Speaking Truth in Love

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Lately our young adult group at church has been doing an in-depth study of the book of Ephesians, and I’ve been struck by a particular passage:

But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part. – Ephesians 4:15-16, HCSB

Throughout this book Paul has explained how God has richly blessed his people; how He has brought them back to life spiritually the same way He brought Jesus back to life physically. Even more than this, God had begun to heal the great racial divide between the Jewish and Gentile/Non-Jewish worlds (a divide comparable in some ways with our ethnic divides) by “creating one new humanity”1 where “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female”-2 where all are brought together on level ground before Christ. God is growing and maturing the Church into an earthly extension of Jesus- acting as His metaphorical hands and feet in God’s plan to fix the universe we’ve broken.

The passage above is the conclusion to Paul’s first call to action- now that God’s plan has been revealed, we are to live our lives in a way that is worthy of this calling. I know the Church isn’t there yet- this past election has made it abundantly clear that she isn’t- but as a child matures into an adult, we as the Church must mature into Jesus-ness.

As we grow, we are expected to be “speaking the truth with love”- and as I’ve been meditating on that phrase, it has led me to some important places.

Ἀγάπη-Love

This is a passage I’ve glossed over numerous times in the past- if I saw anything, it was that we were to be speaking truth. Makes sense. The world is full of half-truths and outright lies. We’re supposed to make disciples of all nations. Yet somehow the “in love” bit always snuck by under my radar.

I’m afraid that years of cheap music and shallow platitudes have worn the word “love” threadbare (for me at least). In secular American culture it appears to represent uncontrollable passion- a wildfire of ecstasy and destruction. In the psuedo-Christian sub-culture where I come from, it sounds like a vague, shallow affection.

Sometimes when old words get worn out, we need to add to them or replace them in order to retain the meaning behind them (C.S. Lewis uses this technique very effectively in The Four Loves). In the original text of Ephesians, the Greek word translated “love” is ἀγάπη (ah-GAH-peh), and for the present it might be helpful for us to use this word instead of the English equivalent to shake things up.

In 1 Corinthians 13, one of the most beautiful passages of scripture, Paul has laid out a description of ἀγάπη-Love. I’ve included a portion below:

Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not envy,
is not boastful, is not conceited,
does not act improperly,
is not selfish, is not provoked,
and does not keep a record of wrongs.

Love finds no joy in unrighteousness
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
– 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

This ἀγάπη-Love is rich and beautiful and something worth striving and fighting for. It is set apart from counterfeit loves- loves which have been diluted with unkindness or impatience, conceit or selfishness; diluted in the same way that counterfeit coins are mixed with baser metals3.

When we speak the truth in love, it changes how we speak it-

  • ἀγάπη-Love keeps us from silence- in fact it rejoices in the truth.
  • ἀγάπη-Love causes truth to be spoken patiently- for it is patient.
  • ἀγάπη-Love takes our ego out of the driver’s seat- if we boast, it’s in the glory of the truth, not the glory of our selves.
  • ἀγάπη-Love causes truth to be spoken properly- as it respects proper boundaries and is patient.
  • ἀγάπη-Love speaks the truth kindly- after all, it “hopes all things” for the recipient.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that ἀγάπη-Love is so important when speaking truth given its general emphasis in scripture. John goes so far as to say that “God is love”45. ἀγάπη-Love is really hard, and we are only capable of it because He has demonstrated it to us personally and given us the capability to give it ourselves.6 The flip side of this is that now He expects us to do the same- love is not optional.7 According to Jesus, the two greatest commands are for us to love Him with everything and to love our neighbors as our selves.8 Furthermore, John makes it clear that the absence of love in our lives is a sign that we don’t know Jesus at all.9

I don’t want to anger my evangelical friends by implying that we are somehow saved by loving or anything other than faith- I am just making the point that a faith without love is a sign that that faith may be dead10.

Truthing

Now we turn our attention to “speaking the truth.” Note the definite article- while I fully believe this passage can be applied to any truth or time we speak, Paul has a specific truth in mind in this context which we must not lose sight of.

