One of the things that is very difficult in formal situations is how a florid way of speaking is encouraged which is not necessarily honest but is deemed to be necessary. The Parliamentary system and judicial system in this country still encourage ways of addressing people which seem excessively polite and which effectively do not reflect people’s true opinions at all. This is no new phenomenon, for when we hear the lawyer Tertullus address Felix (the governor) in Acts 24, we realise that there is more flattery than truth in his opening remarks. Some would call the speech sycophantic, since presumably he felt that the more he flattered him, the more likely he was of receiving a favourable outcome in the trial of Paul!
Tertullus speaks of enjoying ‘a long period of peace under you’, which was not at all true, since sedition and rebellion were high under Felix’s rule, and his barbarous ways of putting insurrection down made him unpopular with the Jews. He went on to say, ‘your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation,’ which was also stretching the truth somewhat. Just as we saw that Claudius Lysias ‘edited’ facts to paint a more favourable picture of himself in Acts 23, here we see rhetoric and praise being used for effect, rather than from sincerity.
It’s interesting to contrast Tertullus’s opening comments to Felix with Paul’s. Paul is polite, but sticks to the truth: ‘I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defence.’ (Acts 24:10) He does not resort to insincere flattery or false pretences.
Paul tells the Ephesians we should speak the truth in love. (Eph 4:15) The two things must be kept in balance. Nicky Gumbel says, ‘Love becomes weak if it is not strengthened by truth. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love.’ It’s always tempting to say what another person wants to hear, rather than what they need to hear (especially if they have some kind of authority over us), but we must keep the balance between truth and love in our speech, as in every other area of our lives.