The Raw, Naked Truth about “Speaking the Truth in Love”

I’ve been struggling with what to make this post about. I’ve personally had a really rough few weeks, and I managed to generate far more conflict than I liked with some of my public opinions. I shut down and shut out the world for a few days, and I was seriously re-considering this Call that I’ve responded to.

Thanks to a very good friend (whom also happens to be a stellar mental health professional), I was able to weather that particular storm. She reminded me that sometimes even Jesus had to go out in the boat, away from the crowds. If Jesus had to do it, then Michael Woywood certainly has to… just as I know I must return to what God has called me to do when my soul is sufficiently rested.

So, that brings us to today’s post.

I read an article yesterday that I think is the most disturbing piece I’ve read from a Christian publication in a long time. The full text of the article is here. (If you have never heard of Charisma News, it is a fairly widely-read Christian magazine.)

The specifics of this article deserve to be addressed – mostly the fact that this author seems to have take the demonization of homosexuals to a very literal level – but, I’m far more interested in addressing a general trend across Christianity. That trend is “speaking the truth in love”, and while it sounds like a truly wonderful practice, it is something that I have come to fear from the worldwide Body of Christ.

This post is not intended to be wholly about my own religious views on the LGBT community, but those views are central to my response. And, because my own post is a reaction to the above article, it may seem like I’m primarily talking about the LGBT community. Well, let me clarify: the LGBT community is simply the most recent in a long list of people that the religious community has demonized, persecuted and kept out of community throughout history. As to my views, unlike the author, I see nothing sinful in two men or two women having a committed relationship with one another. Sexual ethics have always been a part of our faith, and I see no reason that Christian same-sex couples should not be held to the same standard of fidelity and commitment that Christian opposite-sex couples adhere to. If those standards are met, I see absolutely no compelling reason that we should not bless and validate their relationships as righteous.

Again, that’s not really what this post is about. However, I’ll be talking about sin and forgiveness, and I don’t want anyone to think that I believe loving same-sex relationships require forgiveness simply for existing. I do not. Now, we can continue.

When I hear a Christian say that they’re “speaking the truth in love” (as the author opens his article with), I feel that I’m hearing a religious equivalent to “I don’t mean to be rude.” As I’ve said many times, to many people, opening a sentence with “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” is a sure sign that you’re about to be terribly rude. The qualifier simply exists to minimize your own feelings of guilt at saying something hurtful.

When a Christian says, “I’m going to speak the truth in love”, chances are that what they’re about to say might be the truth, but it will almost definitely not be loving. The speaker in question seems to feel that adding the word “love” to otherwise hateful words somehow changes the content of the rest of the sentence. In fact, it is my personal opinion that if you have to qualify a statement with that phrase, you’re about to avoid the truth in favor a heaping helping of judgement.

Reading the article forced me to dissect the statement that I abhor. First, there’s the gold standard of “Truth” that we are, indeed, called to speak. Common culture would have us believe that “truth hurts”. I have seen several Christian memes that say things like “The Truth sounds like hate to those who hate the Truth.” We seem to have adopted this idea that the Truth is inherently unpleasant, that it should produce an immediate defensive reaction among the ungodly, and that the level of offense that people take to our “truth” is directly proportional to how “true” it is.

Contrast this attitude with Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John: “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free.”

The Truth doesn’t bind us up and leave us in knots; the Truth makes us free. Some people would argue that all they’re trying to do is make people free when they point out their “sin”, but to that I would ask the following questions:

Does it make people free to tell them that they are sick, unnatural, twisted and under demonic influence?

Does it make people free to tell them that their love and commitment is invalid, simply because they are only capable of feeling that way about a person of the same sex?

Does it make people free to tell them that their only way to be both gay and Christian is to abstain from the loving, committed, romantic relationships that opposite-sex Christian couples enjoy by default?

Those “truths” aren’t freeing; they shackle people with burdens which can’t reasonably be borne – which was something that Jesus wasn’t unfamiliar with. The interpretation and application of the Jewish Law during Jesus time did much of the same thing, and it was in response to this that Jesus said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. My yoke is easy; my burden is light.

