Speaking the Truth in Love

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I like the concept of speaking the truth in love — theoretically. I like the idea that love requires hard things — theoretically. I like the idea that the truth is part of love — theoretically.

We are not always right, and sometimes we need to be corrected. That’s a fact.

Also a fact: 99-100% of the time when somebody “speaks the truth in love,” it comes across as incredibly untruthful, unloving, and even hateful.

Continuing with facts: I will not listen to anything someone says that begins with, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but…”

It’s an involuntary thing. My hackles rise, my defenses go up, and I prepare myself for hearing something irrelevant and potentially offensive. Because it’s always irrelevant and/or offensive.

And if somebody spouts harsh, hateful things and then concludes with, “Bailey, I’m saying all these things out of love. I care about you” — that will not, that absolutely will not ever feel like love to me.

And it will also never change my mind.

Isn’t it the same for you?

But we’ve all done it, haven’t we? We’ve all said something, or wanted to say something, that we thought somebody else needed to hear, and we wanted to say it because we care about them. Like I said, that’s an actual phenomenon we all face.

I’ve spent lots of time thinking about how it’s possible to to “speak the truth in love,” without actually doing more harm than good.

I think we oftentimes place too much emphasis on the importance of conveying truth when we “speak the truth in love.” “In love” just softens the blow. It’s about tone or attitude. It’s a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

But what if we flipped it, where we focused on the “in love” part? And what if we understood “in love” not as a tone or an attitude that the critic assumes, but a relational context — a relational context that isn’t established by firstly or primarily “speaking the truth”?

We might assume that speaking the truth is the most loving thing, full stop. The truth will set them free and all that. There are people out there walking around who claim to be loving or tolerant, but the only thing they do is force their opinion on others.

I don’t think speaking the truth is always the most loving thing to do. Truth — hard truth, confrontational truth, you-need-to-think-about-this truth — needs to be given and received within a trusting, understanding relationship.

We all know how annoying it is when a random person comes into our life or onto our blogs or social media platforms and graces us with their (ahem) pearls of wisdom. Like I said, whenever somebody feels compelled to “speak truth” to us, it’s ten to one completely unhelpful and out of touch.

I can say that, because every time was that person “loving” someone else by letting them know the truth, I later found out that was off base and offensive — and I alienated them from me.

This is not the way of love. Or truth. Truth-speaking must done within a relationship. Truth-speaking must be done when you have the permission and the trust of the person to whom you’re speaking truth. Because…..

…..there is more than one way to present the truth. There are times when certain aspects need to be emphasized, and emphasized in a certain way. It all depends on where a person is at. That’s why it’s absolutely, non-negotiably imperative to know where a person is at before just spouting your opinion.

See first point re: having a relationship.

Knowing where someone is at requires understanding them — not being related to them, or being their friend, or reading all their Facebook posts that pop up in your feed. It requires actually knowing their side of the story, knowing their views, knowing where they are and where they want to go and how they do or don’t want to get there.

My friend once told me that she never gives advice that people don’t already believe themselves.

You are going to get nowhere by speaking a truth that a person doesn’t already believe. You are going to lose their trust. You are going to lose your credibility as a person capable of understanding and empathizing.

Don’t do it. Don’t be that person.

You have to give advice and encouragement that takes into account others’ assumptions, beliefs, and goals.

This doesn’t mean you don’t ever say something “they don’t want to hear.” This doesn’t mean you sit around smiling and nodding and approving everything they do. How many times have we believed something but not wanted to follow through?

Living out our beliefs often requires a cheerleader and a kick in the butt.

And that’s how I now see speaking the truth in love — not imposing my beliefs on others in a “loving way,” but loving other people, understanding them, helping them live out their convictions, and being honest with them when they stray away from what they believe.

**Caveat** I am not saying you should never share your beliefs with someone who doesn’t believe in them or express concern over what they believe — as long as you do it in a way that promotes dialogue and understanding.

