Truth, Mercy, and Grace

Posted on February 13, 2014


“Honesty is hardly ever heard and mostly what I need from you.”  Billy Joel

“Don’t confront me with my failures; I have not forgotten them.”  Jackson Browne

“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”  Christine McVie

“Just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.”  Paul Simon

“Who do you need?  Who do you love?  When you come undone.”  Duran Duran

“Funny but it seems I always wind up here with you.  Nice to know somebody loves me.”  Roger Nichols & Paul Williams

This post is flowing in large part from a discussion I had with some friends today so you may catch me just thinking out loud (so to speak).  My purpose is to examine the balance between speaking truth (which sometimes means confronting people on their BS) and extending mercy and grace.  To define our terms, justice is when you get what you deserve, mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve, and grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.  A pastor friend of mine has often quoted from A Few Good Men where Colonel Jessop says, “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth.”  In the context in which he is quoting it, it is generally referring to that God does not make us look at the depth of our own sin all at once because it would crush us.  We can’t handle the truth about ourselves.  Perhaps we can handle truth if you give it to us in small doses with a lot of mercy and grace to wash it down.  This is a blog about relationships, so the question is “How should one balance honesty (and candor) with mercy and grace in relationships?” 

I once worked for a company that was striving to instill a culture of “360 degree coaching.”  The concept was that on a daily basis you would coach each of your subordinates, and you would also coach your peers, your colleagues in other departments, and even your boss.  The aim was that if we were all coaching each other all of the time, we would all be continually improving our performance.  Hence, the performance of the entire company would be improved.  While that sounds good in theory, the emotional experience (and I work with emotions for my livelihood) is quite different.  My theory is that you can only offer as much coaching as the depth of the relationship can handle.  If you are telling me every day how to improve, it is going to feel like you don’t have a very high opinion of me and my work.  In Gottman’s research on couple relationships, he found that for relationship health their needed to be five positives for every negative.  Frankly, I have always thought that number was low.  A friend and colleague who is a fan of mine can tell me I blew something and I can be grateful for the feedback.  With someone who either doesn’t know me well or is not a fan, that feedback could really sting. 

Then there is the whole shame issue.  If we are confronted with some truth about ourselves that is not positive, it is very easy to feel shame.  Shame is the enemy of connection and intimacy.  It causes us to hide and withdraw.  Think about the original sin; what was the first thing people did after sinning?  They hid.  Shame is also self-focused so it gets in the way of intimacy.

The greatest predictor of success in therapy is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client.  The late Carl Rogers was famously renowned for heralding “unconditional positive regard” for the client from the therapist as not only the most important aspect of the therapeutic relationship, but also for the healing process in general.  A large part of my practice is treating sexual addiction.  Addicts are often bundles of inconsistencies, incongruencies, and compartimentalization.  In the course of healing, the therapist must help the client take a look at these; this means you have to be able to point out the inconsistencies in someone’s thought and behavior.  At the same time, shame is once again the enemy.  In my view, you can only confront to the extent that the client is ready to hear it and to the extent that the relationship is established.  Therapy needs to be a safe place with unconditional positive regard (grace) and some truth about your stuff. 

Moving on to social situations, how do you apply this when someone flakes on you regarding a commitment they made?  Now we also need to throw in “boundaries.”  There needs to be a healthy balance between extending grace (because none of us are perfect) and having healthy boundaries.  How many plates can are we keeping spinning now?  There is the truth plate (point out the lame excuse).  There is the mercy plate (don’t confront).  There is the grace plate (extend undeserved favor, be gracious).  There is the boundaries plate (it is not healthy to be a doormat).  There is the forgiveness plate (you need to let the little things go).  If this is a business situation, the answer can be fairly straightforward.  Discuss what happened and how it might be handled better in the future.  Move forward.  If it is a personal relationship, it is a little more nuanced.  How much directness can the relationship support?  How significant is the affront?  Is this a “let the little things go” situation or a truth and boundaries situation. 

When I think about the people in my life that I most like spending time with, it is usually those who see me as I am, but love me anyway.  If you think I am great, but don’t really know me, it doesn’t mean that much.  If you know me pretty well but don’t think too highly of me, that can be pretty painful.  If you know me well, and still think I am just wonderful to be with, that is wonderfully affirming.  It feels great to be on the receiving end of mercy and grace.  There is no need to be guarded or put on a public face.  Time passes quickly when you are with someone with whom you connect where the mutual regard is understood. 

Finally, if I may offer a particularly male point of view, most of us do not want to feel like a project at home.  It can be a delicate process for a wife to talk to her husband about things she would like him to change.  As with Gottman’s 5:1 (five positives for every negative) and the 360 degree coaching, a man needs to feel well respected and admired by his wife before he is open to negative feedback.  In male culture, we grow up with the question “Are you good enough?” continually asked of us.  As adults, we still face that question on a daily basis.  There is a piece of us that fears that the answer is “no.”  We want home to be a haven from that.  If we feel not good enough at home, it can be devastating.  But guys don’t tend to have a big emotional vocabulary.  When it really doesn’t feel good, we experience it as anger.  If our wife is a big fan, we can cope with some constructive criticism from her.  If not, it really hurts.  It also really helps if she is skilled at separating complaints from criticism.  You need to be able to complain in marriage.  Criticism is damaging. 

I read somewhere that we are supposed to treat others as we would like to be treated.[1]  For everyone, there is at least some gap between the way we see ourselves and how others see is.  It is generally healthy to try to keep that gap small.  There are times when we all need some candor to help close that gap.  I little tenderness beneath the honesty is helpful.  There are times when we need to ask for forgiveness.  At those times we need mercy and grace.  At least that is what I would want. 

[1] I am kidding.  I know it is Matthew 7:12.  

Posted in: Relationships