Being candid is often more helpful than being courteous. But I hesitate to say this because I don’t want to embolden two types of people. First, there is the militaristic “defender of the truth” who never gives kindness a second thought. As long as what is said is correct, how it is said is deemed irrelevant. And second, there is the bully, the person who is never held back by courtesy because kindness is simply not one of his or her characteristics. He or she is proud of their bully bravado and “courage.” They don’t take “nuthin’ off of nobody.”
Perhaps we can discuss the problems of these two communicators later, but right now, I have in mind another (and I think more practical) problem. It is the problem we all have when we need to discuss a sensitive matter with a loved one or dear friend, and because we don’t want to hurt their feelings we speak so tactfully that we fail to get the point across. “They see the point I am making,” we think. “I don’t have to spell it out more specifically.” But they don’t get the point. We go away feeling relieved that we “talked to them,” but we really did not. Mainly wanting to be courteous, we weren’t as candid as we should have been.
And sometimes there is an even more serious problem. Fearing reproach or retaliation, we are afraid to speak clearly enough for our hearer to get the essential point. It is not courtesy but cowardice that holds us back. Facing persecution, for example, even the courageous Paul asked for prayers on his behalf “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel . . . that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19,20).
When I look in the mirror, I see a person who wants to be liked, a person who doesn’t want to upset others or hurt their feelings. Like you perhaps, I sometimes use “let your speech always be gracious” (Col. 4:6) as an excuse not to say the exact words that need to be said.
Many of you are my friends. If you had to speak hard truths to me (not an altogether hypothetical situation), I would want you to be as gentle as possible — but if the reason I didn’t get mad was that I didn’t get the point, that would not be good. Whether speaking or being spoken to, clarity is what we should desire. Courtesy is nice, but clarity is essential. So Brass Tacks, the title of a paper I used to publish, conveys my intent as a writer. Like Robert F. Turner, I believe in “plain talk.”
I’ll not be a good steward of the Word if, wishing to be polite and avoid painful consequences, I fail to communicate. If I am not candid enough to say what you need to hear — in words plain enough that you actually get the point — then my efforts at courtesy will not help you (and they may actually confuse you). Regarding the gospel message, then, I hope my prayer will always be the same as Paul’s: “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:4).