When I was in kindergarten, we used to play a game based on a hit TV show called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. My teacher, Mrs. Floaten, told me that it was inappropriate to reenact scenes in which people were killed and the dead bodies were carried around. She said, "We want to promote an environment of inquiry, but we will not tolerate such disgusting behavior, besides you're freaking the girls out." So we stopped. Ten years later, my sophomore history teacher, a gruff old man named Mr. Marsden, confronted me and told me, "Young man if you ever want to succeed in college, you must develop rigorous study habits right now." I listened, and he prepared me for college. During seminary days my mentor Dr. C. Philip Hinerman, or "Doc" as we called him, saw my half-hearted effort during a pastoral internship and said, "Hey, if you're just going to go through the motions, why don't you just quit right now." Doc lit a fire of passion in my heart. Last year, after a particularly tense meeting, one of my friends here at church gently pulled me aside and said, "Matt, it doesn't help us when you get so defensive. That doesn't lead us." He was right, and God used that comment to change my heart. Then just this week, I was sharing with a friend named Karl, a friend whose body is confined to a wheelchair, about some unsolvable problems in my life, and Karl gently reminded me, "Remember, God works best through our weakness, not what we think is our strength." Those words pierced my heart with truth and comfort.
As you can see, for as long as I can remember, God, in his incredible grace, has brought people into my life who cared enough to speak the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:15). They cared enough to speak truth into my heart, and God changed my life. I grew up and became more like Christ. We all need someone to speak the truth in love into our live—and we'll never outgrow that need. We are all like David, and we need a Nathan to set our hearts aright.
David was the man God chose to become the king of his people. God called him "a man after my own heart." David wrote grand and beautiful words like, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1), and "Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth" (Psalm 86:11), and "I will glorify your name forever" (Psalm 86:12). But then David's heart grew hard and cold towards God and other people. So much so that David committed adultery, got a woman pregnant, and then, like a thug and Mafioso, he orchestrated the murder of her husband. Rather than turn his life over to God, David continued manipulating and scheming and controlling all the events of his life up until the beginning of our story here. In 2 Samuel 12:1, "the Lord sent Nathan to David." Though David's life had continued to slide into a moral and spiritual cesspool, through Nathan God brought truth into his heart. And even though he was the king and a man after God's own heart, David still needed to hear the truth spoken in love.
There is an amazing truth about God in the Bible: God designed us, and he wants us to have healthy relationships. As a gift to us, God has revealed some truths about how to have healthier relationships. One of those truths is that we all need a Nathan, someone who loves us enough to speak the truth about our lives.
Our fear of the truth
I realize that this is profoundly scary to most of us—perhaps even terrifying. We like to hide. We like to pretend and wear masks. Why? Because we're afraid someone might see our secrets. We're afraid our weaknesses and sins might be exposed, and then shame would overwhelm us.
Before I tell you how to speak the truth in love, I want to address those fears. Why would I want someone to speak the truth into my life? Why should I come out of hiding? Why should I take the risk? Based on a biblical understanding of our spiritual journey let me briefly outline why we desperately need loving truth tellers.
First, we must remember that the goal of our journey is to become like Christ (see Romans 8:29 and Colossians 1:27). That's our destination. Now if you haven't arrived there yet, you are an unfinished product. Our mentors from another age would have used the Latin phrase status viator, a human being who is on the way. But if you are in Christ, if his life has been birthed in you and you've connected with him in his life and death and resurrection, then the deepest longing of your heart is to finish the race. In the analogy of the Apostle Paul, you're like an Olympic sprinter, stretching and straining towards the finished line (Philippians 3:12-14). You don't want to sit down and give up. You can't; God won't let you. Your deepest desire and longing is to be "on the way" towards Christ.
The problem or peril of our journey is that our sin hardens our hearts and we become masters of self-deception. Look what happened to David. His life slid into massive sin—lust, adultery, murder, cruelty—and he didn't even see it. The only time David really cared about sin was when Nathan told him about someone else's sin. Then David erupted with rage. He could see the sin in others, but he built massive blind spots to his own sin. He became an expert at self-righteousness and self-deception. We all do. We look at our spouse, our children, our parents, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our church community, our leaders, and we're outraged at their sins; simultaneously, we excuse and defend our own.
The process of dealing with our sin (at least in part) is called Christian community. God puts us with other people. They love us so much that they tell us the truth. Hopefully they do it with a gentle and broken spirit, but they take the risk. We need other people to see our blind spots and then they need to tell us about them. The Bible calls this "telling the truth in love." It's a phrase from the Bible in Ephesians 4:15. When we speak the truth in love, God uses it to help us grow in Christ, to move closer to our goal of Christ-likeness: "Then we will no longer be infants … Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into … Christ."
