Here is a question for us: Is truth spoken always good? Is even good counsel always right to give?
I want you to look at the following counsel offered to a man in distress. How wise and right does it seem?
“As for me, I would seek God,
and to God would I commit my cause,
who does great things and unsearchable,
marvelous things without number:
Now, that is good advice for someone who is struggling, isn’t it? How can it not be perfect and right to tell someone, in their sorrow, to seek God, because God does amazing things?
Contextually, the words above are not good counsel. They are spoken by Eliphaz to Job in chapter 5, verses 8 and 9. Eliphaz is in the process of condemning Job. Eliphaz simply cannot imagine that Job is suffering so much without having offended God in some way to deserve it. So, the words of Eliphaz, words that sound so wonderfully true on their surface, are actually nasty things flung at a hurting man to basically tell him to stop sinning and start seeking God so that everything will be OK again.
We need to learn from this as we help hurting friends. It is not enough that our words are true. It is not enough that our counsel is right. After all, who could argue that even Job needs to seek the Lord? But apt counsel must be truth spoken in love and with wisdom.
For example, a person who has just lost a loved one may not need to hear from you a pithy recitation of Romans 8:28. Yes, God does work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his great purpose. But, not all things are good. And not all moments are the right time to try to fix a persons theology of suffering and sovereignty. Sometimes we need to weep with those who weep more than we need to unload our doctrine on them, even if our doctrine is good.
Here is an example of something very true, intended to encourage, that was not wisely or well spoken. I was standing at the funeral home greeting people who were offering their condolences to me and my family after my father passed away. Many people, of course, wanted to offer me comfort by pointing to the fact that my dad is in heaven, with the Lord. But one particular conversation felt so wrong. A person came and expressed to me his sorrow for our loss. Then he asked me if my dad was a believer. When I said that my dad had come to faith in Christ, the person said to me, “Well, I’m sorry for your loss, but not that sorry.” He was meaning to say to me that the sorrow is lessened for us knowing that heaven is real. But, it was not at all a comforting way to express even a true and doctrinally sound thought.
Interestingly, in case you want to know what I found most comforting in the funeral line, it was when someone just shook my hand or hugged me and said something like, “I’m sorry.” A simple expression of grieving with us over our loss was most helpful. Those who wanted to encourage by making the funeral home a teaching moment were far less helpful than those who just made it clear that they cared about us.
Christians, think well as you offer words of counsel. The point here is that you can say very true things and not help. You can say perfectly biblical things and not encourage. Ask yourself what would encourage you. Ask yourself if now is the time to offer a teaching. Ask yourself if they already know what you are planning to say to them. Ask yourself what will show your love most. Of course you must not compromise the truth. But truth aptly spoken is far more valuable than true words poorly put.