A healthy, understanding relationship requires honesty and authenticity: “I hear you. I don’t believe that myself, but I hear you. I see it like this….” That is not confrontational. It allows you to share your piece without triggering their defensive mechanisms. It allows you to express concern without offense. It allows you to understand them better and ascertain how to best help.

To be honest, it is a far more winsome defense of your beliefs when you unconditionally love someone and help them where they’re at while still being frank about your own beliefs.

That’ll get me to listen up, every time.

It might even change my mind.

That’s the power of speaking the truth in love.

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34 thoughts on “Speaking the Truth in Love

  1. seekeroftruthweb

    I’ve thought about this as well, and noticed that often times when people label something “The Truth”(TM) they often mean that they’re adamant about their position. A number of years ago I saw a report on Deutsche Welle how Salafi Muslims(a more Fundamentalist sect) were going around trying to convert people, saying that Jews and Christians that don’t become Muslims will burn in hell. The one guy, when asked by the reporter, said, “It’s the truth”, which is *exactly* what their Christian counterparts say! So I wonder if part of “speaking the truth in love” is approaching the situation with the knowledge that we could be wrong.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, man. That’s always awkward, when other religions say the same damning things your religion does. And I wholeheartedly agree that speaking the truth in love and in wisdom and in basic human decency requires the possibility that you are wrong — wrong about what the person needs to hear, wrong about your assumptions, wrong about your beliefs. Not to say you can’t be passionate — but you can’t be pigheaded. No amount of saying, “But I love you, that’s why!” will make damnation any more convincing or palatable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rebekah

    I freelance for a press that specializes in Jewish and Slavic studies, and I’m currently transcribing the memoirs of a Jewish man who grew up and graduated from high school in 1931 in Germany, immigrated to the United States shortly thereafter, and returned to Germany in the fall of 1945 to work for the US military government as an officer in the US army.

    He decides to track down as many of his former teachers and classmates as he can to see how they responded to the Nazis. Many Americans, he notes, seem to think either that all Germany is evil or that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were simply hoodwinked. In other words, they have a black or white view. But, as you mentioned in a previous post, most people — even people who stood by and did nothing when the Nazis took over — are a mixture of good and bad.

    He is willing to engage these people in honest conversation, listening to their perspectives but speaking the truth. Deeply opposed to Nazism but sympathetic to the humanity of all people, he adapts his message of the importance of reversing Germany’s moral decay to each person. He learns about a wide range of responses to the Nazi regime. There is the teacher who stayed within the Nazi school system because he thought he could rescue a few minds from their influence but never put his life of the line. There is the classmate who just goes along with whoever is in power and is now desperately trying to endear himself to the Americans. There is the school administrator who retreated to a remote village and simply waited the war out. There is the classmate who said that he had to protect his wife and young kids, and claims that he really knew nothing about any atrocities. He calls out the BS and asks probing questions, but he also knows when to stop and who isn’t worth talking to. (He refuses to engage in conversation with one of his classmates’ fathers who isn’t willing to partake in that honest listening and just wants to complain about the Allies.) He is open to critiques of the Allies and is very thoughtful about how to apply moral responsibility, while also trying to meet their physical needs in the small ways that he can (like giving coffee) and showing compassion toward their suffering.

    THAT is what speaking the truth in love looks like. And he doesn’t pat himself on the back for doing so.

    I had just been reflecting on the significance of this man’s actions when I read your post, and his story seems to be a real-life example of some of what you are talking about.

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  3. Jasmine Ruigrok

    This… Post. Spot on, Bailey. This is something I’ve been learning for a long time. Also along the lines of minding my own business, it’s important to recognise when you’re truly sharing the truth out of love for the other person, and not the satisfaction of your own ego.

    Truth — hard truth, confrontational truth, you-need-to-think-about-this truth — needs to be given and received within a trusting, understanding relationship.

    YES. My Bible college taught this. The “in love” means trusting relationship, where you are actually free to share truth that is willing to be received because the individual trusts you really DO love them. Yeah. Parroting you here, but you nailed it, Bailey. Thankyou for putting it so succinctly.

