Then Jeremiah said to King Zedekiah, “What crime have I committed against you or your attendants or this people, that you have put me in prison? Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, ‘The king of Babylon will not attack you or this land’?
Jeremiah 37:18-19 (NIV)
A member of my company’s team recently delivered some research results to a client. The client had not been happy about their recent performance in the market and wanted to know why. So, they approached us and asked our team to conduct a focused survey of their customers.
The story revealed in the data of the survey results was definitely not what our client wanted to hear.
“I told them not to shoot the messenger!” my teammate reported to me after meeting with the client’s executive team. “But, it is what it is, ” he continued. “The data doesn’t lie and we had to give them the truth.”
Ugh. I felt for my colleague. I’ve made countless presentations across my career and it’s never fun when the story the data has to tell is going to make you unpopular. You never know how the client is going to react. It’s always possible the client will question the data and blame our company for not knowing what we’re doing. I can recall multiple clients who, after I presented some hard truths our data revealed, quickly deep-sixed the report and never called us again. I’m grateful to say that we have many examples of clients who faced the truth, utilized the data to strategize a turn-around plan, and were eventually grateful for the wake-up call.
I’m also reminded this morning of an experience years ago when I sat on an organization’s board. The organization was not doing well and many of us were convinced that a change in leadership was going to be necessary to move the organization forward. At a regular board meeting the question was asked, “Do we have a leadership problem?”
[cue: crickets chirping]
I confess that I remained silent as did everyone else on the board. The organization’s leader was beloved and no one wanted to confront this person and experience the painful conversation that would transpire if we honestly answered the question. The organization continued to struggle and I’ve always regretted not speaking the truth when I had an opportunity to do so.
Hearing the truth and speaking the truth are both hard. Jeremiah knew this only too well.
Today’s chapter is set in the critical years while the city of Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army. Jeremiah had been predicting this with his prophesies for years even though no one wanted to hear it. During the siege, Jeremiah is arrested for being a traitor and languishes in a dungeon for a long time. Meanwhile, King Zedekiah surrounded himself with prophets who continued telling him what he wanted to hear.
As the situation grows more and more dire, King Zed realizes he needs to hear the truth. He calls Jeremiah from prison and Jeremiah tells him the truth, just as he had always done: “You’re going to be handed over to the King of Babylon.” Jeremiah then takes the opportunity to ask King Zed, “Why am I, the one prophet who tells you the truth, languishing in prison? Where are all the false prophets who tickled your ears with deception and told you only what you wanted to hear? Why aren’t they in the dungeon instead of me?”
This morning I’m thinking about all of the layers of life in which I have opportunity to be truth-teller or ear-tickler. I’m thinking of all the places I can embrace truth or choose to ignore it. It happens in relationships, families, organizations, communities, companies, churches, and teams. It even happens with my own internal conversations with self. I can be a truth teller or an ear-tickler. I can be open to hearing the truth or shut my mind and spirit to things I don’t want accept.
In the quiet this morning I find myself choosing, once again, to commit myself to the hard realities of both telling and hearing the truth. I’ve learned along the journey that it may not be pleasant in the moment, but it makes for a more level path down the road.