We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.
We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.
We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.
How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.
What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?
I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.
I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.
I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.
This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.
Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.
The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.
If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.
The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.
It’s exactly like childhood development.
When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.
But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.
Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.
That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.
Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)
We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.
I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.
No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.
Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.
How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?
Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.
My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.
We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.
Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?
We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.
That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives.
If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.
Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
After all, most of us are still learning to walk.