Speak the Truth. In Love.

"Speaking the truth in love"

This phrase is one that we hear tossed around a lot in Christian and non-Christian circles. I have used this expression multiple times in regard to parenting, rebuking a fallen Christian, calling out some pet sin, and a number of other circumstances when I felt a need to justify my words or tone. In more recent times, it has been a frequent axiom others have repeated to validate their words and/or actions toward me.

Although this particular phrase is seldom used in Scripture, the biblical principles of speaking the truth and being loving toward those with whom we are communicating are recurrent and important.

However applying both of these congruent principles can be a difficult balance to strike. Based on our own personality and how we tend to deal with conflict, we will usually fault to one side or the other.  For those who are more forthright in their communication and take a more direct approach when it comes to conflict resolution, speaking the truth comes natural. And for those who seek reconciliation or answers in a more gentle manner, the love part of the equation comes more naturally.

I know that I have had a tendency in the past to speak my mind in a way that was not always Christ-honoring while justifying my approach with the speak the truth mentality.  Often I would take my justification one step further by saying, "Because I love you, I am going to say this." Is there a biblical rationalization for this approach? Absolutely.  The Bible is filled with instructions to speak the truth regardless of the recipient's response.

But what do you do when the person to whom you are speaking already knows the truth intimately? This scenario presents a more difficult challenge.  For example, what would you do if a family member whom you loved deeply was driving their car toward a guaranteed catastrophe? Initially you would probably let that person know with passion of the pending threat: "The bridge is out. Turn around. If you don't, you could die." Speak the truth.  But what happens if that same family member knows of the pending threat and yet knowingly continues down that same path? What approach would you take? Would you begin to scream insults or implement guilt or shame to try and invoke them to stop? Or would you attempt to communicate with that person how much you love them, how much they would be missed, and how much they are valued?  Which approach is the appropriate one? I'm not sure.

At some point, the person who knows of the pending danger and yet continues down the same path simply ignores or stops hearing the truth-bearer. The truth can become irrelevant simply because of the tone. While the truth is always true, one's approach might dictate whether that truth falls on deaf ears. On the other hand, the one who focuses on loving the person may fail to communicate the urgency of the danger.

I believe it requires a lot of wisdom to know how to strike the balance between these two worlds. I know in my own experience that I was more prone to listen to those who spoke into my life in a way that demonstrated the love of Jesus. I knew the truth. I knew the bridge was out. I had plenty of people reminding me of the truth. And as a result, the warnings soon became somewhat superfluous - not because the warnings were untrue but because I already knew the truth. On the other hand, God placed a group of people in my life who were able to say, "Devin I totally disagree with your decision making right now but I love you and I will walk with you through this process. My love does not hinge on your decisions."

While both approaches are valid in different scenarios, it was the latter approach that God was able to use most effectively in my life.

I have three children with three different personalities. If I try and take the same approach to discipline and instruction with each of them, I will do a disservice to at least one of them. A more direct, firm approach is needed in some circumstances. And a more loving, compassionate tone is needed in other situations. Both are valid and both are necessary based on the child and the situation.

The same is true as we seek to navigate the difficult waters of speaking the truth in love to those who have fallen by the wayside or are living a life headed toward destruction.

Not too long ago, one of my closest mentors when I was in ministry e-mailed me to let me know that God has spoken to him in his quiet time about me. He and I had a few exchanges following my fall and he had spoken the truth candidly and repeatedly. Everything he said was 100% true and I knew it. Yet his words were unable to penetrate my calloused heart because I had already heard what he was saying so many times. As a matter of fact, I had preached the exact same thing multiple times and said the exact same things to dozens of people who came to me while living in some type of sin. His rebuke became redundant.

And yet this time, what he said penetrated my heart in a different way. In his e-mail, this mentor referenced Paul's instructions in Galatians 6:1 where the spiritually mature are called upon to deal with those caught in sin with a spirit of gentleness and to take their fall as a reminder to guard our own hearts because each of us are vulnerable. His words demonstrated a compassion, sincerity, and honesty that I had not felt from him before that moment.  Did he change his mind on what he believed I should do? Absolutely not. Did he compromise his beliefs? In no way. But his approach and tone spoke the truth louder to me than anything he had said before.

Jesus Christ is THE truth. Every time He spoke He was speaking the truth. And yet His greatest act was not telling people how depraved, condemned, and ignorant they are. His greatest act was when He lovingly laid down His life for the depraved, condemned, and ignorant. God so loved the world that He gave. No one could ever accuse Jesus of failing to speak the truth and yet it is His demonstration of unconditional love that bridges the gap between a perfect God and imperfect humans.

Speak the truth in love.  I'm not sure I have the answer on how both of these two directives work together most effectively. Well-meaning Jesus followers will often fall short on both sides of the adage. And yet understanding how and when to implement this principle might be the key to helping that disobedient child, fallen Christian, or confused sinner find redemption, healing, and restoration.

As Jesus phrased it to his disciples, we must learn to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" (Matt 10:16) - a tough but necessary balance to find.

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