Nothing in this world is harder than speaking truth, nothing easier than flattery.
When I was a college intern, I had this idea that I would dread my hair and then shave it all off. I had a fair amount of people who told me this was a splendid plan, that I could “pull it off”, and would give a Sinead O’ Connor vibe. Thankfully, my intern leader advised against it. I’ve had an embarrassingly large number of terrible ideas, some with the ability to produce far worse consequences than a cue-ball head. In hindsight it is not the friends who flattered me or held their tongue for fear of offending me who I am thankful for, rather it is those friends who were bold and loved me enough to challenge me when they saw my thinking stray, or my actions sinful. Christ-like friends are invaluable, and they are not the ones who have sympathized with my sin, nor tolerated corrupt thought, they are the ones who forced me to consider things more carefully, to submit my ideals to scripture, and to confess my sin. In those moments of confrontation, or wise questions, or discerning comments, I distinctly remember feeling hostile and that they were being entirely unfriendly, thankfully, “feelings are the least dependable things in the world (Elisabeth Elliot),” and many of them remain my most trusted friends to this day (some spanning two decades and counting–which means they know the very worst of me). I married one, in fact.
Trustworthy friends refuse flattery in exchange for honesty. It is this very exchange that makes them trustworthy, we can count on them to call us back to the narrow path when the allure of destruction is just too enticing, and if we are true friends, we will do the same for them. Trustworthy friends refuse to flatter or hold their tongue when hard questions need to be asked, they consistently point us to God’s Word, not shying away from disagreement, but grounding it outside of our human perspective in God’s revelation.
Those are friends who are indisputably of the Proverbs variety: the exemplary friend who is willing to wound us for the sake of our righteousness (Proverbs 27:6). Better is a friend who illuminates possible falsehoods that have crept into our thinking, rebellion we try to justify , and hidden sins we want to cling to, encouraging us along the path of righteousness, than the friend who flatters us along the road of destruction.
If our aim as Christians is to know Christ more fully, to rely on him more, to allow ourselves to be immersed in his presence in all facets of our lives, and allowing him to root out the entanglements of our heart, then we ought to wisely choose our friends. Wisdom invites instruction, even when it stings. Foolishness is drawn to flattery. As we navigate a world of conflicting truth claims, and as we are inundated with philosophies rife with attractive deceptions we have a tendency to wander, to be drawn to the untruths that allow us to hold fast our pet sins, to resist giving up our idols that allow us to remain comfortable, independent, and happy. Our own hearts are adept at flattery, telling us that our self-pity is justified, that our problems are a result of other people’s doings, that our wants are our needs, that we can perhaps be Christ’s while we retain our little gods of power, greed, lust, and vanity. We certainly don’t need friends who flatter when our heart already does such a bang up job of this, what we need are friends who are bold enough to be truth-tellers, and we need to be these friends for others. We can only “stir one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24),” if we are deeply immersed in the God who is love and the source of all good, and he is not a God of flattery, but Truth. We must build friendships that are centered on the Gospel, acknowledging our weakness and proclivity for sin, with humble hearts that are open to reproof when we need it (because we will need it), while continuously encouraging one another to turn to Christ, and to filter the world, our ideas, ideals, and actions through his Word.
We cannot hold our personal feelings sacred if our aim is to serve the God who died that we might live. Flattery allows us to hold on to our old dead selves and to the deadly deceptions offered by a world who denies him, flattery leaves diamonds in their rough, cloudy state; honest, bold friendship that refuses to spare feelings in the name of pursuit of truth polishes and cuts away our wrong ideas and tightly held idolatry to slowly reveal a light reflecting jewel.
A true friend does not tolerate bad thinking in those whom they love. “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions (G.K. Chesterton).” We have come recently to adopt the world’s notion of friendship that says we must tolerate untruths, half truths, or deceptive feelings if we “love”, but we must not confuse tolerance for grace. We are called to gracious dealings with one another, not tolerant ones. Faith in Christ means we have conviction. Conviction that God is exactly who he says he is, that what he did for us through the Cross was sufficient for our salvation, and that his Spirit is the great changer of our hearts. Tolerance of ideas that contradict him is no virtue. We have to do the hard work of discerning not only truth from lies, but truth from “almost true”, particularly when these things slip unnoticed into our thinking. This is not something we can do alone. This requires a greater depth of friendship than mere hobbies, pleasantries, or brief Sunday hellos would allow. If we are to know what shadows one another are prone to, we must know one another. We must cast off insincerity, independence, and flattery, we must pursue honesty, bold truth-telling, and trustworthy dependence on one another. We, the Church, must build relationships that are bound by the Cross so distinctly that we can confess to one another, we can exhort one another, and we can find mutual encouragement through even the pain of “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art (T.S. Eliot),” that puts to death the old self, and be encouraged as we watch God’s grace made evident in one another’s lives.
We do this out of love for one another, in an aim to press in to the heart of Christ who has drawn us up out of darkness and into his marvelous light. Why would we allow one another to drift into shadows when the light is ours?
May we be friends of this caliber. May we rejoice in those who are willing to wound our pride, for it ought to be wounded as it stands in the way of drawing nearer to our Savior. May we fight the good fight, together. Knit together, not through feelings of sympathy, but as equally vile wretches who have been made new through the blood that has bought us and united us. May we spur one another on toward love that is defined not by the world, but by Christ. May we not spare one another’s feelings when our souls are at stake. And may we ultimately look to our dearest friend, Christ, who showed us, “there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He did just that, bloody and beaten he handed his life for ours, his perfection for our vileness, and he now intercedes on our behalf, filling us with his Spirit so that we may walk in newness of life, casting off all sin that entangles us. May we not limp along, alone and ensnared, but walk together helping one another escape from those lies which would otherwise encumber us.
So, speak, friends.