Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Hogwash! Words do hurt. It’s better to say, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my heart. The effect of harmful words outlast any physical blow.

Among the trials we face in trying to help people, few are more devastating than unfounded statements made against us – especially behind our backs with no opportunity to clear the air or defend ourselves. Such accusations can be made against our conduct – things we did not do; against our words – things we did not say; or against our motives – things we did not mean.

How should we respond to false accusations?

1 – Shut Up

There are times when the best response is silence. At times, the more you defend yourself, the more you appear guilty. You should hold your peace. This is how Jesus defended Himself before the Jewish and Roman authorities. 

2 – Speak Up

There are times when defending one’s integrity calls for strong action. How do we do this? The Apostle Paul shows us how to respond to false criticisms.

Respond to criticism with facts.

“Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity[a] and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 1:12-24)

Some in the Corinthian church attacked Paul’s method of not receiving personal wages yet pleading for humanitarian funding. They accused him of personal greed. People were saying there was more in Paul’s conduct than met the eye. They attacked his motives.

It’s near impossible to defend an accusation against your motives because nobody, but God, knows someone’s motives. If you think about it, you can do the right actions with the wrong motives or you can do the wrong actions with the right motives. No one but God knows. If someone doesn’t like you, all they need to do to discredit your good deeds is accuse you of wrong motives (pride, greed, selfishness, etc.).

Paul’s answer to his critics was his claim that he had a clear conscience before God. In all he did he had pure motives. Your conscience is the inner ability to judge whether an action is correct. Paul knew that before God he was doing the right thing.

Paul served with godly sincerity. This word “sincerity” (eilikrineaia in Greek) is interesting. It is often used to describe something which can bear the test of being held up to the light of the sun and looking at it with the sun shining through it. There were no hidden motives in Paul’s life.

Motives must be pure and godly. If we are honest, we will have to admit that we seldom do anything with absolutely unmixed motives. But our supreme motivation should be pure, godly, and by the grace of God.

If our motives are attacked, we should stick with the facts and reveal that our motives are pure and our conscience is clear. If my conscience is not entirely clear, I have trouble doing what I ought. But if I have a good, clear conscience I can serve with confidence.

Respond to criticism with clarification.

“Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice.  I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea.Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”… I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” (1 Corinthians 1:15-18, 23)

Some in the Corinthian church accused Paul of being indecisive. The fact that Paul made an unscheduled visit and then cancelled his second visit gave his opponents another reason to criticize him. He had not come through on his promises. Paul explains his reasoning. First, nowhere in 1 Corinthians did Paul promise he would come according to a specific timetable (1 Cor. 16:6-7). Second, he explains that the reason he did not come was not because he didn’t care. His change in plans was to spare them a painful visit that should have been a joyful reunion. Paul had written an additional letter after 1 Corinthians (2 Cor. 2:4). It was a blistering letter about issues in Corinth. Paul wanted to wait for their reaction to that letter rather than arrive immediately and come across too harshly. He wanted to wait until the matter was resolved and the church was restored to love, joy, and peace. His change of plans were purely out of mercy and love. He cared enough to confront the Corinthian believers by letter, and he cared too much to visit them personally, because his presence likely would have hurt them too much. Paul explained his decision to clear up any misunderstanding the Corinthians may have had.

So there are times we should shut up and some times we should speak up. This, however, brings up an important question. How do we know when to speak up and when to be silent? The answer is wisdom.

Proverbs 26:4-5 places both scenarios beside each other, demonstrating the complexities of wise living.

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4-5)

The wisest way to respond to a fool is determined on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s wise to answer; sometimes it’s wise to be silent. In every case, then, we need to call on God for the wisdom needed to navigate these situations (Jas. 1:5).