In the first chapter, Paul gives reference to the “the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation…”11 and continues to pray that his readers’ knowledge and understanding and experience of this truth would be strengthened: First by grasping the hope we have in light of Christ’s resurrection12 and second that we might be strengthened in this hope so that we could know and experience God’s love for us.13

Thus, this truth that we are be speaking (literally “truthing”) is the sum of what God has done for us through Jesus the Christ. This truth is not something that can be boiled down to a few simple sentences (or even a blog post)- it includes not only the good news of Jesus’ death (the bittersweet news that He chose to suffer and die in our place) and our subsequent forgiveness, but His life before (experiencing life as one of us that He might empathize with us), and His life after (mediating on our behalf).

Neither is this something we can hear once- it is a truth we are to be continuously speaking to one another. I would go so far to say that it is the heartbeat of the church; when it is reduced to a murmur we falter; when it is silenced we die.

Finally, this truth is not something we limit to our evangelistic and missional efforts outside of the church. If anything, the emphasis of Ephesians has been on building up the Church in terms of maturity rather than numbers.

Loveless Truth is Hypocrisy

Paul uses the phrase “speaking truth in love” because the two are inseparable. Whilst comfortably seated in one’s armchair (or dare I say blogging in a coffee shop?) it is tempting to reduce The Truth to mere truth statements- lifeless theological facts. The problem is that in practice this leads to hypocrisy.

At this point I need to pause and explain when I use this ugly word- it is misused all too often. The term comes from a Greek word used to describe actors playing a part on stage-14-">http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=hypocrisy)) people who live one life publicly and another privately. It was then used to describe people who say one thing and do another- people who just acting and lack integrity.

Jesus used this term to refer religious figures who worshiped God publicly and externally, but completely missed the point or spirit of what God was teaching15. It is difficult to over-emphasize how much Jesus condemned hypocrisy- the image He used to describe hypocrites is that of a beautiful tomb- the outside is cleaned, even regal- the inside holds a decaying and putrid corpse. I think if you’ve ever smelled death or sewage you’ve gained insight into how Jesus feels about hypocrisy.

Keeping hold of this mental image, let’s return to the idea of the truth divorced from love.

It’s tempting to say that we can separate the Truth from its delivery (I’ve tried), but ultimately it is a tragic and futile exercise because the truth makes no sense apart from ἀγάπη-Love. The good news we proclaim is an act of love (indeed, in includes a command to love16), and the God we proclaim has inspired His apostles to go so far as to say He is Love17. Having integrity and living the truth we speak thus requires that we speak that truth in love.

If we don’t practice love while proclaiming the Truth, we’re something like shoplifters discussing the evils of theft. Or we’re like the Pharisees who separated the word of the Law from its Spirit. In the end, Jesus told His disciples to do what these hypocrites said, but not to imitate what they actually did. Having a good message is worthless if it isn’t backed up by practice of that message.

Hypocrisy is not to be taken lightly- for all of its moral blindness, the World can still recognize hypocrisy a mile away, and if we live in hypocrisy we profane God’s identity18.

Truthless Love is Heresy

At the same time, we cannot neglect the truth in the name of Love. If we abandon Truth or the practice of Truthing, we fall into heresy.

“Heresy” is another ugly word for an ugly thing, and at this point we need to pause once more and make sure we understand what it means. I think the popular understanding of heresy is a word usually uttered by angry old priest-types when contradicted (at least in the movies)- the theological equivalent to crying “Hitler” to end an argument19. Likely they’re condemning some poor scientist who suggested the world was round. There are points in history where this picture is accurate, and points where it is not. Either way, it’s a picture of the abuse of the term more than the term itself.

In reality, it simply describes teachings which depart from The Truth20 and/or lead to immorality21 (I suspect in practice the two are inseparable). An example of one of the earliest heresies (or false teachings) was the claim that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead. It was followed later by the claim that He was a created being; inferior to God.

Why is Heresy such a big deal? It’s a good question. Sometimes I think the evangelical right (which I come from) has retained a hatred for heresy without remembering why. The reason why we hate heresy is because it ultimately leads people away from God and undermines the good that God is doing. Just like Loveless Truth sneakily implies that you can have The Truth without Love, Truthless Love would have you believe you can have Love without the Truth. This is false for two reasons:

First, heresy undermines the Source of ἀγάπη-Love. When our vision of Jesus is distorted or replaced altogether, we inadvertantly poison the well of ἀγάπη-Love at its source. “God is Love”, and Jesus is the “Image [visible depiction] of the invisible God.”22 When we look for examples of ἀγάπη-Love, we look to Jesus. And when we do we find that Jesus made it a regular habit to confront the challenges and shortcomings of his opponents with profound truth. This is not to say we abandon tact and timing- Jesus also demonstrated these qualities as well, but he never seems to let fear of losing a relationship stop him from speaking truth to that person or group. ἀγάπη-Love ceases to be ἀγάπη-Love when we neglect The Truth, because as Paul mentioned earlier, “Love… rejoices in the truth.”((Emphasis my own)). If our love ever ceases to rejoice in The Truth, that is a dead giveaway that something has gone amiss.

