If You Can't Say Something Nice, Don't Say Anything At All

A few weeks ago, a friend did something that offended me. I was too upset to call, so I typed a strongly worded message. My mother was shocked when I told her what I did.

"Be careful about sending letters like that - you don't want that to be your legacy." she said.

Confrontation has always been a difficult concept for me because of my compliant nature. I've never wanted to "rock the boat" or make people mad at me. I've never been good at standing up for myself or saying "no" so I've allowed myself to be taken advantage of. This only became a problem when I struggled to stand up for my children and protect them, so I knew that I needed to learn how to be more assertive.

I have not been doing very well.

In the past few weeks, my conversation with my mother has churned around constantly in my mind. As I have washed dishes I've wondered if I had a right to express myself so completely, or if I came on too strongly. As I've pushed the babies in their swings I've thought of the differences of family and personality styles and wondered if one way is better than the other.

The other day as I was ironing, I was mulling over the conversation again, and I began to feel that God started to give me some answers as He brought specific verses to mind.

I ran to my Bible to look them up and found several more verses on the topic. This is what I learned:

Is it right to confront someone?

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen..." Matthew 18:15-17

This scripture tells us that we should confront others - - but that it should be private. It should not be the topic of phone conversations with other people. It should not be the prayer request at the next Bible study. We must go directly to the person and discuss it with them. If they do not listen, others should be brought into it - but still with the intent of confrontation, not gossip.

What if I don't want to confront someone? It is easier to just ignore the problem or the person than risk causing more trouble.

"Whoever hides hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool. In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise." Proverbs 10:18-19

This scripture suggests that NOT talking to the person about it, just keeping it to your self and pretending to be polite when you must interact with that person, is a LIE. Not only that, but it also implies that this silence breeds gossip - - in the absence of resolution, bitterness grows and, with bitterness, the temptation to discuss the matter with others.

It also seems to say that it would be wise to think through all of the words that you will use very carefully so that you only say wise words.

HOW should I speak to someone when I must confront them?

"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness... A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." Proverbs 15: 1-2,4

"Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." Ephesians 4:29-32

Calmly. With wisdom, grace, a tender heart, and a forgiving spirit. Without harshness, perverseness, corruption, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, malice and evil or corrupt words.

Our goal should be to edify.

Does this mean that I should only say words that are nice? You know, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"?

"Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one." Galatians 4:6

The word "grace" in all of these verses is charis (khar'-es). It means "graciousness, the divine influence on the heart and it's reflection in the life." It is also translated as "acceptable and benefit." It does not mean "nice." It means for the benefit of the other person. What will most bless and edify them in their life? Sometimes that means saying words that are not nice! Occasionally it will be necessary to say words that may seem hurtful to that person.
In the culture in which we live, this is not widely accepted. People are prone to say that we have no right to "judge" them, and that they can do what they want and we can do what we want and we should just agree to disagree.

That is not God's way. He wants us to encourage each other to live godly lives. To root out sin. To keep the church a pure bride. He wants us to be salt and light in the world and we cannot do that if we are sinning or turning a blind eye to other Christians who are sinning.

I also noticed that that verse says that our words should be seasoned with salt, not sugar! Salt is a strong flavor. It is used in both sweet and savory recipes. (I made ice cream last night and was surprised to see that the recipe called for salt - in the ice cream, not the ice cream freezer! My husband said that it was to "cut the sweetness" so that it would not be too much.)

Salt is not only used to season, but also to preserve and to purify. (A neighbor once told me how she'd had trouble with a recurring infection, but when she visited Israel, she swam in the Dead Sea -which has a very high salt content - and never had trouble with her infection again.) This purpose of salt also fits the concept of "encouraging each other to live godly lives. To root out sin. To keep the church a pure bride...."

How do I know if I should confront someone or not?

"...If you bring your gift to the altar,and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." Matthew 5:23-24

"Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all, see that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all." 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15

"For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly [not the regular] manner... do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." 2 Thessalonians 3: 11,15

I feel that there are a couple of things that make it necessary to confront another individual. One of those reasons is to prevent a rift in our relationship with God.

Our interactions with other people DO have a direct affect on our relationship with God. If we are offended, bitterness can easily grow in our hearts. If we allow this bitterness to grow, we become ineffective as Christians, and powerless in our spiritual lives. We become obsessed with that person and what they are saying about us or doing that might affect us. We don't have our minds fixed on Christ. This should be dealt with (preferably before bitterness takes root in our hearts) so that we can keep our hearts right with God.

The second reason that we need to confront another is to address sin in their lives. The words "admonish" and "warn" are the same word in Greek. It means "to caution or reprove gently." In order to be the pure bride of Christ, we as Christians cannot live in sin. In these verses (and in many others) we are told to encourage each other to live pure lives - even if that means an uncomfortable confrontation. It may be awkward at first, but in the long run, both the individual and the Church as a whole will be better off.

 When in doubt, be quiet!

"He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive." Proverbs 17:27-28

 "Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him." Proverbs 29:20

If your question is not answered in these verses or a further search of scripture, and you do not know whether or not you should make a confrontation, your best bet is to be quiet and pray about it until God gives you wisdom and guidance in the matter.


As I continue to struggle to learn that delicate dance between being bold, and being a bully; being assertive, but not aggressive; and being honest without being harsh, I pray that God will continue to work in my life and make me "more in every way like Him."

I trust that you will be doing the same!


Carey Jane Clark said...

There is also the scripture about speaking the truth IN LOVE. Is love--true love--the motive? Or just getting something off your chest? Do you feel better in the end because you said your piece, or have you, as you said, kept edification as your goal?

Sounds like you have a wise mother. Nice post.

Confessions of a Martha said...

Thank you, Carey, for pointing out that important "test" of our words and motives.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I stumbled on Confessions Of A Martha because I was also very upset with a comment an acquaintance made to me. Playing it over and over in my mind I was temped to write to her, first in anger, then more gently by reminding her of "if you can't say something nice..." I read recently that it was Mary, the Mother of Jesus who coined that phrase, and I was trying to verify that when I came across this story. Uncanny! Have been asking God to help me handle it the way He wants me to. Now I'm just clueless. This acquaintance has admitted to me she has a problem with a sharp tounge. Think I'll write the letter and if it sounds like it's coming from a loving place I'll mail it. If not I won't. Thank you so much for your story.

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