On truth tellers

October 21st, 2015

The older I get, the more grateful I am to have truth tellers in my life. These are people who care about me enough to disagree with me, show me my blind spots and speak honestly, especially when it’s difficult. I don’t always enjoy hearing from truth tellers, and I can’t say that I always receive criticism with the utmost grace, but without them, I’d be dead in the water.

As I was thinking about this today, I was reminded of a story from the Bible. In 2 Samuel 12, God sends Nathan to David to confront him about David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba and his unjust and shameful treatment of Uriah. Nathan tells David a parable in which a rich and powerful man behaves very unjustly towards a poor man:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him (2 Sam 12:1-4).

David is outraged at the end of the story. “As the Lord lives,” says David, “the man who has done this deserves to die!” And then Nathan utters some of the most poignant words in all of Scripture:

You are the man!

And David knows that Nathan is right. He is the man from the story. He has taken advantage of those who were less powerful than he. He has not been satisfied in his own abundance, but has preyed upon his subordinates in order to satisfy his own lusts. He has sinned against his neighbor and God.

Nathan’s parable and subsequent words of God’s judgment against David lead the king to admit his sin and repent. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says. And he is right. He most certainly has sinned.

Each of us sins. It’s simply a part of the human condition. And each of us needs people in our lives to help us to discern when we’ve gone astray.

This is particularly the case with leaders. People in positions of leadership, power and authority must practice the discipline of listening to the truth tellers around them. The temptation is to surround ourselves with people who will tell us what we want to hear, but this is an exceedingly dangerous practice. If you’re a leader — and I know many people reading this are pastors — it is imperative that you have truth tellers around you.

Of course, not every criticism is truth, and some people who will criticize you may have priorities other than your own best interests in mind. Truth tellers are people you can trust, who may think about things rather differently than you do, but nevertheless have valuable insights that they can speak into your life and work. They are as iron sharpening iron. As Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.”

David F. Watson blogs at davidfwatson.me.

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