A Word Aptly Spoken


A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. – Proverbs 25:11

Recently several of my friends have been hurt by remarks that lacked tact. As I’ve thought about this and wished my loved ones had been treated more tactfully, I’ve realized I have plenty to learn, too.

Although tact isn’t a listed fruit of the Spirit, it calls upon a lot of them. Kindness, gentleness, and self-control come to mind, along with as much wisdom as we can muster. Tact is needed in confrontation, but also in sharing the truth and speaking one’s mind. It is knowing when a thing should be addressed privately, or later on, or perhaps a realization that you’re not the one who should bring it up at all. Or, as little as we like to admit it, our opinion is not needed in the situation. Ouch!

I think Christians are especially susceptible to crossing the line in truth-sharing. We are called to proclaim the Good News but you can’t win everyone over – the apostle Paul certainly didn’t! “Trying harder” can take a wrong turn and start sounding like arrogance. Many times I’ve found out later that the people who seemed to be shutting us down when spiritual things were presented were really thinking about what was said. It’s made me remember one of my grandmothers. In my childhood she used to say, “I would rather be right than President,” and she made sure she was. But people did not remember her correct opinions or her intelligence. They remembered being hurt by her sharp tongued comments.

When King David’s son Absalom rebelled against him, he asked his soldiers not to harm him when they captured him. Nonetheless, he was killed, and the man who reported it to the king said, “May the enemies of my lord the king . . . be like that young man.” (2 Samuel 18:32b) The patriotic sentiment was tactless in the face of David’s losing his beloved son. Only God knows if David wept all the more over Absalom because the men around him saw an impudent enemy vanquished while only David saw a much loved wayward son come to a terrible end.

Jesus gave us instructions about confronting another person that showed love, concern, and were designed to give a person a place to reconsider their actions. (The instructions include the appropriate action for the rarer egregious problem that requires churchwide attention, but I am not addressing that here.) The basic step is “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” (Matthew 18:15a) So much damage is done by people who confront others’ faults in anger and in public. We are supposed to talk to others in love and in private to find a reconciliation, not shout out their faults to demoralize them.

Priscilla and Aquila, two strong believers in the early church, came across a man named Apollos who was preaching publicly, but did not know the full details of the Gospel message. Did they butt in and take over on his speech? Did they criticize him for not preaching everything they knew about Jesus? No, “they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26b) Even in the case of his preaching an incomplete message, they spared Apollos every public embarrassment that intervention or criticism would have brought him, and instructed him privately.

I missed the opportunity to show tact recently when I rebuked someone on Facebook. In my anger I thought I was justified – don’t we always? The result was we both found there had been a misunderstanding that left each of us feeling foolish and embarrassed. Considering the fruits of the Spirit, the tact that I should have been using, and the love I have for my friend, I wish I had gone to her privately.

One last thought: sometimes a person is blind to a fault because the Holy Spirit knows he is not ready to confront it. The Holy Spirit guides us perfectly in revealing and healing our faults. He chooses the right time when we can bear to look at our shortcomings, and His healing makes that possible. When we feel someone should hear the truth about themselves now we need to pray about the possibility that we are running ahead of the Holy Spirit and what that person is ready to hear. Instead of tact we may find we need patience(!) and a renewed love for the person just the way they are – which is, of course, just how God loves them.

“People don’t care how much you know–until they know how much you care.” – John C. Maxwell

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