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  4. Mrs. Q

    I think we all attempt to “correct” others, whether in subtle or overt ways. One could say this post is an attempt to correct. It’s hard to do much of anything the “right way” because right or nice or whatever- can be a moment to moment thing. Love means remembering to forgive when we over or under correct ourselves & each other. Love means looking at our own hypocrisy & idolatry of the process. This is a struggle for us all for sure.

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  6. korie

    I wholeheartedly agree that the emphasis should be on love and not on speaking the truth. I think part of loving someone means not trying to control them at all, letting them have freedom to make their own choices, and being willing to maintain connection. And most of the time, when Christians think they are “speaking the truth in love” they are really just speaking fear. As long as a person is experiencing fear- fear of sin, fear of being wrong- he will not be able to speak in love.

    I used to think that I had to correct people by figuring out why what they were doing is wrong and then comvincing them its wrong. Now, I tend to look at the fruit that their actions are producing. When my christian friend is dating an atheist, I’ve said, “You can date him if you want to, but know that it will probably just end up with you getting hurt or hurting him. You already seem very anxious about everything regarding your relationship, and anxiety isnt a sign of a healthy relationship.” The “truth” is that she is anxious, and the result of this relationsjip will be hurt. Sure, I could try to convince her that she is “unequally yoked”, but then I would just be arguing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      YES YES YES! So many people are controlled by fear, and that’s the only thing they have to share. There are real reasons (I believe) why morality or wisdom as it is — and it’s not because “if you get it wrong, you’ll go to hell” or “if you get it wrong, you’ll be punished.” Like your example — you focused on the real reason behind “unequally yoked” — it causes unnecessary hardship in the relationship. If it were the case that a Christian and an atheist were to have a happy relationship, then there’s no need to throw the “unequally yoked” charge at them, because there is no issue. Their relationship avoids the pitfall that makes “unequally yoked” a thing. None of that probably makes any sense because my kids have been driving me nuts today. Haha

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  8. Allison Caylor

    The admonition that “in love” means “in the context of a loving, understanding relationship” is pretty awesome. Kinda makes me want to yell “YES!” at my computer screen. That being said, real truth and real love are never at odds. I completely agree that a lot of times, when someone you (actually, in-real-life) love is ensnared in something really wrong, the most loving thing is silence. Just present, loving, humble silence. But if they’re open to your thoughts, or just pressing you for approval of what they’re doing/thinking, surely it can’t be loving to respond with “I might be wrong, but here’s what I think” … not if it’s something that IS a matter of truth, not opinion. Like whether they should date an unbeliever. Like whether being gay is compatible with obedience to Christ. Like how they can be at peace with God.

    I realize that’s something you’re not convinced of, that a person can be certain in the truth of what they believe and can press that certainty on others. But I am convinced of it. So how can I see my dear one, whoever it is, on that broad path that leads to destruction, and not plead for them to come to the narrow way that is life? Even if that’s not their goal. Even if the peace, freedom, fulfillment, and joy they are seeking seem to be in the opposite direction.

    Do you get me? Maybe you did mean this, and I’m missing it. It’s just that “in love” can’t override “speak the truth,” any more than “speak the truth” can trample on “in love.”

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    • Bailey Steger

      I do understand what you’re saying, but I do disagree — not really for epistemological reasons about whether you can be certain about something, but for purely pragmatic reasons. If I’m very convinced of something (which I am about many things), I would hardly ever push my beliefs on somebody else. I would share my concerns and thoughts and invite hearing theirs, I would keep a dialogue open, but if someone makes it clear to me that my thoughts are not welcome or that we disagree, I am only going to hinder the truth in the long run by pleading with them. I’ve done that before. It NEVER works.

      All the things you mentioned — dating an unbeliever, gay Christians, and peace with God — are very touchy subjects. Anybody who dates an unbeliever or is a gay Christian or does not believe in Christianity or a certain kind of Christianity has often thought long and hard about their beliefs. Pleading with them to change their mind is not conveying truth to them; it’s closing their ears even further to the truth as you see it.

