40 years ago I began my first full time ministry. I was a youth leader, an administrator, a teacher, a preacher, a chaplain—and far more than I realized I would be–a counselor.
In those early years lessons came fast and sometimes very hard. One was a situation I encountered often—I could see something happening in someone’s life, marriage, family—and I knew it was going to cause them great pain if things didn’t change. Sometimes handling this was easy. I was being asked for input and guidance, so I gave it, and I could see people either responding to or rejecting what I said. But I was being told it was important not to just “tell people the answers”, and I believed that. For a very little while.
One day, a few years into my ministry, someone came to me and told me what was happening in her life. I was not the least surprised, and apparently that showed. So she asked, “Did you know this was going to happen?” I told her the truth. I didn’t “know” it would happen, but I could see it was very likely based on what I was observing in her and her husband. She looked at me and said, “Why didn’t you say something?”
I didn’t have a good answer for her. I had answers—they just weren’t good ones.
Since then—for nearly 40 years—I have had a firm rule. If I see someone doing something self-destructive and I have the chance to talk to them about it, I do. It is usually awkward, often painful, and I have NEVER been comfortable with this. (Anyone comfortable with it scares me). But I do it. And almost always I look that person in the eye and tell them: “This is hard (awkward, painful, ….) to say, but I care about you, and I promise you one thing. You will not have reason to come to me down the road and say, “Why didn’t you say something?”
As I look at the world today—and the church—I am struck at how often people avoid telling others the truth. We don’t know if we can do it lovingly. We don’t know how to do it without that person being hurt (not possible, btw). We are afraid it might hurt our relationship with the. We don’t want to seem judgmental. The list of reasons goes on and on, but none of them makes much sense to a person who trusted us to guide them only to find out we knew they were headed for a cliff, and we didn’t tell them.
I don’t know how many more years of service the Lord will give me. I am doing well physically. I joke that I am probably the healthiest terminal patient anyone knows, because my disease is inactive. It might come back next year, I might have 20 or more years before it does. None of us knows how much time we have to serve. We only know what we can do now—today—to help others. So, I am embarking on a number of sermons at my congregation which will be prefaced with: “This isn’t easy, and I don’t want to sound condemning—but I won’t give you reason to come to me down the road and say, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’”. I mean no offense. I don’t think I am better than anyone. And if someone who hears the warning ignores it, and comes back after running off that cliff, I guarantee you they won’t hear “I told you so”. Love is telling them what they need to know.
Paul tells us in Ephesians that our lifestyle is to be one of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). So I promise you and I promise myself, I will tell them. I hope you will do the same.