Given what we know about the time that Jesus walked the earth and the culture that He lived in, and what He said – especially as it pertained to burdens, oppression and freedom – is it possible that we have completely misunderstood this entire Truth thing? If we are speaking the Truth, why are people not free?

And then, there’s the “love” part. I’ve read many, many articles about the kind of “love” that many Christians show people that we disagree with, especially when it comes to “loving the sinner, hating the sin” (a great article on that is here.) “We love them too much to let them go to Hell.” “We love them too much to let them live in sin.” And, hot on the heels of that love, comes the “speaking the truth” which judges, condemns and further ostracizes people.

Where did we learn this? It certainly wasn’t from Jesus.

Jesus didn’t spend much time “speaking the Truth in love”. He simply spoke the Truth, and it was Love.

Jesus didn’t spend much time railing about people’s sins, or their sicknesses. He simply touched them, He healed them, and He brought them back into community.

Jesus spoke the only Truths that ever mattered: “You are loved, you are forgiven, and you are welcome.

The religious community of His time believed that people’s ailments and disabilities were a result of sin: Jesus forcefully confronted that attitude by spending His time among them. When a paralyzed man was brought to Him, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And then He healed him. By doing that, Jesus was directly attacking any preconceived notion that it was sin keeping this man on a cot and He was welcoming a person that the religious authorities said was a “sinner” back into the loving arms of the community. There were no preconditions, no “speaking the truth in love” – simply healing and acceptance.

This is the radical, controversial, narrow path that we should be following: love, forgiveness, healing, acceptance.

There is nothing “controversial” or “radical” about demonizing homosexuals, calling them sick and sinful: we’ve been doing that, and worse, for literally hundreds of years. It has, until recently, been a crime in our own country to engage in same-sex relations; it is still a crime in many countries, with the penalty of death. Up until 10-20 years ago, it was almost universally acknowledged as “truth” that there was something wrong with homosexuality. There can be no controversy in speaking a “truth” that has been commonly held wisdom for most of human history.

But, when people stand up and say, “No. We love you, we accept you, we affirm you, we validate you” – even as their own religious communities that they’ve grown up in call them heathens and heretics – now that is controversial, that is radical.

The “narrow path” doesn’t consist of speaking out against people that are different than you, that privately disgust you, that seem “unnatural”; that is the easiest, most natural thing that a human being can do.

But, when someone says, “I am you, you are me, we are one“… that’s difficult. That flies in the face of thousands and thousands of years of tribal instinct, national pride and human nature. That is a narrow path that most people are unwilling – and even incapable – of walking.

But, that’s the cost of following Jesus, that’s the path that is narrow that leads not just to Eternal Life, but abundant, fulfilling life in the here and now. That’s the Truth that sets us free: that salvation, grace, mercy, forgiveness, healing and community are available to all. There is no condition, but the cost is that we must extend all that we’ve been given to everyone: especially the people that we might feel personally revolted by.

I don’t do this well, at least not as often as I’d like to. The people that I think of as “revolting”, “sinful” or “unnatural” might not be the same as my Conservative brethren, but I still have those people in my life that I am required and demanded to love, forgive, heal and accept. I can only hope that God gives me the Grace to “practice what I preach”, and offer community to those people that anger and disgust me. It is not an easy path.

But it sets me free.

Grace and Peace to you, wherever (and whoever) you are,

Michael Brian Woywood

How Being a Soldier Helped Me Become a Better Follower of Jesus

My dear readers,

I’m thinking that I’ll start a 3-part series next week on “How To Begin Again”, focusing on the three challenges of faith, hope and love. But, as we had our Independence Day a few days ago, I thought that I’d take the time to reminisce on my own service, and how it continues to affect my faith journey.

Before I begin, I’ll make clear my present thinking on military service: while I honor the sacrificial thinking that accompanies the decision to enlist in the service, I do not support the military as an institution or an idea. I am a dyed in the wool pacifist, and I hope to maintain that conviction until the day I die. War taught me that lesson, which I will explain more fully in this post.

