speaking the truth in love

mean girls

My second year at a summer academy, I experienced what I learned is known as “drama” for the first time. As a sheltered homeschooler with only one friend at home, I wasn’t familiar with the social politics that are involved in being friends with teenagers. It’s one of the many reasons I was grateful for being at the summer academy for a full month– it gave me the opportunity to learn what it was like to meet and interact with people my age. It also helped that most of us were just as sheltered as I was.

During the first year I attended the academy, I’d made a friend who returned for the second year. However, the second year, we ran into problems. There was a particular boy she wanted to spend every single waking moment with, and I . . . well, I didn’t. I also felt that spending every single waking moment with one boy was not “guarding your heart,” and I was concerned for her “emotional purity.” So, instead of just quietly choosing to hang out with the other friends I was making, I felt it was important to be honest, to speak the truth in love about her behavior.

So, one day, I pulled her aside– into the bathroom, I think– and did my best to tell her what I was thinking with all the kindness and gentleness I could muster. I told her that it was totally fine if Mike* was who she wanted to spend time with, but I didn’t feel comfortable spending that amount of time with just one boy, so I was going to start hanging out with other people. Girls, preferably.

She accused me of judging her, that I was being patronizing.

The accusation stung, but I bore it well. Of course she would react this way– she was feeling convicted, and so she was lashing out at me because of it. I just smiled at her, kept my voice low and smooth and calm, and told her that of course I hadn’t meant to hurt her, I was just trying to do what I thought was best for us, for our hearts. I admonished her in love that we were too young, at fifteen, to be thinking about boys, and other girls should be our primary companionship.


Looking back at that incident now, all I can feel is shame. Because she was absolutely right. I was judging her. I was patronizing her. And I was doing it all under the biblical mandate to tell her the truth, but to do it lovingly. My mother, when she taught me to do this, emphasized that grace, compassion, and loving-kindness were absolutely necessary, and that we should take our responsibility to this incredibly seriously.

But, in the fundamentalist environment I was raised in taught me to do this, everything that went into this idea wasn’t really love, or compassion, or grace, or mercy. In my church, and at my college later, it was about control. It was about how you could prove you were so much more righteous than anybody else. Keeping your cool, not allowing yourself to get angry when someone called you on your judgement and self-righteousness, was praised. Being told that our words were not loving only reinforced our opinion.

And, it became an excuse.

It ceased to matter how the words were said. Saying the words, speaking truth, were the only things that mattered. Because, after all, Jesus was harsh with the people who needed to be dealt with harshly. He overturned tables. He called people vipers and said their mouths were graves filled with rotting corpses. How could we justify staying silent when the world was going to hell? How could we not say anything to that woman walking into an abortion clinic, who was about to murder her baby? How could we let a “gay” friend continue to chose their sinful lifestyle? How could we allow someone to believe in evolution, when that would only lead them to atheism? How could we not confront a girl who was going to lead a young man into sinful lust with her clothing?

In the end, the only thing we cared about was making sure every single last person we talked to knew about the their sin. That was love. We used the truth as a weapon, to cut someone into ribbons just so they could understand our point. We used it as a justification to wave signs in the middle of the street outside of a bar to tell those drunkards that they were surely heading for hell. We marched around the county, demanding to invade people’s homes and believing we had the right to pose intimate, demeaning questions to strangers.

It’s all based on five words pulled out of the middle of Ephesians. Paul had spent the first fourteen verses of this chapter dedicated to the unity of the body. He opened his chapter with a call to “humility, and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” He says there’s one body, one spirit, one hope, one faith, and that grace was given to each of us. He concludes this portion with the encouragement that when we do all of this properly, it “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Context. It helps.

There is absolutely nothing in this passage that endorses violence in our words, in our actions. There’s nothing there that allows the body of Christ to wound one another, to cut each other to pieces for the sake of being right.

But now, I’m faced with a question. Because I believe in the unity of the body, and I believe in bringing unity into our faith functionally as well as ontologically is incredibly important. But, this passage is also about dealing with disagreements. Paul is asking us to “equip the saints,” and he says that it’s possible for us to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” that maturity is important, that we shouldn’t be deceived by “craftiness” and “schemes.”

