When I interviewed Greg for a faculty position at William Jessup University, I knew I had a tiger by the tail. He was a strong personality, enormously self-confident, and took delight (so he said) in “speaking truth to power.” In the marketplace he had worked for a Fortune 500 company where he hired and fired people with almost the same frequency that most of us change our clothes. He knew that higher education functioned differently than the high-powered financial sector, but this inveterate truth-teller kept finding himself on the wrong side of people. His only defense? “They can’t handle the truth!”
We’ve all met people like Greg. Their world is very black or white, right or wrong. And whether they are highly confrontational or deeply passive-aggressive, they feel that they are the last line of defense before utter social collapse.
Conversely, when I interviewed Jennifer for a faculty position, it felt like holding a bar of soap in the bathtub. I couldn’t pin her down. She was understated, warm, and engaging. She listened well, but interviewing her felt like watching a chameleon in a glass tank. She adeptly adjusted all of her responses to fit whatever she perceived I wanted to hear. Statement of faith? “Sure, I like what you have.” The importance of integrating faith and learning? “I agree.” How have you handled conflict with students or colleagues? “I never have conflict.”
Jennifer’s world, unlike Greg’s, is mostly gray. Some people would say that she exemplifies laid-back grace. To her, tolerance is more important than truth. She lives by the maxims that “we’re all works in progress; patience and empathy build the best communities; soft voices achieve more than loud rants; and gentleness goes much farther than aggression.”
The Unexpected Alliance
When the apostle John sat down to write his Gospel, he had perhaps 50 years of reflection about Jesus to draw on. Fifty years to think back, to clarify, to ponder, and to confirm.
Over time, our memory sometimes paints a softer picture of our past. Other times, it jolts us to realize just how dysfunctional, dangerous, or even destructive certain experiences were. However, when John sat down to write, he drew not only on his own memories but also on the constant conversations and memories of countless other people who had also experienced Jesus up close and personal.
Thus, with full assurance, in the opening chapter of the Gospel, John pulls out an unexpected phrase to characterize the heart and ministry of Jesus—“full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Indeed, not only is this a way to describe Jesus but John adds that in the same way the law was given through Moses, “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (v. 17). Jesus embodied grace and truth and he revealed them to us in their purest and best form.
These two words—grace and truth—stretch us. Each word on its own can test us. Put them together and they become exponentially more difficult. How many people do you know who exemplify them both?
Truth, in our culture, tends to feel accusatory or judgmental and can push us apart. For example, when someone drums up the courage to confront a leader or a marriage partner about lies or infidelity, the truth can feel terrifying. It carries great risk—risk of misunderstanding, rejection, and (social media) hostility. No wonder we see and hear so little truth-telling these days.
Grace, on the other hand, generally includes forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s grace when a marriage partner seeks to restore a broken marriage. It’s grace when a team leader allows for failure or something less than perfection (without demeaning people). It’s grace when parents don’t overreact to the mistakes and bad choices of their kids. But in a culture that honors outrage, this kind of grace feels soft and weak. We expect everyone to be suitably angry about everything; politics, leaders, social issues, injustice, churches, and businesses. Outrage is beginning to replace tolerance as the new ethical fad. Grace feels out of vogue.
Our culture has little place for either grace or truth.
The Reliable Example
We could speculate endlessly about how to be “full of grace and truth.” The apostle John decided that this was not a discussion for philosophical debate, but a question to be resolved by looking at one person—Jesus.
Those of us who claim to follow Jesus know (at some level) that we don’t have to explain ethics; we show it. We don’t have to read endlessly; we simply look at a life. That life of course, is the one whose portrait John paints throughout the Gospel. So, what does Jesus show us about grace and truth? Three simple truths might suffice right here.
First, our choice is not grace or truth. It’s not grace sometimes and truth other times. Rather, the greatest testimony to the kingdom of God among us is both grace and truth, every time. Jesus was simultaneously gracious and truthful with a Samaritan woman whose life was marked by hardship and heartache (John 4:3-30). He spoke truth to her without shaming her, and he consistently treated people this way.
Second, grace takes the harsh edge off truth and truth gives needed focus to grace. Importantly, there’s what we say, but also when we say it, and how we say it. The beautiful interaction between Jesus and Peter in John 21, where Jesus restored Peter to leadership despite Peter’s failure to stand for Christ on the night of his betrayal, is another case study in grace and truth.
Third, to be “full of grace and truth” may provide the ultimate expression of Christlikeness. The apostle Paul had written decades earlier about walking by the Spirit and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25), but John saw this short phrase, “full of grace and truth,” as the ultimate description of Christ himself and Christ within us.
Some Next Steps
This combination of grace and truth is no small matter. Many of us default heavily one way or the other with our spouses, kids, families, churches, and coworkers. Have you had anyone describe you as prickly . . . or a pushover? Do people find you harsh…or indecisive? Do you value truth more highly than grace . . . or vice versa? Consider these next steps.
1. Ask those closest to you whether they see you as lopsided (or deficient) in these qualities. Then prayerfully consider how Christ might shape you differently.
2. Remember that timing, tone, and content are as important to grace as to truth.
3. When you find yourself facing a difficult or important conversation, make this phrase a breath prayer. Gently whisper “grace and truth.” It will give you both courage and gentleness.
4. Commit yourself to reading John’s Gospel a couple of times in this next month, looking for your own clues to grace and truth in the life of Jesus. Again, ethics is sometimes best caught, not taught. Soak in his presence and become more like him.
Fifty years after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, John penned his Gospel and decided that the best words to describe Jesus, words which had arisen as indisputable and of primary significance, were the words “full of grace and truth.” What a remarkable epitaph that would be for any of us. What a remarkable life it would give us.
David Timms is dean of the faculty of theology at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.