What if I told you that I had some news, but that there was both good news and bad news? Which would you choose first? Would you lead with the bad news to get it over with, or would you lead with the good news to help you brace for the other shoe to drop? I, for one, get anxious whenever I’m confronted with the choice. When there’s a mixture of good news and bad news, the main takeaway is that there is news and that at least some of it is bad.

The ordering of good and bad news is an art form. An editor’s playbook is to always give the good news before the critique. When grading student papers or dealing with Human Resources protocol, it is considered best to lead with the good news first. This kind of reasoning works in theory, but even a spoonful of sugar can’t get rid of the medicine’s aftertaste when dealing with one another.

We, as social animals, have a tendency to quietly condemn people while covering any tracks that suggest that we’re judging them. If we say, “He’s great, but I just can’t be around him for more than an hour,” it can subtly translate to, “I don’t actually like that guy.” If we say, “She’s sweet, but she can be a little needy,” the takeaway is usually the latter part. The fact that she is sweet simply serves as a placeholder for the real message that this person is extremely needy. When describing people, we will often start out by trying to soften the blow only to deliver it in a backhanded way, saving the judgment-laced word for last. When you bury judgment with mere kindness, it has a tendency to claw itself out of the grave pretty easily.

Of course, having negative things to say about someone is part of actually knowing them. To be human is to be partially insane and at least somewhat insufferable. If we only had positive things to say about each other, life would be much more boring. Plus, part of the joy of knowing someone is to know their quirks and insecurities. Someone’s weaker attributes can even end up being what we find most lovable about them.

Fleming Rutledge presents this reality from a Christian perspective in The Crucifixion, writing, “From the standpoint of the gospel, every single one of us, rich or poor, is a complex mixture; we are all capable of injustice and we are all living on the edge of neediness at any time.” She later mentions the Czech Republic’s president Vaclav Havel’s proverb, “The line [between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person. No one was simply a victim; everyone was in some measure co-responsible. Many people were on both sides.” When dealing with an all-or-nothing God, a God who demands inward perfection, the bad far outweighs the good. On the scale of justice, our sins will always outweigh our righteous deeds.

This is why softening the blow with a dash of niceness usually mixes the messages and often does little good. Whenever opposing forces get mixed, the saltier one prevails. Since the voice of judgment speaks louder to the conscience, when judgment and mercy are mixed, one usually ends up with judgment. Like feathers to a bowling ball, fifty glowing compliments weigh far less than one cutting critique. As Paul Zahl once said, “The gospel is 100% ‘Yes,’ and if there’s a hint of ‘No’ then it’s all ‘No.'”

God, however, does not speak of you as a mixed bag. He doesn’t lead with your strengths only to sneak in a critique for the last word. He does the opposite. The Bible addresses both our sinful predicament and God’s subsequent grace, but the order in which they are applied is important. God’s Word leads with law and ends with gospel. “For the wages of sin is death” is the crucial first half of Romans 6:23. The diagnosis is delivered first with blunt truth. We have sinned against God, and the just punishment is death. When the verse pivots, however, it does an about face. It turns away from judgment and heads in the direction of abundant mercy: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The gospel is always God’s final word.

As Jono Linebaugh once said, “God doesn’t serve mixed drinks. He serves two distinct shots — one of Law and one of Gospel.” Should Law and Gospel get mixed together, the result is like a Bud Light Chelada. It might feel more convenient, but it’s hardly satisfying. When served separately, however, both are allowed to complete their distinct, separate functions. The law’s work is necessary, but discomforting. It goes down like 100-proof tequila. It empties out one’s insides. It leaves one’s face puckered. The gospel, on the other hand, goes down like top-shelf whiskey. It soothes the soul. It elevates. It leaves you better off than you were before.

While there’s plenty of things to say about each of us, God’s Word always ends with favor. The gospel’s purpose is not to tee us up for a backhanded slight of judgment. It gives what it imposes. The gospel always gets the last word. After that, there is little more to say besides “Thanks be to God!”