In a recent interview, Journalist Walter Kirn told a story that says a lot about our deep desire to avoid displeasing other people with the inconvenient truth.
On the morning that the Twin Towers in New York City collapsed (an event commonly known as 9-11), one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett, was holding his annual invitation-only golf event.
Gathered were world bankers, billion-dollar company CEO’s, A-list celebrities and athletes. Buffett had a rule at this event – no mobile phones.
During the event news began to break out that, “America was under attack”. Secretaries began alerting their bosses via the phones they had smuggled into the event. But nobody said a word to Warren Buffett.
Nobody told Buffett because nobody wanted to displease him and admit they had brought their phone. And so they smiled and swung their clubs, and turned an inconvenient truth into a dirty little secret.
Three years later and Walter Kirn found himself at a press conference in which Warren Buffett was the speaker. During the event, Buffetts’ personal assistant walked on to the stage and whispered in his ear.
Buffett leaned into the microphone and said, “we have just gotten word that a storm is heading for the city and this building is in the direct path of a tornado. I plan to continue the press conference, but you are all welcome to leave.”
A few journalists in the audience snuck out but most of them stayed – including Walter Kirn. Why? Nobody wanted to displease Buffett or be thought a coward by one of the world’s most rich and powerful men.
Like the fable of the Emporer’s new clothes, nobody really wants to stick their neck out and say what needs to be said. Nobody wants to speak the truth that’s burning in their heart or tormenting their conscience. Nobody wants to displease those in power.
Suppose you’re attending a wedding and on the way you and several of the other guests spot the groom and one of the bridesmaids in a hot embrace in an alley behind the church. You all saw it, but nobody wants to spoil a happy occasion and so you keep the truth to yourself.
Later that night, and much to everyone’s shock, the bride mentions it in her speech and asks if anyone else saw it. The guests look away, awkward and ashamed. Why?
Because we all knew, and we said nothing.
We want to be seen to be doing what everyone else is doing. But all the while we are screaming inside because we know something. We know we are being lied to. Or we know that what we are hearing or seeing does not add up – or does not add up with the gospel.
We tolerate contradiction, hypocrisy and more because we are afraid to displease. We are afraid of falling out of favour.
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart… who swears to his own hurt and does not change; He who does these things shall never be shaken. (Psalm 15:1-5)
The trouble with truth is that it’s costly. It’s inconvenient and disruptive. Nobody wants to be accused of interrupting our happy daydream by announcing that the kitchen is on fire. But the alternative is slavery to fear. The alternative is hiding in our rooms flicking through Youtube or Twitter and slowly wasting away inside.
A good testimony is one that can look back without shame. A good testimony does not need to hide out in the basement. A good testimony is when you can look back over your shoulder knowing that you have said what was truly in your heart from a sincere faith and a clear conscience. And this is what Christ has called us to.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. (Ephesian 4:25)
Whether it’s a truth about my sin, your sin, our culture, or the tyranny and injustice we see around us, we are called to confess and profess what is true.
Sure, we need to be prudent, and avoid all forms of gossip and slander and we are not obligated to blurt out every inconsequential opinion that enters our head or ignite fruitless conflict. But we are called to live out the truth and not bury it under a weight of guilt, contradiction and shame because we were afraid to speak what we know and what we believe.
This is true liberty in Christ. It’s also true love for our neighbour.