I’ve been on both sides of this conversation. I’ve been the one “speaking terms truth in love” and I've been the one on the receiving end of the truth spoken in love”. So I know how this feels on both sides—and it’s not about love at all.
The speaker feels like they’ve been courageous. They have done the hard thing and spoken the truth. The listener feels like they were kicked in the gut. They feel judged, belittled, misunderstood. The last thing on their mind is changing or growing or even talking with this person again.
Truth presented without love is harsh and cutting. It pushes people into being defensive. Love given without truth is dishonest and enabling. It leads people to believe that things are OK when they aren’t.
Love without truth isn’t really loving. Truth without love may be factually correct, but it isn’t God’s truth.
We get the phrases “speaking the truth in love”, and “I’m saying this in love” from something the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus.
Ephesians 4:15 (ESV)15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
However if we look at the context of the verse we’ll see that there’s more to it than just softening the environment for delivering a tough message. In the verses before this, Paul writes about unity in the body of Christ and that unity being shown in humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love.
Ephesians 4:1-6 (ESV) 1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The “love” referred to is agape love, a self-sacrificial love that works for the benefit of the loved one. We are to speak truth in order to build up. Several verses later Paul writes,
Ephesians 4:29-32 (ESV)29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Our words should be beneficial to those hearing those words. We should speak truth in love.
1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (ESV)4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (emphasis mine).
Speaking the truth in love is not as much about having a gentle demeanor as it is about the way truth and love go hand-in-hand. Because we love one another, we must speak the truth. Because we know the truth, we must be people characterized by love
John 13:34-35 (ESV)34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
As His followers who are being conformed to His image, we should also be characterized by grace and truth.
Romans 8:29 (ESV)29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (emphasis mine).
Maybe You Shouldn't Speak The Truth In Love
Here are 5 things to make sure you're really loving when you speak from Marc Allen Schelske's blog post “Maybe You Shouldn't Speak The Truth In Love”.
1. Restrain Yourself.
Start by restraining your impulse to speak. That quick urgency in your gut that you must speak now is often motivated by something other than love. Stop long enough to evaluate your motives before you decide to say anything. James 1:26 tells us as much:
If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself.
2. Check the Moment.
Ask yourself, “Is this the right moment to speak?” Not every word or action needs to be corrected, and not every moment is the right moment for trying to correct someone. If you speak in this moment will you shame someone? Are they in a listening space? Are either of you defensive? If love is the goal of my speaking, I have to take into account the moment we’re in. Grace has the strength to let a lot of things pass.
3. Check the person About to Speak.
Ask yourself, “Am I the right person to speak this?” Your gut is telling you, “Yes,” but that might not be true. We don’t have to be perfect to share something with someone else, but we need to be authentic. If I have something to gain from the conversation, I may not be the right person. If I’m in the midst of my own crisis, I may not be the person to give someone else advice. If love is the goal of my words, I need to make sure that me being the messenger won’t get in the way of the message.
4. Check the relationship.
Ask yourself, “Is our relationship right for this conversation?” Some people have clearly given you permission for truth-telling, and some have not. Some relationships have baggage that makes a particular conversation unfruitful. If there is something that clearly needs to be said, and love is the goal of your words, then you need to invest in the relationship, so that it can truly be a loving space.
5. Check the words
Last, check your words. Ask yourself, “Are these words the right words?” Chances are pretty high that the first words that come to mind are the wrong words. Those words were born in your reaction. They carry the weight of your emotional space.
If love is the goal of your words, then you need to take the time to pick words that will bring light and love.
Editor’s Note: The following section is excerpted from Irresistible Faith by Scott Sauls
To speak the truth in love is to offer encouragement, to put courage into a soul.
One of our primary resources for doing so consists in the carefully chosen, life-giving words that God has already declared over us all.
If all of our Christian communities and churches were sold out to this one simple practice -- to only speak words that make souls stronger — I wonder how many spiritually disengaged people would start wanting to engage. I wonder how many religious skeptics would want to start investigating Christianity instead of keeping their distance from its claims and its followers. Do you wonder the same?
It has been said that the best “outreach” we can offer is to become the kind of community that we would want to be part of and the kind of community that is difficult to find anywhere else. This might actually be Christians’ best opportunity in the current cultural moment, where everyone seems to be on a hair trigger, always looking for something or someone to be offended by. I wonder if this simple, age-old, cost-free, compelling initiative is the key to turning a regular faith into an irresistible one. What if all it took for us to become the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” and the “city on a hill” to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues was to choose kindness over criticism toward one another, giving the benefit of the doubt over assuming the worst in one another, building each other up instead of tearing each other down. What kind of difference — if we committed ourselves to this — do you think it would make?
Do you remember that silly saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? I think Mariah Carey was a lot more honest than this in her interview when she admitted how much criticism stings. While sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, words can also wound us deeply and crush our spirits. Anyone who has received bad news, been shamed or criticized, or been the brunt of a mean joke or gossip understands this. Millions of men and women are in therapy because of wounds inflicted on them by words spoken to them either by others or by their own hearts.
Here are just few examples:
- You are worthless.
- You are ugly.
- You will never amount to much.
- You disappoint me.
- Why can’t you be more like your brother?
- You are too fat.
- You are too thin.
- I want a divorce.
- You should be ashamed of yourself.
- I hate you.
- I wish you were never born.
However, words not only have the power to crush spirits; they also have a mighty power to lift spirits, to bring strength to the weary, to give hope to the hopeless, to put courage back in, to make souls stronger.
Words like these:
- You matter.
- You are the image of God.
- You are loved at your best, and you are loved at your worst.
- You are uniquely gifted.
- You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
- You are God’s child, the bride of Jesus, the vessel of the Holy Spirit, and an heir of the kingdom.
- I see potential in you.
- I value you.
- I need you.
- I respect you.
- Will you forgive me?
- I forgive you.
- I like you.
- I love you.
These are the kinds of words that lift a heart and bring healing to a soul. They can free the chameleon from hiding in fear. These life-giving words can provide courage for the performer and poseur in each of us to come out of hiding, step into the light, and tell our true story — our blemishes, struggles, and sin, as well as the beauty, goodness, and mercy of God that we experience in the midst of them.