“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).
We live in a society that cares very little about hearing the truth. In fact, we often go out of our way to avoid the truth, in favor of some more palatable lies. I have a feeling that’s why we are so enamored of talk shows. We see the sorts of people and situations featured on Jerry Springer or Montel Williams, and we figure that, compared to their outrageous behavior, we have few problems. We can avoid having to face our own sinfulness and lostness precisely because we surround ourselves with people and stories more depraved than we are. We circumvent the process of being honest with ourselves about who we are; and we are just as dishonest with one another.
If we’re asked about what we think of someone’s new hairdo or someone’s new choice of a partner, either we lie outright, or we ask first if they really want to hear the truth (viz., “Do you want the truth?”), implying of course that if it’s all the same, we’d much prefer to lie and save everyone the embarrassment. Lying comes much easier to us. And sometimes knowing the truth and being unwilling to say it is even a worse form of lying.
Telling the truth is painful, which is why this verse from Colossians is so perplexing. In the Oxford Study Bible the helps say that “seasoned with salt” means “with spiritual understanding.” Next it gives reference to Mark 9:50. I find that particular interpretation of Mark (i.e., “spiritual understanding”) unsatisfying. The salt that Mark is talking about is cleansing, purifying—“Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mk. 9:49). Mark goes on to say that “Salt is good” and that it may bring peace, but more in the sense that an enema is good: It may clean you out, but in the process, it’s going to be extremely uncomfortable.
It occurs to me that the church needs to speak the truth about some things. I’m at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Nashville, at the moment. I just came from a very moving service, centered on healing and wholeness for those afflicted with AIDS. The Reverend Bill Lee spoke the difficult truth about how when folks need healing, people who follow Jesus ought to be ready to tear the roof off to bring it to them. It then struck me that there are a whole lot of people who need to find the healing love of Jesus, but the church is often not only unwilling to tear off the roof to bring it, in some cases the church is guilty of reinforcing the steel girders that keep people on the outside, hammering away to break through.
Why have we as a denomination at our national gathering, for instance, once again avoided having the conversation necessary to bring healing and wholeness to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters? I know there are difficult disagreements surrounding this issue. People get mad. It’s tough. But this issue isn’t going away just because we don’t want to talk about it. We’re Christians, people who follow a crucified nobody—tough is what we do! The church—we folks who follow Jesus—shouldn’t be afraid of dying for what we believe in; we should be afraid of not speaking truthfully. Where did we ever get the idea that we could get away with anything less?
There are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me—who think that LGBTQ folks are in need of some kind of repair before they get access to the healing love of Jesus. But I think LGBTQ folks are already the way God wanted them; it’s the church that stands in need of repair.
There are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me—who think we should let this lie, avoid stirring the waters. But I think there are too many people dying up on the roof to let it lie.
All of which brings us back to Colossians. How can the author say, “Let your speech be gracious,” which implies blessedness, life-giving affirmation, and then turn around and add, “seasoned with salt?” They certainly don’t appear at first to go together. In fact, those two phrases look awfully awkward placed next to each other. How can talk seasoned with grace be also seasoned with salt? It may just be that the biggest part of grace is telling people the truth rather than the lies they’d prefer to hear. Come to think of it, if it is the salty truth we speak to people, rather than the savorless lies that help them maintain their self-delusions, then maybe we’ve spoken to them with “spiritual understanding” after all.
Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions. He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville. He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon. Penwell was once shot with a potato gun while fleeing the scene of a Cold War espionage sting at a premium vodka distillery in a rural Estonian outpost. (He doesn’t like to talk about it . . . so don’t ask.)