There is a comedian who has a bit where he describes some of the idiosyncrasies of living in the Southern United States. He laughs as he describes how people would say things like “That baby sure is ugly! Bless his little heart” or “Betsy sure looks fat in that dress. Bless her heart!” He jokes that by simply adding the “Bless her heart” that it makes the terrible thing they just said somehow okay!
We laugh, but have you ever had someone who figured it was their place to give you a dressin’ down, who was abusive to you and justified it by claiming they were “speaking the truth in love”? I think fellow believers in relationship with each other encourage each other in faith and sometimes that encouraging can be a little unpleasant. Sometimes, though, we cross the line when we speak into something we have no business speaking into, imposing our own opinions on those who may not share our faith. Sometimes, thundering down in judgment upon someone as if we are doing God a favor and defending His honor! I am sure you agree that bullying, manipulating, threatening, shunning, intimidating, being rude, condemning, etc., are not all-of-a-sudden a fruit of the Spirit under the veneer of ‘speaking the truth in love.’ Yes, Jesus spoke strongly at times, but the people He was stern with were often self-righteous religious folks and almost never to the folks who didn't know any better, and those who were often crushed by religious and political tyranny. Sadly, many Christians wander around like a hammer and see everyone else as a nail. These folks have more in common with a grumpy Old Testament Prophet than Jesus!
Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) is certainly key, but sadly, this verse has often been misapplied. In God, truth and love coexist and are not opposed in any way. Simply, without authentic love, truth is somehow less truthful (brutal), and love without truth is less than authentic love (hypocrisy).
So what are we to do with speaking the truth in love?
First off, it is important to keep this verse in its context. Paul is writing to the Church in Ephesus, to followers of Jesus. He has just finished writing about the five fold ministry and their role in helping each member of the community mature in their faith. We see in verse 16 that speaking truth in love is within the context of the maturing of the saints! Does this mean that we don’t speak the truth in love outside the context of Christian community? Certainly not. As followers of Jesus we are called to live lives that look like Jesus’, and this is a life of love, which by the very nature of divine love must include truth. So how do we walk this out?
Ephesians 4:15-16 in the Amplified reads: “Rather, let our lives lovingly express truth [in all things, speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly]. Enfolded in love, let us grow up in every way and in all things into Him, Who is the Head, [even] Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One).
Speaking in truth is communicated by the Greek word aletheuontes. Its root is aletheuo from alethes which means real, actual and not counterfeit. You will see it used in Galatians 4:16 and in 1 John 16-20, as well. The word translates more like “truth-ing," this is to say, it is an action, walking in truth not just speaking about truth. The idea being communicated is not one of propositional truth, but a lifestyle of truth and love that is authentic, talk and walk together, and this is the recipe for maturing in Christ.
Interestingly, from a first-century Jewish perspective, truth is not an agreement with a propositional reality. Truth in a first-century Jewish perspective is faithfulness in a relationship. We “abide in the truth” by faithful relationship with the personification of truth (Jesus) not by an intellectual posture to an abstract (set of) proposition(s).
There is a difference between being factually right and the truth. Truth sets people free, truth reconciles, restores, heals and make beautiful. We can see this fruit through the life of Jesus. I believe in absolute truth; however, I do not believe we can know it absolutely because we all see through a glass darkly (1Cor. 13:12). How we see, experience truth is always filtered through our worldview which is shaped by things like our gender, economic status, education, ethnicity, traditions and so forth. Even when we attempt to take the high ground of a biblical worldview, our understanding and interpretation of the Bible are shaped by a larger worldview. It does not mean our worldview is necessarily bad, just incomplete. This should temper our posture when we relate to other people.
In the context of speaking the truth in love, we need to reflect upon authentic love. In the Kingdom of God, the litmus test is love. To define love, we need to consider our truth-ing in light of authentic divine love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and Paul’s comprehensive definition in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over someday; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. (Message)
In this light, we get an idea of what speaking the truth in love might look like in real life. Consider, Jesus says things like to be first, you must be last, to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, share freely, to lay down our lives for friends, to forgive 70x7. These and others can help guide us in loving well. Even our enemies; Jesus spoke quite uniquely about how we treat those who are our enemies (Mt 5:43-48). Jesus laid down his life for His enemies.
I am concerned that, for many Christians, the end justifies the means and in the name of God we are belligerent with each other and those who are yet to hear the good news. Some behave dreadfully and demonstrate the opposite of the Gospel with their behavior in the name of speaking the truth in love, and when they are ignored or rejected they shout all the louder, claiming they are being rejected for the sake of Christ. I think there is a difference between people being offended by what Jesus actually said and did, and the offense that comes from the way the “messenger” presents it (and often adds their own baggage to).
It is my continued experience that people are loved into the Kingdom of God not threatened or manipulated. The reality of the life, death, and resurrection of God Himself in Christ affirms this. The good news of the God-who-loves is He is for us and is at work reconciling His good creation to Himself. That in doing so, His love transforms us and makes us whole. We become love as we become like Jesus, and become partakers of the divine nature. This is good news for all people. The reality of this Good News shaping our lives and living lives of genuine love is what it means to speak the truth in love!