      But see, this is tricky, because I do not think it’s morally wrong to date an unbeliever or be a gay Christian, etc., so to me, those things are not urgent, black and white, life or death truths. If the action is or will cause harm to themselves or others (murder, suicide, abuse, and the like), then I would take a hard stance. If you believe that not being a Christian or being gay or dating an unbeliever is a life or death situation, I can see why you would take a hard, uncompromising, pleading stance. I still don’t think it’s helpful, but I can see why you feel you would.

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  9. Allison Caylor

    Hey, thanks for the long response. :)

    Firstly – Much like you, I wouldn’t presume to force my advice on someone who was not open to it. Let me re-emphasize that the firmness, the pleading I talked about are, it seems to me, only appropriate to a loved one, who is interested in your input. Despite all we do disagree on, it seems we can both say amen to that. (I suppose this communication is a little difficult since we’re not talking about a specific scenario.)

    Secondly – You’re right, I do see those very touchy subjects as matters of serious harm, and as far as peace with God, a matter of life and death. So for me it would be the most horrible kind of un-love to be silent or soft on that point with someone who was seeking, who had one ear open to whatever truth I had to offer (just as you would feel talking to a someone contemplating suicide).

    And lastly – I hope that when I said you’re not convinced people can be certain about things, it didn’t come across as snarky. I was trying to summarize in all grace my impression of what you’ve written before on Ezer, so bear with me if the tone felt unkind — that wasn’t my intent at all, but I notice now how it may have seemed.

    Hope this was coherent. I don’t write well at 11:00 PM, but it’s when I had time…

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    • Bailey Steger

      Thank you for the follow-up response! Now that I understand the context, I do agree — if someone gave me free reign to give my honest opinion, I would definitely speak more forcefully, passionately, and pleadingly my full opinion too. Apologies for misunderstanding!

      And oh, my goodness, I did not take your comment about certainty to be snarky at all. It’s a valid point of disagreement, and I have no problem with you acknowledging that or referencing how the certainty of your beliefs thus changes how you would speak the truth in love in some situations.

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    • David

      Hi, Allison!

      I think even in the context of a loving relationship, even if you’re PRETTY sure the other person wants your opinion or affirmation, you have to proceed with great caution. Because even if that door really is open, “speaking the truth in love” tends to slam it shut.

      And that’s not because sinners hate truth; it’s because “speaking the truth in love” — with the purest of motives — can so easily lead to something like this: http://epstein.wustl.edu/research/blackmunMemos/1993/Denied-pdf/93-785.pdf (“Petitioner tells children that Lutherans like their mother will go to hell; he has them pray at mealtimes that their mother will become a Christian.”)

      Now, I don’t think that’s your style! ’cause you’re not, y’know, a jerk. :) But the thing is, this guy ticks all the boxes for when it’s appropriate to speak the truth in love. He has an established, loving relationship with his children. He wants to save them if he possibly can, which means he can’t let his ex-wife fill their heads with false religion. He feels so strongly about this that he’s willing to defy a court order to do it. He’s being, as far as he’s able, obedient to the word of God.

      And yet… the behavior is still toxic, right? Clearly, clearly toxic. And I don’t think that’s because he’s doing it wrong. I think it’s because “speaking the truth in love,” in practice, ***weaponizes the very idea of love,*** in a way that I struggle to articulate but I hope you can at least see the /shape/ of it.

      So I think it’s much too glib to just say that “real truth and real love are never at odds.” The dad in that case would’ve said much the same, and look at the outcome. I don’t recognize his behavior as loving at all. Do you, though?

      (Uh, to be clear, “Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer. And so is “it’s tricky.” Really! It’s worth listenin’ to you even if you don’t agree. :) )

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      • Bailey Steger

        Allison, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too!

