Like all students, when I was in seminary I needed a reference. I went to one of my professors and asked if he would be willing to provide one for me. He agreed, with one caveat: “I’ll tell the truth.” That statement took me by surprise because one typically seeks a reference from someone who will give a positive one. His answer immediately drew that conclusion into question. But his answer stuck with me and has served as a model for me over the years as I have written hundreds of letters of reference for college students. It comes with the territory of being a campus minister.
Just last week, a graduating senior asked me to give her a letter of reference. She said I could email it to her or give it to her in person. I told her I was “old school,” and would hand it to her, which I did in a sealed envelope. Like my professor back in the day, I was honest with her prospective employer about her strengths and weaknesses.
A number of years ago, my wife and I led a student team on a mission trip to South Africa. The missionaries we assisted had an intern from the States. She had been with them a very short time but they were beside themselves on what to do with her. She had to be told to do almost everything, including showering and other basic disciplines of everyday life. What most frustrated them was she came highly recommended by the pastor of her church. Obviously, the man desired to give the young woman a good reference and did so without revealing the truth about her. By doing so, he did the woman and the missionaries a grave disservice.
When it comes to personal evaluations, we as a culture are less and less tolerant of critical ones. We tend to view criticism as destructive rather than constructive, and often as something beneath us. Employers increasingly say employees are less open to constructive criticism than they once were, which is easily explained by professors and teachers who deal daily with students and parents unhappy with the grades received in their classes.
Sometimes I think we apply the same thinking to the Lord. We expect to only hear good things, as if someone who loves us, cares for us, and wants the best for us will only tell us positive things about ourselves. Is this truly love and a demonstration of respect? Of course not. True love always tells the truth, as demonstrated by the fact that God is both love and truth (John 14:6; I John 4:8). And we see this fleshed out by Jesus in his interaction with the rich man:
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”(Mark 10:17-21 NIV)
Jesus told him the truth because he loved him. We read in II Timothy 3:16 that the word of God is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (italics mine) The fact is loving someone means telling them the truth, not in a mean or harsh way, but, as did the Lord, in a gentle, straightforward manner.
I so wish parents were better at this and could see the benefits of speaking truth to their children. Instead, it seems the priority among so many is to protect their children at all costs. Talk to most educators and their biggest challenge is dealing with parents who insist their children are above fault and cast blame on the adults who are in fact trying to help their kids by demanding good work, honesty, and appropriate behavior. A friend on the faculty of Appalachian State once told the story of a student whose parents were involved in the same church as she. The student rarely came to class and did not do the required work. My friend had warned the student that her work needed improvement, but to no avail. When she received a D, both child and mother wrote scathing e-mails in protest, and the mother refused to speak to my friend on Sunday mornings.
The reality is we are raising a generation that will not, and indeed may refuse to, hear the truth about themselves. And if we serve a God of truth whose word seeks to correct and even rebuke us at appropriate times, then what are the implications for discipleship among these young people as they mature? Will anyone, even God, be permitted to speak truth to them?
If there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), then we should not fear receiving or telling the truth if it is done in love. It is in fact a necessity of the Christian life because we are all fallen and imperfect human beings. If we are to grow and mature, we need to be willing to hear the truth about ourselves and take the opportunities to change attitudes or behaviors in our lives.
My old seminary professor did write a letter of reference and I did get the job. I also felt more secure in it because I knew he told my employer the truth; thus, they knew what they were getting in me, both the strengths and weaknesses, and could better help me to become the best worker I could be as a result. If he had hedged on being honest, then it could have turned out quite differently.
If you are a parent, tell the truth to your kids. If you are mentoring young adults, tell them the truth. If you are writing letters of reference, tell the truth to the prospective employer. And if the Lord or others love you enough to tell you the truth, then listen rather than be offended or defensive. Living in truth is God’s desire for us. We should embrace it.
© Jim Musser 2019