Who grew up hearing, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Yep, me. I did. I have both hands up in the air as I can remember hearing this mantra from adults throughout my life.
It drives me crazy.
Yes, this is another one of those pithy sayings that I want to tackle. Earlier this year, I wrote about the bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Cute, but horrible theology. [Read all about it here.]
Today, let’s dive into the old adage, If you can’t say something nice . . .
The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
What bothers me so much about this line so famous that it was even included in a Walt Disney film? (Thumper says it in the movie Bambi.) It makes some poor assumptions.
Assumptions? Yeah. Poor ones. Let’s take it to the horrible end of the spectrum so you can better understand what I mean.
- How many nice things can you say about the SS men who said they loved God but perpetrated horrible atrocities during the Holocaust?
- What about Joseph Stalin, institutor of the Great Purge where somewhere between 700,000 and 1,200,000 were killed within a two year period?
- Or, to bring it a little closer to home and the modern era, anything nice to say about those who routinely and methodically abuse a spouse or child?
Nothing, right? So, our mantra says that if we can’t say something nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Nothing. Nothing about the Holocaust should we begin to see it happening again. Nothing about the Great Purge if we should begin to see it happening again. Nothing about the bruises that routinely show up on the woman who lives next door.
But that’s not what we mean when we say it!
Yeah, I know. We intend to teach children to think before they speak. But we rarely introduce that limiting concept, and we repeat the mantra so much while trying to instill the lesson of kindness, that the habit of only saying nice things becomes ingrained.
Some learn the unintended message that if something is not nice, it can never be said.
But what about those times when the not-nice-thing is actually the nicest thing you could, or should, say?
Our Christian Duty
Some very Christian people elevate If you can’t say something nice to biblical command. Like it came from the mouth of Jesus.
Philippians 4:8 comes to mind. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Paul also wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.
But those who espouse verses like these fail to consider the truth that Paul was not afraid to confront wrongdoing. Or that he encouraged Christians to do the same.
Keep in mind 2 Timothy 3:16-17. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Hurt versus Harm
What we forget is that hurting someone is very different from harming them.
Do you like the dentist? I don’t. Well, truthfully, I love my dentist, the person, but I hate visiting her in her office. Why? Because she hurts me. I have horrible teeth, and every once in a while, she must look me in the eye and say not-nice words. “Carrie, you need a procedure.”
But are those not-nice words good for me? Good for my long-term health? Absolutely. In saying them, she proves her love for me, her concern for my well-being. Even though she doesn’t particularly like saying them, and I especially don’t like hearing them.
To not say them, to let the cavity or other problem continue to worsen, would be to harm me. Or, at least, to allow harm to come to me. And that’s not very nice at all.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:29, Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Building others up according to their needs. That it may benefit those who listen. Powerful words that never once suggest that what you are communicating is what most today would consider nice.
Perhaps the apostle Paul just operated under a different definition of nice. One based more on holiness than sweetness.
For years, Amber has avoided relationships and letting anyone close enough to her for them to know how messed up her family is. But God is about to change all of that.
She avoids relationships, but this family challenges her view of God.
For years, Amber traipsed around the Northwest avoiding the skeletons in her closet. Job-hopping every few weeks, she refuses to let anyone get close to her, protecting herself from the pain that relationships bring. As winter plants itself firmly across the Rockies, though, she decides to take a chance on a job at a logging company with a family different from any she’s ever known.
But is this family genuine?
Watching the family interact creates more questions than answers for Amber. The adults love to spend time with each other and dote on the little ones. Even more mysterious, the parents treat the married spouses like their own children and carefully keep watch on employees and friends.
Feeling like she’s entered the happily-ever-after written at the end of fairytales, Amber watches for cracks in the façade. Surely as the days pass, the play-acting will cease and the real family will emerge.
Or could she be wrong? Could this family hold the key to what she’s seeking?