Ethics & Christian living, Theology

A spirituality for reality: saying what we mean and meaning what we say

Adapted from a talk at ‘Beer and Theology’ at the Angel Pub, Rotherhithe on 17/2/23

I like both beer and theology.

Whilst I have seen plenty of problems associated with alcohol addiction, I have always appreciated the good things that beer can bring. A few drinks can give us ‘Dutch courage’ to be more real and to connect better with others. Beer can help us say what we mean.

A key question I want to ask is this: does theology have a similar effect? Does our theology help us to say what we mean and mean what we say?

Let’s be honest. Are the places where Christian theology is most influential – churches, Christian organisations and theological colleges – environments hallmarked by open and assertive communication?

Or are they more likely to have cultures affected by obfuscation, passive aggression and unspoken frustration?

Healthy relationships

The reason this is so important is because the health of any organisation, church, or business, sports club or any other institution, can be measured by how well people involved handle critical conversations.

And the same principle applies within personal relationships. The health of marriages, families and friendships is dependent on how people are able to say what they mean.

The crucible of my thinking

My perspective on these issues has been forged through my years of working with people affected by homelessness.

I used to work in a large hostel in Hackney and one resident (let’s call him Brian) had incredibly strong body odour. His lack of personal hygiene and reluctance to wash his clothes became a real issue. It led to snide comments from other residents and frustrations grew among those who shared the TV lounge or canteen area with him.

All the staff agreed that something should be done about the issue. But none of my colleagues were prepared to speak with Brian because they felt it would be too awkward and upsetting for him. They said ‘How would you like it if someone told you that you stink?’

But I felt it was our responsibility to speak to him about it because it could lead to far more serious problems. So in the end, I did it.

The conversation was difficult. Brian did get angry, embarrassed and upset. But he did take it on board and agreed a simple plan to address the issue.

Though difficult and sensitive, I believe it was right Brian to speak truth to Brian and to sensitively challenge his behaviour.

Situations like this illustrate the model below. It is naïve to think that kindness and support alone help people change: being truthful and challenging are also fundamental ingredients.

A theology to underpin this

I believe that a commitment to saying what we mean is best rooted in a theology of grace and truth. These are the two qualities that Jesus is described by at the start of John’s gospel (1:14):

“We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”

And throughout all the gospel narratives this is shown in Jesus’ encounters with those he meets and in the stories he tells.

The prodigal son is received with grace when he returns home. But this is only after he has ‘come to his senses’ and faced the truth about his situation. (Luke 15:11-32)

The woman with chronic menstrual bleeding is healed by secretly touching Jesus’ clothing. But then Jesus makes her disclose publicly the truth about what has happened. (Luke 8:43-48).

Jesus speaks words of grace to the woman accused of adultery ‘Neither do I condemn you’. But then speaks truth ‘but go, and leave your life of sin.’ (John 8:1-11).

The grace and truth of God is a dialectical thread which runs through the whole biblical narrative. Rather than provide simplistic answers, good theology helps us grapple with the tensions involved in real life.

The dynamic between grace and truth

To go deeper, grace and truth are not simply contrasting qualities. They mutually interrelate and are part of each other.

Acceptance and kindness is often the best prerequisite to speak truthfully. This is why counsellors speak of the importance of having ‘unconditional positive regard’ towards their clients. Empathy and understanding is the basis on which truth can be explored so that people can find lasting healing and help.

It is also the dynamic I have experienced in attending 12-step fellowship meetings. They are places of acceptance for anyone with an addiction. And its this grace which enables them to be places where raw truth is shared. It is this blend that makes them transformative.

Speaking more personally, I have found the blend of grace and truth also profoundly relevant to helping family members who have struggled with addictions, being a parent and maintaining a healthy marriage.

Spirituality and reality

It is cheap form of grace which avoids the truth. Good theology should equip us to love others in more costly ways.

And of course, costly love is the example Jesus has given us in his life and death. A love made up of both grace and truth.

Good spirituality should help us deal with reality. So let’s strive to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Reflection: Tell the truth

Download this Tools for Truth Telling handout I shared during the talk:

4 thoughts on “A spirituality for reality: saying what we mean and meaning what we say”

  1. I love this Jon, great wisdom here. Reading this article I was reminded of the words of Walter Brueggemann, he said something like ‘Church should not be the happiest place in town, but the most honest place in town.’


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