’t make their words wrong.
Just because I felt hurt by their words, it didn’t mean they weren’t speaking out of love.
As the proverb puts it, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).
What’s so important about the words in these two episodes is that they’re friendly, not just true. In both of the stories, I could see kindness in the eyes of my friends as they spoke truth to me. There was the unique mix of sternness and gentleness that turned my heart toward them, because it showed that their hearts were turned toward me.
But as the proverb also points out, the opposite is also true.
Just because people tell me what I want to hear and just because these yes-sayers may outnumber my faithful, no-saying friends, it doesn’t mean they are being loving. Their kiss-words may actually be enemy-words.
Far more often than these lovingly rebuking friends have I heard the soft lies I’ve wanted to hear. By my demeanor, I’ve signaled what I’ve wanted to hear and have heard exactly that.
Yes, there is a time to comfort. Yes, there is a time to support. Yes, we all need to hear words of affirmation, words that build us up and strengthen us when we falter. But those words must be true. And those words mustn’t undermine or replace the hard words that true friendship requires of us from time to time.
Real and faithful friendship risks telling the painful truth for the sake of love. That’s not all it speaks, but it doesn’t avoid it because it’s unpleasant.