Again, this can be frightening. Most of us have never seen a good model of this. Most of us grew up in families or attended churches that either blasted us with truth or loved us with such a saccharine version of love that no one spoke the truth. They affirmed us to death—literally. But the Bible calls us to a healthy, Christ-like balance, speaking the truth in love. If we don't do it, we won't grow up. If we don't take the risk of giving and receiving truth in love, like David we'll remain stuck in our self-deception. We wallow in sin. We stink. We're covered with pig slop and manure, but everyone walks around us and just says, "My, but you smell so nice today."
How do we live like Nathan?
So how do we live like a Nathan? How do we speak truth into the lives of our brothers and sisters? Again, based on this passage and other parts of the Bible, let me give you some guidelines for speaking the truth in love. Because they are true, these guidelines apply to nearly every relationship.
Let's invite Nathan to be our mentor. Consider the end result of his encounter with David. This hard-hearted, sin-captured man finally surrendered and confessed, "I have sinned against the Lord" (verse 13). But David did even better than that. In Psalm 51, David prayed, "Create in me a pure heart … my mouth will declare your praise … The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit." David didn't just repent and wallow in sin; he worshiped God. What did Nathan do right?
First, Nathan had courage. Let's not skip over verse 1 in this story: "The Lord sent David to Nathan." Imagine the courage Nathan needed to obey God. David was not only the God-appointed king, but he had also become arrogant and cruel. David had already concocted a plan to dispose of his lover's husband. As we might say, David wasn't in a "good place," except David actually had the power and authority to dump you in the river. David had a bodyguard named Abishai the son of Zeruiah who kept begging David, "Hey, let me go cut that guy's head off" (see 2 Samuel 16:9). How'd you like to mess with Abishai? Nathan took the risk.
Truth-telling always requires courage. You may not be liked. People may not say, "Well, thank you for pointing out that blind spot. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your insightfulness." Why do you think we call them "blind spots"? Because we don't want to see them. People may fling it back in your face, "Now that we're on the subject, let's discuss your blind spots, you jerk!" But we don't do it because it makes us popular. We do it because God has captured our hearts with a vision and with a story—it's a vision of lives transformed, liberated from sin and blind spots, liberated to grow in Christ and become the new creation that Christ had in mind. We long to see that. We long for that reality to capture our own heart and the hearts of those we love. With that vision in view, we step out in courage.
Second, Nathan listened to God. How did Nathan know he was supposed to talk to David? The text doesn't say, but he must've been listening to God. This is actually the second time we find Nathan listening to God (the first time is in 2 Samuel 7). We are first and foremost listeners before we are doers. Actually, the Hebrew word for obedience in the Bible contains the idea of listening first. We stop and listen.
How do we listen? We quiet our hearts and try to release our own agenda. We listen to our anger and confess it. We listen to our arrogance and confess it to God. Then we listen to God's word. Am I responding like the Jesus I see in the Gospels? Have I taken time to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10)? Then I ask, Is this a clear issue of Scripture or having the character of Christ formed in a human life? Or is this just an issue of personal preference? Discerning between these two things is crucial. In his book Ten Mistakes Parents Make with Teenagers, author Jay Kessler calls this one of the big mistakes: "failure to major on the majors and minor on the minors." Listen to his advice:
Think back to the 1970's when boys were wearing long hair. A son's long hair was a real threat to the father's sense of control … preachers and other authority figures were pointing out the negative symbolism of long hair … parents took this issue on full force. I remember one young man saying, "We haven't had a conversation at our dinner table on anything other than long hair for months." Now that approach is like burning down the barn to kill the mice. Or as a former generation put it, "it's winning the battle but losing the war."
What has replaced long hair in your home? Do you major on the minors and then minor on the majors? For Nathan it was a clear cut issue (see 2 Samuel 11:27—"The thing David had done displeased the Lord.") Listen first. Is this a biblical issue? Is it an issue of Christ-like character? Is it worth the risk and the fight, or will you regret what you say ten or twenty years down the road?
Thirdly, Nathan had tact. Nathan had a history with David. He didn't just breeze into his life, rebuke him, and then move on. Back in chapter 7 we find Nathan encouraging David, reminding David of God's incredible promises to him. He's telling David, "Look, you're part of God's amazing plan to redeem the world. Part of that plan will work itself out in the person of your greater son, the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the world's savior." Nathan didn't just unload on David; he had walked with David. Truth-telling and encouragement go together. Encouragement is based in the fact that we are fearful people who need God's support; truth-telling is grounded in the fact that we are sinful people who need God's correction. They go together. My mentor Doc did that for me. He was the greatest encourager I've ever had in my life.