        David, I wonder if this is a case of speaking falsehood in love. To me, it’s not the *way* he’s “speaking the truth in love” that bothers me; it’s that his “truth” believes Lutherans are going to hell and children need to know that and fear for their mother’s soul. That’s not palatable to me in any way, shape, or form. But I wouldn’t have a problem with the mother telling her children that daddy’s wrong to think they’re all going to hell and encouraging them to pray that he changes his mind. That belief, to me, does not seem like a toxic “truth.”

        I rather agree with the notion that “real truth and real love are never at odds,” but my take on it is this: if the “truth” is unloving or toxic, it’s not true. I think many people would interpret it as “this belief cannot be offensive and toxic because it is meant in love.”

        Thoughts on this?

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      • Allison Caylor

        David,

        I see what you’re saying, and you made me think. This guy may be persuaded that what he’s saying is true, and that he’s doing it from pure motives. But if he thinks so, he’s deceived himself — he’s not speaking truth or doing it in love. You can’t automatically judge someone’s faith in Jesus just because they belong to a particular Christian sect. It’s also terribly unloving to paint such a picture of a child’s parent. Like Bailey said, you can gently point out that there are things he or she says that are wrong; that can be speaking the truth in love. But saying “your mom is going to hell”? That’s not loving; it’s unnecessary and even cruel. What I’m trying to say is that someone abusing a principle doesn’t make it false. Truth can’t be determined based on whether or not people can misapply or twist it; otherwise there would be no truth.

        The very best way to understand the phrase “speaking the truth in love,” it seems to me, is to go and read the context, Ephesians 4. Just a few verses before, we have: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Then it talks about how Christ gave us teachers to build up his Body, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

        The goal is unity *and* knowledge — love *and* truth. Those together bring the church to maturity, to the fullness of Christ, and we can’t abandon either one of them at the cost of the other. So, yes, I do think that real truth and real love are never at odds. If they seem to be, look closer.

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      • David

        Ooh. That’s some GOOD, meaty context, Allison — and I wasn’t aware of it. So thank you! (No really, thank you. That passage gives me a lot to chew on, and at some point you’ll have to teach me how Christian hermeneutics work so I can chew on it /properly/. :) )

        Also, I think you’re right that Dad is, in this example, probably fooling himself. And it’s likely that Bailey, too, is on target when she explains /how/ Dad is fooling himself: “many people would interpret it as ‘this belief cannot be offensive and toxic because it is meant in love.'” In conclusion, both of you are wise!

        I would, though, take what you say (“truth can’t be determined based on whether or not people can misapply or twist it”) and flip it around: it’s precisely *because* people will inevitably misapply and twist the truth — often without even knowing they’re doing it! — that we can’t know the truth.

        I mean, the truth is out there. And sometimes we can *approach* the truth with a high degree of certainty — for a lot of simple questions, we can be as close to 100% sure as makes no odds. But as we get into more complex and personal issues, the incentive to distort our answers goes up and the reliability of our answers goes down.

        That’s why I’m on Team Bailey re: truth. Uh… not that you asked! But I guess now you know, so… … … yay?

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      • Allison Caylor

        David, your comments always make me smile. I was amazed too when I looked up that phrase — it was so awesome the way it explicitly prefaced “speak the truth” with “be completely humble and gentle,” placing so much emphasis on unity and peace. As for me teaching hermeneutics, well, that made me smile and laugh too. The best I can do if you are interested in an exegesis of Ephesians 4 is to recommend this sermon series on Ephesians: http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?sortby=added&sourceonly=true&currSection=sermonssource&keyword=grbcbonham&subsetcat=series&subsetitem=Ephesians

        I’m glad you went into your beliefs about truth! Definitely helps to know where you are coming from, and I love hearing and talking about it. :) I do fervently believe in knowable truth. Not that I’m smarter than people who disagree with me, so my opinion is truth (haha – nope), but there are reasonable and unreasonable premises, logical and illogical paths of reasoning to reach other premises. So if you have a reasonable premise (such as the fact that you exist), you can reason to a conclusion you then know to be true (such as the fact that God exists). There are rules of reasoning just like there are rules of math.