So, this post won’t seek to glorify military service, or combat, or any form of violence. Again, I respect the soldier for his commitment, even as I think that commitment is terribly misplaced. I write this post because I have become more and more convinced that my own service, fraught as it was with heartache and grief, made me into the (hopefully) radical Follower of Jesus that I am seeking to become every day.

So, let’s get into some actual points:

1) Service taught me to serve.

There is very little in the Army that is glamorous. No matter what rank you attain in the enlisted world, you will always find yourself picking up trash or doing push-ups at someone else’s command by the end of the day. At the time of my service, I truly resented having to do so much at someone else’s behest. I hated the long hours, spent perfecting a briefing or task that your superior was bound to find wanting. I hated getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go and run 3-5 miles. I hated having to constantly deal with the personal and professional trouble that my soldiers always managed to get themselves into. I hated being stepped on and over while people who were half as committed got promoted up the ranks twice as quickly.

But, as I sit here a year after my honorable discharge from the service, I realize that one of the most important lessons I learned was the ability to sacrifice time and energy in tasks that wouldn’t bring me personal glory or acclaim. It taught me how to willingly be least and last, to praise my subordinates for successes and take all the blame for failures. It taught me to cherish the moments of victory, while standing strong in the face of temporary defeats. It taught me that, sometimes, the most important thing that you can do for someone is sacrifice for them, stay late so that they can go home early, or pick up a task that you’re really too busy for, just to lighten their load.

That lesson continues to guide me as I minister the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that whoever is last shall be first in the Kingdom. So now, I serve and sacrifice with a smile, knowing that I’m following the greatest Servant in history. And no servant is greater than his Master.

2) Being a soldier taught me the real value of life.

There are many people who cherish life, and I count myself fortunate to be in their company. However, no matter how much I thought I cherished life before, I cherished it far more after I was trained and prepared to take it. There is something life changing about pointing a weapon at someone, looking down the sights, and putting your finger on the trigger. When you make that decision to kill, a couple of things can happen. Either you numb yourself to it, and do what you feel you have to; or, you recoil at the thought and vow never to exercise that power ever again. For me, the second option was the only choice I could ever have made. For other men, they chose the first. And of all the lives that were lost that I grieve for, a huge portion of my grief is reserved for the men and women who left a piece of themselves, spiritually or emotionally, in the war zone. You cannot even contemplate taking a life without being drastically changed; to actually take the life that you’re contemplating is far worse.

I will not argue the necessity of it, nor will I cast blame and judgement on those who kill in war. No matter your ideals, when faced with their own survival, 9 out of 10 people will protect themselves at any cost. And the men I served with in combat were fighting for their survival (and mine) every single day. So, I will not judge them for protecting themselves and me; I can only say that I left Ramadi, Iraq with a much clearer understanding of how senseless death could be, and how valuable every life was as a result.

3) It taught me about true poverty.

There are places in America where you can see dramatic poverty, but I never saw poverty at its worst until I went to Iraq. Many of these people had lost their homes, fortunes and families to a brutal dictator. Many more of them were displaced during our operations. There were widows and orphans in abundance. Many children went without shoes, proper clothing or adequate nutrition. There were places where clean water was not abundant. There are diseases in Iraq that the Western world has all but eradicated.

Seeing the destitution that is so widespread in Iraq brought home both the scope of the problem of poverty and hunger and the drastic, immediate need for corrective action. As a Follower of Jesus, I have maintained that passion for drastic, immediate action when faced with poverty or hunger. I cannot solve the problem on my own, but I remember the old joke about how you eat a hippo (piece by piece.) I’m willing to help one poverty-stricken individual at a time, and encourage others to do so, until the whole world is fed and clothed. I believe that’s what discipleship demands of me.

4) It taught me to stop fearing death.

The human desire to survive is our oldest and strongest instinct. It has helped humankind evolve (I said it) from primitive hunters into a species that has sent people into space. Anyone who has ever been faced with death knows how powerful that desire is.

