Every day, we have numerous opportunities to err in our treatment of people. Significant pitfalls present themselves in every relational context, but one of the most challenging is navigating the knife-edge of grace and truth. As a leader, a parent, a spouse, a friend, or a community member, we routinely juggle the tension between grace — compassionately giving others more kindness than they deserve — and sharing hard truths — which could include challenging dangerous attitudes and behaviors.
When our children disobey (particularly if it’s repeated), how often do we instinctively veer toward “truth” while minimizing grace? Weariness in the repetition of bad behaviors or attitudes may cause us to lash out verbally in anger. We move into lecture mode and default into a belief that our instruction will somehow tame a heart that is self-centered. Grace may have been appropriate for the first time or two, but now we need to drop the hammer and practice some solid “truth” telling! We may feel that our child’s future is threatened, that we’ve been disrespected, or fearful that we may be losing power and control in the relationship, so we swerve toward “truth” lacking grace in an attempt to rescue what seems to be slipping away. Parents taking this road are often dismayed to find, after a while, their children become hardened under the constant intensity of graceless “truth.”
Or perhaps friends watch one other make damaging choices. One of us drinks too much, is unfaithful to their spouse, lies to their employer/teacher/coach, cuts corners financially or ignores their children. Regardless of the unrest this creates inside us, we feel hesitant to speak truth in these moments. We may fear losing the comfortable status quo in the relationship, or perhaps we’re embarrassed by our own failures and feel disqualified to speak challenging words. Whatever the motivation, we careen toward a truthless “grace” that ignores or even excuses the danger. Ultimately this reaction allows our friend to continue down a road that will cause personal and collateral damage to her and those in her sphere.
These are just two examples of how we fail to navigate the grace-truth tension. It’s easy to give so-called grace at truth’s expense (permissiveness) or so-called truth at grace’s expense (harshness). Either, without the other, is damaging. And you may be thinking, “You’re right! We really ought to have the proper balance of both.” In fact, our culture often talks about finding the right “balance” between competing concepts (think “balance in the Force”). We hear, ‘Don’t go overboard” or “don’t swing the pendulum too far one way” — just seek the balance, right? And yet we continually fall short of actually achieving this balance.
And balance isn’t even what we need. In John 1:14 we read that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Did you catch the beautiful reality of Jesus? He didn’t simply balance grace and truth, he was full of both. Imagine that! In every situation, Jesus brings complete truth and complete grace. This is the essential Good News of Jesus. The complete truth is that we’re all like that disobedient child or self-harming friend. Yet, rather than condemn us in the harshness of this truth, Jesus brings full grace to anyone who will call out to him in humility and neediness. Even more breathtaking is the reality that when we humbly call to him, he places his Spirit in us and enables us to be full of grace and full of truth as we navigate our relationships. Now that is a gracious truth worth celebrating!