“I am just being honest about how I feel.” That’s the refrain I kept hearing from this wife. She said it for several weeks when I finally started to realize that “honesty” was really just a cover for “cruelty.” She was genuinely confessing how she felt about her husband, but she was saying things that she probably needed to work through privately. The goal was not honesty and reconciliation so much as causing him pain. Every time she said something hurtful she would just add the phrase, “I am just being honest.” And what could he say? No one wants to tell their spouse to lie to them, but still it didn’t seem right to him. It didn’t seem right to me either. Honesty within marriage is, of course, important, but our spouses don’t need to us to share every thought we have. Healthy marital communication means being conscious of pointless truth.
The apostle Paul warns all believers about the importance of healthy speech. He writes to the Ephesians, in chapter 4, saying this in several different ways; we read:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (v. 15)
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (v. 25)
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (v. 29)
The overarching goal of all Christian communication, as Paul terms it, is that our words would give grace and “fit the occasion.” That is to say, then, truth simply for the sake of truth is not appropriate. Truth for the sake of grace and building up, is appropriate. The goal is to “speak the truth in love,” and this requires real discernment.
“Pointless truth” is the kind of honesty that simply expresses every thought, confession, and frustration we have. It is not constructive because it is not focused on giving grace, but rather on venting our own emotions. Winston Smith has said:
The wise person understands how powerful words can be and uses them carefully. Constructive honesty requires us to know the difference between what we think or feel and what we should share. Wisdom also means that we know our spouse well enough to decide what should be shared and how and when to share it. (Marriage Matters, 123)
We must be wise with our use of truth, knowing when, how, and if we should share it. Truth, like so many good things, can be used like a weapon to cut one another down. We can use truth in a way that is actually destructive, not constructive. That is, of course, a defect in the use, not in the nature of truth. Truth is connected to freedom and life. Truth is about order and hope and flourishing. But we can use truth in such ways that it breeds chaos, destruction, and death. The fault is our own and in the ways and reasons for which we express truth.
This doesn’t mean that we are forbidden from saying hard things. Truth considers what is best for the other person, not what they will most like to hear. Jesus speaks truth, but He certainly does not shy away from saying hard things. So, we must also sometimes speak truth into difficult circumstances in words that will be difficult for some to receive. The key, however, is both motivation and goal. Why are we speaking this truth? What do you hope to accomplish by speaking it? Those questions point to the vital distinction between pointless truth and constructive truth.
Pointless truth simply aims to express self. The goal is simply to get something off my chest, say what I want, and make a point. It is not interested in “building up.” It is not concerned about giving grace to the hearer. It is not concerned about glorifying God. Pointless truth says something simply because it can, not because it must. There are loads of examples, but here are a few common forms that I often hear in counseling (and sadly, that I have sometimes said myself):
- I forgive you for that thing you said/did yesterday – In cases where the offending party is not aware that they said or did something wrong this comment is not aimed at reconciliation. The goal is more closely associated with demonstrating moral superiority, pretending to let something go when in fact you are passive-aggressively pointing it out to the other person. This type of “truth” actually suggests the opposite: I was hurt by that thing you said/did, but don’t want to talk about it.
- I used to hate _______ about you- These types of comments about past feelings don’t give grace to the hearer. If there are issues in the present relationship that need to be addressed and resolved then those should be discussed, but pointing to personal frustrations from the past don’t have value. If you’ve worked through those feelings, let issues go, or forgiven in your heart, then there’s nothing left to address and mentioning it in this way unnecessarily causes hurt.
- I wish I had married someone else/I wish I were still single – Unless your contemplating divorce these types of comments do nothing to actually address issues within a marriage. They may be true thoughts, but they don’t actually help repair relationships, rebuild trust and unity, and give grace to the hearer. They are “truths” intended to sting, more destructive than constructive.
There are many more examples, but the key is to note the unfruitful nature of the comments. They don’t contribute to relationship building, they don’t have a clear purpose for being expressed, and they don’t offer God’s grace to the hearer. We may say hard things to one another sometimes, but it’s clear in those moments that we are trying to improve our relationship, or help one another address sinful patterns. These comments don’t do that. In that regard they are more “unwholesome talk” than “speaking the truth in love,” according to Paul.
Your spouse needs more than truth, they need truth in love. Wisdom invites us not simply to blurt out every thought and feeling we have, but to consider when, how, and if we should say things. Pointless truth focuses on self, but constructive truth seeks to honor God and give grace to others through what we say. Speak the truth to your spouse, but speak constructively.
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