“So, what did you think?”
I was walking with a classmate who had just given a presentation. His tone suggested he was happily unaware of the umms and uhhs, the fingers fidgeting a shirt button, the German name mispronounced half a dozen times.
“Good job!” I said.
I commended him for those parts of his presentation I did like, all the while stuffing the criticisms into some closet of my mind where their cries were more muffled. I’ll share those thoughts later, I told myself. But in the closet they remained, stacked on top of other unshared criticisms, hidden rebukes, and observations more comfortably kept to myself.
I was always ready to rationalize. I don’t want to hurt him. . . . I’m just overlooking her offenses. . . . Now isn’t the right time. But slowly, another voice grew louder in my mind. It poked me, prodded me, and began to show me all the good I was withholding when I stuffed my comments away: “Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips” (Proverbs 24:26).
How to Kiss Your Neighbor
For many, honest criticism feels more like an enemy than a friend. We hate to receive it, we cringe to give it, and we easily justify withholding it. Even when honesty comes from the people who love us most — our parents and spouses, our children and friends — we often enjoy it as much as a slap on the cheek or a step on the toes.
But the wise man of Proverbs tells us otherwise. When we look others in the eye and give them a hard but honest word, we kiss them on the lips.
The kiss he has in mind, of course, is not French, but Hebrew. It’s the kiss of friendship, favor, and loyalty, as when Aaron kissed Moses (Exodus 4:27), Naomi kissed Ruth (Ruth 1:9), or David kissed Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:41). It’s an unfamiliar kiss in Western cultures today, but one that says, “I care about you; I’m on your side.”
Why is honesty like a kiss of friendship and favor? Because others’ honesty keeps us walking on the path of wisdom. Earlier in Proverbs, Woman Wisdom tells us, “All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight [the same word for honest] to him who understands” (Proverbs 8:8–9).
Honesty is one of wisdom’s servants, sent by her to keep us from the paths of folly. At its most tame, honesty covers up our ignorance with self-knowledge, as when someone points out the spinach that’s been stuck in our teeth since lunch. At its most serious, honesty snaps us out of sinful delusions, as when someone warns us that our frequent gossip is unworthy of the gospel. In either case, honesty catches our attention, reorients us to the real world, and invites us to enjoy the wisdom that is better than silver and gold (Proverbs 8:10).
In my own unwillingness to give criticism, I had mistaken honesty for an enemy. And I had embraced flattery, honesty’s foolish alternative, as a friend.
The Enemy of Honesty
Unlike honesty, flattery feels so friendly at first. He parades your strengths and smooths over your insecurities. He seconds all your opinions and scoffs at others’ faultfinding. So, when I found myself hiding criticism, correction, and rebuke, I could easily disguise it as love.
But just as I had neglected the wise man’s praise of honesty, so I had failed to hear his warnings about flattery. I had not listened when he said that flatterers spread a net for another’s feet (Proverbs 29:5), that they imitate the adulteress’s silky tongue (Proverbs 2:16; 7:5), that they forfeit a person’s long-term favor for a moment of affection (Proverbs 28:23).
Flattery’s kisses are profuse (Proverbs 27:6). Often, he shows his affection with uncensored affirmation: “That was a great presentation!” “She didn’t want to go on a date with you? She doesn’t know what she’s missing.” “I can’t believe she didn’t invite you. You’re the best friend I know.” More subtly, but perhaps more frequently, flattery sees our ignorance and sin and strokes us with silence.
But flattery’s kisses are not like honesty’s. At its most tame, flattery allows us to carry on with the same old blind spots. At its most serious, flattery refuses to confront us in our sin, and merely waves politely as we wander toward a cliff. When we withhold the truth from others in order to keep their good opinion or avoid discomfort, we are still giving kisses, but they’re less like the kisses of Naomi or David and more like those of Joab or Judas (2 Samuel 20:9–10; Luke 22:47–48): so friendly at first, they soon turn against us.
Wounds That Heal
When we refuse to embrace flattery as a friend, we not only become wisdom’s mouthpiece for those in our lives. We also show them Jesus Christ, the man full of grace and truth, love and honesty.
One day, Jesus met a man who was stumbling down the path of folly with his hands over his eyes. The man thought he had kept God’s commandments from his youth: no murder, adultery, theft, or fraud. But beneath that bright exterior was a rot that reached his bones. He loved money.
When Jesus saw this man’s self-deception, he looked at him and, as Mark tells us, “loved him” (Mark 10:21). And how did Jesus put his love into words? He did not tell this man what he wanted to hear. He did not soften the truth by wrapping it in the down pillows of praise, caveats, and “in my opinion.” Instead, he cared for this man’s soul more than his own comfort, and told him what no one else would: “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
The rich, young ruler felt Jesus’s honesty like a wound, and he walked away limping. He didn’t know that all the lasting good we receive in this world comes on the other side of honesty — honesty that first cuts us open and exposes our ignorance and sin, but then stitches us up with wisdom and grace. If we will lean into honesty, her words will wound us at first. But later, we’ll see her words as the surgeon’s scalpel, and all her wounds as surgeries.
Love Like This
To be sure, a commitment to honesty does not demand that we share all the truth we can all the time, like a hose with a broken faucet. Wise and gracious people know how to restrain their words, as well as when to speak them (Proverbs 17:27); they know how to give an apt answer, and not just a true one (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11). Not even Jesus addressed all of his disciples’ flaws at once.
But many of us need to hear the opposite encouragement. We need to remember that for all of honesty’s discomfort (both for the giver and the receiver), an honest mouth is a fountain of life (Proverbs 10:11), honesty’s wounds bring healing (Proverbs 12:18), and the honesty we give will come back to us (Proverbs 12:14). In a world of sin and self-deception, honesty is an indispensable ally.
The next time you have an opportunity to give an honest answer, don’t shrink back. Take your loving criticisms out of the closet. Lean in to the person you’re talking to. And turn your words into a kiss of kindness.