The False Dichotomy of Truth & Love

In my former corner of Christianity, sermons often pitted truth and love against each other because of a poor interpretation of Eph 4:15:

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

The question was always, “Do you err too much in truth or too much in love?” I believe this to be a false dichotomy. Truth and love are never at odds with one another. Truth leads to love and love leads to truth.

God is love – 1 John 4:8

I am…the truth – John 14:6

The pursuit of full truth and perfect love leads to God.

(In my post Holy Tension, I explore the ways the truth and love found at the cross allows us to hold the tension of opposing ideas and extend grace to one another.)

Speaking truth in love means speaking no more and no less truth than is loving in a particular conversation. For example, the conversations I have about sex with my youngest child and my oldest child are very different in the specifics, but I speak Truth to both. It would be wrong to give certain information to my youngest before they are ready, and it would be wrong to deny certain information to my oldest when they are ready. Sometimes speaking the truth in love means not saying anything at all – it would be wrong to share the specifics of sex with someone else’s child without their guardian’s permission. Sometimes silence is the truth.

There are many different factors to consider when speaking truth. How do power dynamics affect the relationship? Are you personally at risk speaking up to power like the prophet Nathan to King David? or Are you at the top speaking down to someone who may not feel at liberty to object, like an employer “sharing” the gospel with an employee? Do you have permission from the listener to speak? Are you an invited guest or an unwelcome intruder? Is the hearer emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically ready for your message? or Do you speak words that burden and crush the listener? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits all answer. You must know the person to whom you are speaking and listen to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. If your words are from the Spirit, they will come from a place of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Two Old Testament passages offer lessons on speaking truth in love. God revealed himself partially to Moses in Exodus 33:19-23, because the full knowledge of God would harm Moses:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Exodus 33:19-23

God spoke the Truth in Love to Moses by only sharing some of the Truth. Before you rush out to speak “truth in love” to someone, pause to consider, because God did not speak the full truth to Moses. It would not have been loving.

Later, in a passage meant to parallel Moses’ encounter, God again partially reveals himself on the mountain, this time to Elijah, who is drowning in depression.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 

1 Kings 19:11-12

When the God of the Universe chose to speak the Truth in Love to Elijah, he did so in a gentle whisper. Timing and Tone matter.

Truth and love are never at odds with one another, but you must rely on the Holy Spirit to know when, what, where, and how to speak the truth in love.

I believe Truth & Love are false dichotomies, but check out my post Holy Tension where I explore how we hold onto truth and love while navigating the many tensions that do exist and tend to divide us.

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