One of my all-time favorite movies is the Big Lebowski. In many ways, this cult classic is about an unlikely yet strangely beautiful friendship between two characters – Walter and The Dude. Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is a seemingly crass Vietnam War veteran who, despite his boorish demeanor, public outbursts, and unwavering stubbornness, is at his core a wounded healer of sorts who demonstrates a deep loyalty to his friends. He’s paired with The Dude (Jeff Bridges), the consummate shoulder-shrugger who coasts through life without paying bills, does his best to avoid conflict, and who constantly scolds Walter for his M.O. but would probably take a bullet for him without hesitation.
One of the scenes that best captures this complicated and comical relationship is in the parking lot of a bowling alley. After Walter pulls out a gun on one of his bowling buddies for an alleged foot foul, they leave the alley and find themselves in a parked car, still arguing about the incident:
Walter: Am I wrong?!?!
The Dude: No you’re not wrong.
Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?!?!
The Dude: You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an a******!!!
Can you think of a time where you’ve been involved in a similar conversation? I can.
I love this scene not only for its humor but also because it captures so well the human tendency to eschew the inextricable and necessary relationship between grace and truth. Walter has his gracious moments, and deep down there is something very gracious about his love for his friends, but he’s also quick to sacrifice grace at the altar of cold, hard truth when it vindicates his version of the way things are.
Many of us are on some level attracted to Walter’s callous insistence on the truth. We might find it refreshing that Walter just wants to “tell it like it is” without letting other people’s feelings get in the way. All of us can likely think of times when we’ve been (or thought about being) ungracious, dismissive, or judgmental when we think it justifies our actions or our interpretation of the world around us, even when it means judging others harshly. This is the case in our personal as well as our public lives. We might even say that “Truth Without Grace” (even when that “truth” hasn’t been true at all) has emerged as the implicit slogan of American politics. The result is an untempered and harsh labeling of other people who don’t think, act, speak, vote, or live like us (whoever “us” is).
In his book, Ethics, Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“It is only the cynic who claims ‘to speak the truth’ at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth… He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which ‘cannot bear the truth.’”
It’s particularly cringe-inducing when Christians exhibit truth without grace, what Bonhoeffer calls a “lifeless image of the truth,” not only because showing grace to others is basic to following Jesus, but also because grace is supposed to be at the very root of our identity in Christ. By faith, we become one with Jesus Christ who is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In a profound, mysterious, and beautiful way, Jesus becomes our new identity, the source of our life, the one who works within us with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul knew this when he insisted that we are justified by God’s grace, that is, we are welcomed into God’s covenant family not by anything we’ve done, but unconditionally, on account of the grace of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. On this basis being justified freely by God’s grace, Paul rhetorically asks, “where then is boasting? It is excluded.” For those whose lives, salvation, justification, and vocation are rooted in grace, it is incumbent upon us, to exhibit that same radical grace to others.
We live in a culture that is in desperate need of truth telling, prophetic witness, and bold proclamation. But this should never be license to dispense with grace and simply “tell it like it is” in a manner unworthy of the gospel. As those “saved by grace through faith” (Eph 2), it is imperative that we extend that same grace through our bold and prophetic utterances of the truth. It may simply be a matter of thinking before speaking, of giving someone else the benefit of the doubt, of listening first and talking second, or meditating more frequently on the boundless grace that God has shown us in Christ. Whatever the appropriate measures may be, the point is not to stop telling the truth, but to consider whether our truth-telling, even its boldest and intense forms, exhibits grace. For it turns out that while grace without truth might be “cheap grace,” truth without grace might cease to be truth altogether.