The art of speaking truth: Lessons from the prophet Nathan

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Prophet Nathan
The Prophet Nathan rebukes King David. Eugène Siberdt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was speaking truth to power and speaking it to a powerful man with a record of killing people who got in his way. But he didn’t walk into the room and condemn the man for his sins, perhaps because the powerful man would have reacted and not repented.

He told the man a story about a rich man who stole from a poor man, and I’m guessing he knew the powerful man well enough that he expected the story to enrage him. And it did. The powerful man wanted to use his power to help the victim and to execute the rich man who hurt him. Anyone who did that deserved to die, he said.

Then the prophet Nathan said to King David, “You are the man.” David had murdered his faithful soldier Uriah to get Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, for his own. He had already started sleeping with her and killed Uriah to give himself a clear claim.

Nathan then told David exactly what he’d done and what God was going to do to punish him for it. It was “an eye for an eye” type of punishment, but still less than the death sentence that David in effect had given himself.

David answered only, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

It’s a great story and one we might take as a model of how to speak to others when we have to tell them something about themselves they don’t want to hear, but it’s one to be very carefully applied.

Ronald Knox’s warning

The priest and writer Ronald Knox warns us against the dangers of speaking that way in “The Priestly Life,” a book of retreats he gave to priests. His warning applies to anyone who has a prophetical work, broadly speaking, someone to whom people listen as an authority.

We’re all prophets of a sort, though probably for only a few. I don’t mean here the way in baptism we’re made priests, prophets and kings, but the place we have in specific people’s lives.

Knox gives the example of hearing the sacristan say after Mass, “My word, Father, you gave it to them straight this morning.” That’s not good. “I think it is a good rule, if the sacristan says ‘My word, Father, you gave it to them straight this morning,’ to tear up the notes of that sermon at once, if there were any, and to ask God on your knees that he will never let you preach a sermon like that again.”

This kind of speech will please some people. I have been that sacristan. When you speak or write, like Nathan, you’ll be preaching to some people who have Davids they want to see struck down. Some of those Davids won’t actually be Davids. They might even be Nathans.

Knox points out that such speech may drive others away, and some of them will never come back. A Catholic wife may have finally gotten her husband to come to Mass with her just to see what it’s like. “He comes just this once, and he knows what it’s like after that.” The attempt to speak prophetically fails if it only alienates people.

Priests and prophets

Other people probably don’t want instructions on how to live from us. Not many of us do. But they still might listen. If they listen, we have to do our best to make sure they hear. Three lessons can be drawn from Nathan’s example and Knox’s insight.

First, yelling at the king was Nathan’s job as an official prophet. Yelling at anyone we see going wrong is not ours. The people to whom we should be Nathan will usually be the people to whom we’re closest: those we love enough and have loved in real, personal ways they know to have earned the right to pull a Nathan on them. And to know how to speak prophetically to them. Otherwise, they won’t hear us.

Second, prophets aim for the person’s conversion. We’re rarely if ever Elijah making fun of the prophets of Baal. Our hard word should be like the doctor’s diagnosis, a word given so the patient will accept the cure. Nathan said “You are the man” to make David see he must be a better man.

Third, Nathan showed David who he really was, at least the man he wanted to be, a man who treated others justly and stood up for victims. Few of us can speak as cleverly as Nathan did. We don’t have the rhetorical skills.

When we speak to someone like Nathan, we must point him to the person he wants to be, not saying “You’re wrong” so much as “You can be better.” Most of us need an ideal and the hope of reaching it to repent and change.

Be a Nathan. But carefully.

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.