When you put encouragement and correction together you get tact. As Rick Warren said, "Tact is making a point without making an enemy. [Tact] is attacking the problem rather than attacking the person." Proverbs 12:18 says, "Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword. Wisely spoken words can heal." Notice Nathan's tact in this story. Nathan doesn't club David with truth. He engages David in such a way that David sees his sin for himself. He speaks truth but he does it tactfully.
Fourth, Nathan had personal contact with David. He came to him personally, face-to-face. Christianity is essentially a face-to-face spiritual journey. If you're going to confront someone, have enough guts and courage to do it in person. Don't write an anonymous note. Don't even send an email. Show your face and show your heart. Jesus set the standard, "If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you" (Matthew 18:15). Hopefully—it doesn't always happen this way but it should—this will increase the amount of gentleness in our hearts. "Brothers (and sisters)," wrote the Apostle Paul, "if someone is caught in a sin, you who are more spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted" (Galatians 6:1-2). Do it with gentleness. Do it with humility. You could fall into sin tomorrow.
Fifth, Nathan had boldness. Nathan didn't mince words. By the time he got done with his brilliant, very short sermon, David didn't have to wonder, Now what the heck was that all about. Why don't you just say what you mean, Nathan? In Minnesota we have refined what some of us call "the art of being indirect." Nobody ever wonders what we want or what's really on our heart. I used to be a master of indirectness—a very polite, nice, sweet, and kind indirectness. But sometimes people don't get it when you're too indirect. Say it and mean it. Speak it loud and clear and boldly.
Finally, Nathan offered comfort. Nathan didn't just walk away. He offered words of assurance and comfort. He pointed David back to God. Modern day truth tellers are prepared to do the same thing. They point us back to the Cross. They always say, "Look at what Christ has done. Look at his mercy in the midst of our mess." They never leave us feeling heavy-hearted and oppressed by guilt and condemnation. Actually, they lead us into worship. That's what happened to David. He wanted to worship. And we know when David worshiped, the dancing would start.
Receiving the truth
Now here's the real miracle in this story: David received Nathan's truth-telling. His heart broke. No excuses. No rationalizations. God demolished David's cleverly devised defense mechanisms, and David simply said, "I have sinned against the Lord." Later on, David would describe the desire of his heart like this, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, … A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:10, 17).
That's usually not what happens. Most of us have a built in aversion to hearing the truth because our heart clings stubbornly to either shame, arrogance, or both. Shame fears exposure. Shame makes us say, "Please don't look inside; You won't like what you see." Arrogance fears humility: "How dare you reduce me to the level of a common sinner? I'm special. Yes, I believe in sin, but don't you ever get that specific with my sin. I refuse to allow you to identify sin in me." So instead we try to continually justify ourselves.
Here's the good news of Jesus Christ: both shame and arrogance were demolished when Jesus died on the cross. One of the signs of spiritual maturity is the ability to receive correction. Some of the correction may not be accurate. We may need to filter through some of it and use discernment, but we won't react with anger and offense and pettiness. Any ground for arrogance has been stripped away. We stand in freedom. And even if the truth teller is 100% correct and we really are acting like a selfish pig or a total fool, we know that that sin was nailed to the Cross and we bear it no more. We reject our bent towards arrogance, repent and turn our lives over to God, but we don't wallow in shame.
So let me ask you: first of all, who is your Nathan? When was the last time Nathan came to your door? Has your shame or arrogance carefully deflected the Nathan God may have sent to you? Do you have anyone willing to speak truth into your life? Do you receive truth when it's spoken? If you're in spiritual leadership and you don't have a Nathan somewhere to speak truth into your life, watch out! I don't trust you. I wouldn't trust myself.
Second, is there anyone that needs you to be a Nathan? You need to speak the truth. Someone's life is headed off a cliff and you're watching, acting so kind and sweet and nonjudgmental, and his life is sliding into the cesspool. Maybe he doesn't need your advice and correction. Maybe he needs encouragement and a listening ear. But maybe he needs someone who loves enough to speak the truth in love.
Speaking truth in love is only way to grow in Christ. But as long as you and I are status viator, pilgrims on the way, people on a journey, it will be one way God reaches our heart and changes our lives.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.