Second, heresy undermines the Object of our love. If we try to love without truth, I fully believe that we will inevitably reverse “God is Love” to “Love is God.” This seemingly trivial reversal of words eventually results in replacing Jesus with a rabid, selfish, tyrannical demon-god which will demand we make it the object of our worship.23 It will promise to fill a God-sized hole in our hearts but deliver nothing- leaving us with nothing but the cynical thought that this hold can never be filled.

In short, Truthless Love is another love counterfeit.

Where All This is Going

At the end of the day, Love and Truth are inseparable; Love without Truth is impossible, Truth spoken without Love is ludicrous; they cannot exist in isolation. To borrow from Lewis, “We murder to dissect.”24

I fall woefully short here. When I was younger, I demonstrated that ἀγάπη-Love does not come to me nearly as easily as “Truthing.” As I got older (particularly over the last few years), I have swung too far the other way- sacrificing truth in the name of love (but in reality out of fear hurting friends and losing relationships). All this to say that this post is primarily an articulation of The Truth directed at myself: Jesus spoke Truth in Love. I also don’t think I’ve cracked this one- there’s a world of difference between blogging about something and truly addressing it (but this is a start).

At the same time, while I get my own act together, I do fear for the Church. The Church is supposed to be an extension of Jesus, set apart to demonstrate God’s love and awesomeness before not only our world but the spiritual ones we cannot see25. It’s supposed to be a safe place. It’s supposed to be a place that is both loving and honest. To quote Scholtes’ hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The thing is, we’re not.

Some churches are speaking the truth in love- God be praised! But quite frankly, there are a large number of churches who quite vocally speak without truth, love, or both. This has become particularly apparent in the aftermath of the recent presidential election. I’ve observed my friends online and spoken with them offline, and it hasn’t been pretty. For some of them, the Church has become a body that has sacrificed both truth and love in the name of politics or power. I pray that these friends will not give up on the Church altogether.

This year has been very discouraging for me personally, the distance I perceive between “the fullness of Christ” and His Body seems insurmountable at times. The part of the Truth that I would speak to myself (and my disillusioned friends) is that even if the image the Church in America is presenting is distorted, even if it does not seem particularly Christ-like, even if parts of it are false churches which must be discarded altogether, even if the truth it speaks is garbled or unloving at times, God has predestined and promised to make us like His Son, like Jesus. He has promised to work all things towards this end26 and to complete the good work that He has started in us.27

Ultimately our hope is in The Truth- the good news or Gospel of Jesus. Whether repenting, reforming, or simply mourning, let’s continue to speak this truth in love.

  1. Ephesians 3:15 []
  2. Galations 3:28 []
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfeit_money []
  4. 1 John 4:16 []
  5. The converse ‘love is god’ is not true, as we’ll discuss later []
  6. 1 John 4:19 []
  7. I am not trying to make a salvific statement here, but rather trying to emphasize that we are commanded to love []
  8. Matthew 22:37-40 []
  9. 1 John 2:9-11 []
  10. Along the same lines as James 2:14-26 []
  11. Ephesians 1:13 []
  12. Ephesians 1:15-19 []
  13. Ephesians 3:14-19 []
  14. ]
  15. Matthew 5-6 []
  16. John 13:34 []
  17. 1 John 4:16 []
  18. We should learn from Romans 2:24 where this charge was levied against Israel []
  19. See Godwin’s Law []
  20. 1 Timothy 6:3-6 []
  21. Rev 12:18-23 []
  22. John 1:1, Colossians 1:15-20 []
  23. To paraphrase Lewis and Rougemont, The Four Loves []
  24. The Four Loves – Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human []
  25. Ephesians 3:8-10 []
  26. Romans 8:28-30 []
  27. Philippians 1:6 []