        At some point, of course, as Christians, we let that mental reasoning take second place to whole-soul faith in and love for God himself, but that’s not because believing in him is illogical, simply because logic isn’t the point — God is.

        In sum, one can know something to be true by knowing if it is sound reasoning from a factual premise. Yes, people will *always* take something true and run in a terrible direction with it. They’ll also do good and feel peaceful in the name of things that are false. If you’re basing your knowledge on people’s feelings and experiences alone, then no, you can’t know truth with certainty. But you can have “God speaks through the Bible” as a sound premise based on other truths, and reason soundly from there to be certain of other principles. People can go wrong in understanding the truth *and* in living it out, but that doesn’t determine what the truth is. (And understand, this doesn’t come from personality — I am an empath/artist to the core.)

        That’s where I’m coming from… obviously, *extreme* care must be taken when trying to speak truth to others. I think it’s always, always more loving to be silent than to criticize others’ lives and beliefs uninvited or in judgment. But in that rare moment when speaking out and love come together, I will.

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  10. Aayra

    Well….I loved your post…Whatever you said was absolutely right and you have written it in a beautiful way….Thanx…I have the same thoughts as you do in this post and reading this post really made me think for a moment….It was just beautiful…

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  11. Aayra

    Even though we fear of telling the truth….but once we say it…a different relief gets into us and nothing can be compared to that…We feel FREE!!!…..Trust and Truth are the two most basic T’s which hold any relationship together…without them….relationship does not exist…it becomes useless….and then your heart breaks…be it any relationship…Love…Friendship…Siblings…Parents…anything…

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, wow. I never thought of that, but it sounds accurate. Honestly, Jesus directed his criticism solely towards the religious leaders. Judgment was for them and the heartless, not the adulteress caught in sin or the Samaritan or the Gentiles. This article you shared adds another layer to that realization.

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      • Bailey Steger

        But David!! Aren’t Chorazin and Bethsaida Jewish, and he contrasts their hard hearts with Tyre and Sidon, which are Gentile? Once again, it’s the religious people who have it all together who get slammed. ;)

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      • David

        Ooh, I /like/ that comeback. You’re a sharp ‘un, and no mistake.

        Oh God, don’t read that as sarcastic or patronizing. I’m *pro*-Bailey! Pro-! :)

        Honest question, and you should always assume I am asking from a position of near-total ignorance because my knowledge of the New Testament extends all the way out to… about halfway through Matthew 23. (I’m working on it! Slowly! And taking notes! Speaking of which, IIRC somewhere /around/ the “woe to” section my notes say, “I sense frustration re: a lack of learned converts,” which would tend to support your position.)

        Uh, right, I had a question somewhere in there. What was — Oh! Isn’t this, like, a key verse in the exclusivist-vs-universalist argument? It seems like exclusivists would say, “Hah, see? These towns that didn’t believe — they’re in trouble nowwwww.” and the plain text appears to back them up. So was this one of the verses you wrestled with during your faith transition? (And feel free to be like “eh, don’t wanna revisit *that.* No comment.”)

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      • Bailey Steger

        Honestly, I never studied the exclusivist position, per se, because I always believed it was the obvious truth. So I’m not familiar with that position’s prooftexts. But yeah, it would support the idea of judgment on unbelievers.

        I didn’t wrestle with that particular verse, but I wrestled with that concept. It’s interesting, because in this passage, Jesus is criticizing the religious, the people of God, for rejecting him after seeing such miracles. He implies that were unbelieving nations to see his miracles, they would believe — as if the unbelievers had more of a heart for the things of God than the believers. That’s a very interesting, and sometimes true, critique of people, I’ve noticed. As to whether or not that implicates people in the present day, I would say no. A secondhand account of Jesus’ miracles are not the same thing nor half as powerful as actually viewing Jesus performing miracles. I don’t think people today are implicated, at least not in the way the Jews living during Jesus’ time were.

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