Cruel to be kind?

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. Proverbs 27:6

If someone says to you “Can I be completely candid with you?” what’s your immediate thought? If you’re anything like me, it’s probably something like “Uh-oh, what’s coming now? I’m not sure I want to hear this!” For the candid person, even if a friend, is probably about to tell us something we prefer not to be told about, thank you very much.

I like the word “candour”, though. It means frankness, honesty, openness, but without a nasty, aggressive edge, as in angry bluntness or “calling a spade a spade”.

Proverbs 27:6 – the first line at least – is all about candour: “wounds from a friend can be trusted”. That is, the candid friend is a true friend.

There’s a twofold challenge here.

First, how willing am I to inflict on somebody else “the wounds of a friend”?

Again, if you’re anything like me you will probably shrink from it as much as possible. Who wants to cause a friend hurt or embarrassment? Most of us probably tend to be cowardly, even though a bit of candour might be what’s needed.

In the New Testament James the brother of Jesus has some wise words: “If one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

“Turning a sinner from the error of their ways” is never likely to be an easy or pleasant task: it requires courage and faith – but, most of all, true love. It could just be a life-changing act for that wayward friend, as long as it is done with humility and a recognition that we too are prone to wander: no hint of condemnation or “talking down”. Just humble candour.

The second challenge is: how willing am I to receive the wounds of a friend?

You sometimes hear it said of someone, “Oh, he can give it but he can’t take it.” That may be a fair criticism. And when it comes to the need for candour it’s especially important, for if friendly wounds are hard to give, how much harder are they to take! None of us likes to be “put right”, however lovingly.

But it’s an important part of humility and growth in the Christian life. To be able to say to a candid friend “All right, thank you for saying this – I know it hasn’t been easy. But I’ll go away and pray about it” is a great thing. Even if you’re fuming inside, honesty demands that you at least chew it over.

I personally have rarely experienced this. But on one memorable occasion when it did happen I quite quickly came to see that what the other person had said was right, and (I hope, anyway!) their candour did me good. In fact, looking back over my whole life I can’t help feeling that if friends had done it to me more often I would hopefully have become a better person, and a better Christian.

The New Testament gives us a perfect example of what it means to lovingly wound a friend…

According to Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And Simon Peter blurted out his great confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus is delighted with this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…” Simon must have felt wonderful.

But Jesus then goes on to predict his own suffering and death. Whereupon Simon protests: “Never, Lord!… This shall never happen to you!”

And now, instead of blessing Simon, Jesus virtually curses him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me”.

That seems appallingly cruel. Not “Wait a minute, Simon – you haven’t really understood…” But “Simon, you are Satan! Get away from me!”

Did Simon Peter sleep that night? I doubt it. He must have been shaken to the core: “I’ve been with him right from the start! No-one has been more loyal than me! I’ve given my very life to him. And he calls me Satan! How can I ever get over this…?”

Well, of course, we know that by God’s grace he did get over it. The wound did heal – though no doubt the scar never went completely away. (Proverbs 28:23 tells us that “whoever rebukes a friend will in the end gain favour” – it can take time!)

But the day came, I’m sure, when Simon Peter was able to say “It was the most horrible moment of my life – but, looking back, I’m glad Jesus hurt me with that wound…”

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, thank God – especially when the friend is the greatest friend of all: Jesus himself.

Loving Father, help me to be a true friend – with the courage and faith to inflict wounds when the Spirit prompts me; and humble enough to receive them when they are for my good. Amen.

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