The Christian way of being mean is telling those we’ve offended that we’re “speaking the truth in love”.
Misappropriating this little gem from Ephesians 4 is popular because it allows us to be rude, condescending, and hurtful to non-Christians while simultaneously allowing us to hold on to our own privilege and self-righteousness.
There’s been a lot of talk in the last week about “speaking the truth in love.”
When we say this, what we actually mean is, “I have a belief/ commitment to X as a truth and you don’t. Therefore, I can treat you badly, assign you evil motives, and cast aspersions on your character because I ”love” you so much that I want you to come to my belief. In essence, my belief in X being true allows me to be a unkind to you until you believe X too. Because, obviously, if you don’t share my truth claim regarding X, you must be either stupid or evil.“
We’ve all done it. We’ve all blurted out harmful and harsh words that have cut someone or some group apart through rhetoric. In response we defend our failed speech by baptizing those words in the polluted waters of misrepresenting Paul’s intent regarding “speaking the truth in love.”
I do not doubt that for some of us, our version of the truth – which always happens to be God’s version of the truth – is motivated by what we consider love. But evermore frequently, it is merely a grasping attempt to force the world to bow to our preferences and interpretation of thought and behavior, regardless of whether or not the other person’s thoughts and behaviors affect us at all.
It’s not about love, it’s about power!
Whether it has to do with someone who has a different lifestyle than we do, holds political views that counter ours; it may be someone we believe to be living sinful lives, or even differs from us on matters of theology; when we want to be mean, we can. Yet, all we have to do is rub on the self-soothing salve of “truth in love” to ease what should be a guilty conscience.
Whenever we defend our actions by pulling the truth in love card, my question is this: How come the other person doesn’t feel loved? Certainly, when some hear hard truths, they won’t immediately warm to them. I’ll give you that.
But if our motivations are truly loving, shouldn’t it seem like love? Shouldn’t an impartial observer be able to look at our actions, hear our words, and easily discern that what we’ve done is loving?
The difficulty with the way we currently use “speaking the truth in love” is three-fold:
- We judge our actions based on our feelings rather than the demonstrated effect. Our actions feel loving to us. Unfortunately, by the standard of 1 Corinthians 11, our motivations, since love is not selfish, don’t matter. Neither, by the way, do the feelings of others. The great point of 1 Corinthians 11 is that love is not about feelings. It is about actions.
- Our speaking has little to do with speaking. Speaking the truth in love now looks like voting, blogging, tweeting, protesting, buying, signing petitions, and yelling the truth on talk-radio and cable news. Speaking means having a conversation.
- Often our truths are rooted in other commitments beside the gospel. Whether we’re defending laws we like, the traditional this, a progressive view of that, whatever it is, rarely, as the Apostle Paul was pointing us to, are we talking about Christian maturity.
We can do better. Followers of Christ can be better truth-speakers by embracing a few important shifts about the nature of speaking the truth.
What if we spoke the truth in love…
- ….as if we were speaking to someone we actually loved. In high school, my mother had a frank conversation with me. I didn’t like it, but any non-partisan by-stander would have recognized she was speaking with love. Why? Because it pained her to say it. If your truth-telling is closer to telling someone off, you’re not doing it in love. When you feel like speaking the truth in love, process it through the language, tone, time, location, and attitude you would use when speaking to your spouse, son, or daughter.
- …in the context of relationship. One of my youth ministry professors taught me, “Rules without relationship equal rebellion.” Relationships are the backbone of truth-telling. If people don’t know you, don’t know your heart and motivations, your proclamations won’t mean anything. If you’re holding picket signs, leaving a harsh comment on a blog, writing rebuttals, or shouting down people who aren’t in the building from the pulpit, you’re not speaking the truth in love. No one I know likes the protests of Westboro Baptist Church. Without relationship, the people you’re “speaking” to think about you the way you think about Westboro. If you have a “pet-issue” that you want to engage in, first engage a person who holds a contrary opinion. When you come to love them, then you’ll be in a position to speak.
- …reminding ourselves that the context of Ephesians 4 is what Christian do for one another and not to non-Christians. If you’ve been telling yourself that you’re simply telling non-Christians the truth in love, take a step back. The witness of the New Testament for non-believers is that Jesus is Lord. Non-Christians were never expected to surrender to Christian moral standards. In Ephesians 4, Paul is speaking of Christian’s commitments to one another. If there were ever a place for the truth to be spoken in love it’s an evangelical church Bible class, where people say things that are often heretical and don’t make sense, but it’s also the last place it will ever happen.