So how do I go about speaking the truth in love when I disagree with someone– and disagree with someone violently? What if I know, with all of my being, that what a Christian is doing is horribly wrong and doing untold damage to the Church?

At some points, this is straightforward. I had to face a personal decision a few weeks ago that involved this kind of process. How did I help protect a body of believers against someone who was hurting them– but this person was also a Christian, and was also hurting? I asked for counsel, and people much wiser than me helped me through it, and what we did was the best, most loving thing, for everyone involved. There were hurt feelings, and upset-ness, but it’s all turned out for the best in the long run.

But what do I do with my anger at abuse, at injustice, at violence being done to our souls? What if someone who claims to be a Christian is unabashedly supporting torture and racism? What if someone says something blind and idiotic, but then vehemently defends his right to perpetuate and support a culture of violence and privilege?

I don’t think anger is opposed to love, but the kind of love that Paul is talking about here isn’t just a feeling. It’s cultivated by a frame of mind that we encourage by humbleness, and gentleness, and patience.

I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I’m working on it.

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  • You capture perfectly how well-intentioned fundamentalists can be while judging people furiously – and how quickly that can turn into just mean-spiritedness.

    When people told me I was judgemental, I had no idea what they meant. Couldn’t they tell I was just speaking the truth in love?

  • Wonderful presentation. Manners definitely matter. You’re a beautiful example of someone devoted to God, doing everything she can to understand the core of God’s teachings and signs. Thanks for sharing <3

  • Oh god, so much this. All of it. just…this. Thank you.

  • Pingback: speaking the truth in love | flamesword ~ watching in the shadows()

  • Speaking the truth in love is such a hard concept to grasp–probably because real love involves compassion, grace, and humility. We often skip over those qualities and think that as long as we speak the truth, we are loving our neighbor.
    I think about it this way: If I KNOW someone loves me, it means they have been with me through things, they’ve listened to me, they’ve cried with me, they’ve heard my story, etc. They’ve wrestled through things with me. And so when they open their mouth to voice a concern about my actions, I am confident they REALLY care enough to say something and they are doing it out love.
    If someone I don’t know very well just randomly confronts me about something with little context and tells me they’re doing it out of love, I will hesitate. Or even if it’s someone I know well, but who hasn’t truly shown through their actions that they care about me–if they say something, I will feel more judged than anything else.
    (That being said, if someone is truly sinning and someone lovingly confronts them, of course they’ll feel judged if they aren’t willing to listen. They’ll get angry and accuse you of all sorts of things simply because they don’t want to get convicted).
    It’s all about relationships. It’s all about the heart behind the truth. That’s why community and discipleship and all that stuff Jesus preached is SO important. He didn’t just go up to sinners and say, “You’re sinning, straighten up, stop everything you’re doing because you’re so wrong and I’m concerned for you. Oh, and I love you.” He hung out with them, He went to dinner with them, He loved them, He was condemned by self righteous Pharisees for hanging out with them…and when the time was right, I’m sure He said things about their actions. But they knew He loved them.
    Anyway…that’s the end of my rant. πŸ™‚

    • Very good comment on a very good article πŸ™‚ You are so right with “But they knew He loved them.” I think, “love comes first”. For sure, you can always speak up and “tell the truth”, but if you really care for someone and expect them to change, you have to love them and let them feel the love and caring. This is the first step and it will change both of you. And it will also change the way you “tell the truth”. πŸ™‚

  • The core of it, actually, is Truth.

    Not to the other person; they could be having trouble with an addiction, for instance, that is definitely hurting them, or it could be a ridiculous “sin” that only exists in the eye of the beholder.

    If, before we speak up, we turn our Truth Lens on ourselves, and look at our own motivations, we will know if we are genuinely concerned and caring. Or simply trying to score “points” because of our own inadequacies.

  • Sandra

    Your words go straight to my heart – having both ‘spoken truth in love’ and had truth spoken at me in love … and both done for various & sundry motives … none of them really about doing God’s will or love.

    Thank you – your blog is … water to a very thirtsy woman !

  • Anna

    I know this is a very late comment, but I just wanted to share – I had a professor once (at a conservative evangelical college!) who was talking about the notion of “speaking the truth in love,” and how often that idea is abused – he referred to it as “Bible chainsaw murders.” I thought it was appropriate and very true. πŸ˜€