It was the great theologian Thumper–you know, the cute little rabbit from Disney’s Bambi–who reminded us, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” It makes a great quote for your Pinterest board. My mom used to say it to me. There’s just one little problem:
In the Bible, it’s nowhere to be found.
Sure, there are verses about being kind, encouraging, loving, and uplifting. There is no doubt that for the vast majority of us and the vast majority of the time, these are the kinds of words that should grace our lips. But the Bible also talks about disagreement, confrontation, and critique. And when you read those passages (and we really should read all the passages, shouldn’t we?), there’s a different conclusion one reaches about how we should speak to one another:
The nice thing isn’t always the right thing.
When I was in college, my dad sat me down and had some tough stuff to say. “You’re coasting,” he admonished. “You’re not growing in your faith. I’ve grown a lot closer to Jesus over the years by watching you live out your faith, but I’m watching now and I’m not seeing much.” In particular, he had some harsh words about how distracted I was. There were relationships and sports and the whole being in college thing. I was feeling a little big for my britches, it’s true. His words of critique cut me open. I was angry and defensive. He made some demands of me and paved a way out of my funk, outlining it step by step. In no uncertain terms, he let me know of his disappointment. It was not particularly nice of him to say. He was critical. He was blunt. It stung.
I was really angry. I left the room with my face hot with tears. I thought he was wrong. He did not do the nice thing, but he did do the right thing. What he said was good for me. I needed to hear it.
Most modern American Christians equate nice with good. We think anything said with an edge is wrong. We sacrifice doing good because we feel like we should be nice. Silence trumps speaking up because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But we cheapen all of our relationships when we insist on only being nice. Sometimes, we need to do what is right and good even if we know folks won’t like it.
Jesus wasn’t always nice. When he drove the people from the temple with a whip, that didn’t earn Him the title of Mr. Congeniality. He called Peter “Satan,” not the highest compliment in the world. He told the Pharisees they were a whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers and sons of hell. So long, Mr. Nice Jesus.
I acknowledge that none of us are Jesus, and that fact can cause us all to get pretty sheepish when it comes to saying good things that aren’t nice because we worry we’ll be judged. Who are we to say anything? We’re not perfect either, after all.
The difference between something that is mean and something that only sounds mean is of course found in our motivation. It could be that we say something “mean” to someone but we say it for their own good. That can hardly be considered out of line. Rather, we are looking out for that person’s best interests. If love is our motivation — as it was for Jesus and my dad and, often, us–then we should not cower away from hard things that need to be said. It may not be “nice.” But it is “good.” Likewise, to not say difficult things may seem “nice,” but it may result in that person’s harm.
A couple months after my dad confronted me, I ended some unhealthy relationships and corrected some errors in my life that had first been exposed by my old man. I wasn’t mad at him any more. What he said had not been nice, but it was good. He was right. It made a big difference in the direction of my life. I’m glad he said it now even though I was angry that he said it then.
How many of us can look back at our lives and remember some hard things someone told us that angered us at the time, only to realize they were right later? It reminds me of a Scripture that cute little bunny Thumper would do well to memorize:
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I am so thankful that over the years I’ve had friends who were not worried about multiplying their kisses. They told me like it was. When I didn’t listen, it usually cost me big. When I did, it was for my good. I recognize now that none of them were attacking me. They were helping me. They may not have been nice. But they were right and what they said was good.
So remember Thumper’s advice, of course. But also remember his heresy. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Unless, of course, it’s a good thing to say.