On October 21st, 2006, I came face-to-face with death for the first time. I was in a large Iraqi house, listening to rocket-propelled grenades explode against the wall that I was crouching next to. The radio reported that dozens of insurgents were trying to come across our perimeter, to kill us all in as painful a way as they could. As I knelt by that wall, knowing that I would either meet my end under a pile of rubble or at the end of an enemy knife, I made peace with my own death.

Of course, I survived that night and many nights like it. But that peace about death has stayed with me. In some cases, this can be a bad thing: my lack of fear of death nearly drove me into suicide when I was at my lowest, and it was only a stronger love of family that kept me here. But, most of time, it has proven to be a good thing.

See, when you no longer fear death, you find that it’s difficult to be afraid of anything else. I confess that I have not always held up to that ideal: there have been many times where the disapproval of others silenced me when I should have continued speaking, or when my fear of disappointment kept me from acting according to my convictions. But, a majority of the time, when I find myself toe-to-toe with adversity or danger, I think, “What are they going to do? Kill me?”

The truest statement I’ve ever heard about discipleship comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German minister: “The call to discipleship is always a call to die.” My mentor, Charles Martin, says, “When you follow Jesus, the Way always leads to the cross.” None of us wishes to die, and yet that’s what Jesus calls us to do. If we’re fortunate, we’re only asked to die to ourselves, our desires, our ambitions. But, it has never left my mind that I might one day be asked to give my life for my faith, my convictions, my dedication to following Jesus to the end. It might be in another country, where Christians are killed often. It might be in service to my conviction to non-violence. But, even though my wife looked at me funny when I said this, I would prefer to die before my time for something I believe in strongly, instead of dying before my time to accident or sickness. Don’t misunderstand: most of me would still really appreciate living to a ripe old age. But, my service taught me that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person, and that it’s always better to die for something, instead of dying for nothing.

5) Finally, it forced me to look at the Other.

Most of us will never come across someone who is completely different than we are. Granted, there are people of many colors, national origins and creeds in the United States, but they are mostly still American citizens. Any American will have at least a marginally similar experience to any other, and so the “otherness” that most Americans will encounter in their lifetimes is almost superficial.

When I went to Iraq, I was suddenly submerged in a culture that was completely foreign. I was truly a “stranger in a strange land”. I listened to their call to salat (prayer) 5 times a day. I watched them fast for a month on end. I heard them speak a language that I was not at all familiar with. I participated in cultural rituals that I was lost in. These people were as different from me as they could possibly be…

… and yet, I met men who were so much the same. There were men who had answered a call to service, just like I had; men who were dedicated to protecting their homes and families from religious extremists and senselessly violent men. I saw pictures of children, saw them playing in the streets, smiled at them as they waved at me from the side of the road. And, suddenly, it was as if I could see through their eyes. I saw their home as they saw it. I experienced their faith as they experienced it. In Iraq, I was the migrant, I was the stranger, I was the exile. And, for every man who took a shot at me, there were 3 families who invited me in for bread and chai. These were families that treated me as an honored guest, even though I carried a gun, and looked and sounded strange to them. The hospitality and graciousness of many of the Iraqi people shaped the way that I view the world to this day.

When you’re faced with that kind of empathy, it can be a frightening experience. Because, the ability to view the Other as your own doesn’t stop with friends – you begin to see your enemies in a different light. Suddenly, it’s impossible to hate the men that are trying to kill you, because you know them. I understand better, because of those experiences, why Jesus taught that loving our enemies is far more powerful than fighting them. Loving our enemies may not change them, but it certainly changes us.

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Those are only a few of the lessons that I learned, but I doubt that any of you are interested in a step-by-step guide to disassembling and cleaning an M-4 rifle.

I hope that my experience helps and teaches someone. That is, after all, what our best and worst experiences are good for.

What experiences have you had that shaped you? What experiences from other times in life helped you become a more dedicated (and radical) Follower of Christ? Even if you don’t follow Jesus, I’d be very interested to hear what experiences have made you a better, and more conscientious person.

Grace and peace to you all, until we meet again.

Michael Brian Woywood