A Problem with Speaking “Truth in Love”
Love is great.
But truth is great, too.
What do we do when the two appear to be in conflict?
The answer for some believers is to “speak truth in love.”
But is this reliable as an M.O.? Are we actually equipped to do this consistently?
First, it’s important to dissect what “truth in love” actually means.
The phrase comes from Ephesians 4:14-15.
“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. 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.”
This is “truth against gullibility,” ferried by loving concern for the health of the church.
It is a very specific kind of truth. It’s not an affirming truth, but a discerning or, more specifically, judgmental truth.
It’s a truth that calls-out and puts-down and, as such, must be buttressed with love to avoid being needlessly discouraging or excessively offensive.
We can imagine it a bit like this:
In an ideal world, when we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we’d see this:
“A delivery of judgmental truth with a balancing portion of patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.”
But this idealism is confounded by…
One Weird Psychological Quirk
This quirk is called validation-seeking.
Our inner piping works with several different neurotransmitters, two of which are dopamine and serotonin.
- Dopamine is correlated with feelings of anticipatory excitement and stimulation; problems with dopamine are correlated with a bleak lack of hope.
- Serotonin is correlated with feelings of satisfaction and well-being; problems with serotonin are correlated with prospective anxiety and retrospective guilt.
Excitement about prospects, combined with our desire to minimize past guilt and future anxiety, makes us extra-prone to seek self-securing “proofs.” We want external praise from bosses, loved ones, and even strangers, in service of a feeling of being “well-equipped” to tackle anything.
When someone insults us, it stings precisely because it threatens our future.
It can make us doubt our attractiveness or our intelligence or our knowledge — and we need attractiveness to charm people, intelligence to figure things out, and knowledge to know how the world is. Heaven forbid we are repulsive, stupid, or ignorant!
And these insults hurt all the more when they’re done in front of others.
We worry, “What if the others think I’m repulsive, stupid, or ignorant? They won’t want to be my friend,” or “They won’t offer me the good assignment,” or “They won’t want to go out with me,”
It’s one thing to feel like we have the “mining tools” to excavate whatever “gold mine.” That feels good. And when those tools are threatened, we react very poorly.
But we’d also like to find that the “other person’s tools” are subpar, or that she can’t mine opportunities like we can.
In other words, it helps our self-confidence when other people — especially those with whom we are not close — are revealed to have faults.
The last sentence should resonate with most of us.
- It’s what makes gossip so addictive.
- It’s what makes “this generation stinks” narratives so stimulative to parent generations.
- It’s what cultivates “us-versus-those-idiots” political and culture warfare.
When someone we don’t care about or actively dislike stumbles, we delight in it, as it validates our lives (our choices and character) through the invalidation of their choices and character.
But why does this matter?
The Hidden Weight
It matters because, thanks to these neurochemical patterns, there’s a hidden weight of “love for judgment” attached to the scale.
That is, whenever we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” our secret “love for judgment” tilts the scales, and the “judgmental end” far outweighs the expressed patience, compassion, understanding, mercy, and tenderness.
When the hypocritical teachers in Jesus’s day went after sinners — like prostitutes and grifters — I’m sure a large number of them convinced themselves that this was a loving judgment; “I indict because I care.”
When we try to practice “judgmental truth in love,” we express an imbalance, just like that expressed by the teachers that Jesus
We imagine that we’re doing this:
But what actually happens is this, making the whole structure unbalanced:
In other words, “practice judgmental truth in love” leads to “express judgmental truth with little love at all.”
The solution is to “practice love overwhelmingly“:
This is uncomfortable for us, because it seems like we’re loving too much. Our loss-aversive fear and worry of “excessive tolerance” and “slippery slopes” makes us terrified of how unbalanced we imagine the final expression will be.
But when we “practice love overwhelmingly,” our innate predilection towards judgment magically makes up the difference — without us even trying! — and the final expression is a balanced “truth in love”:
It’s not that Jesus didn’t care about virtuous behavior, it’s just that his M.O. was always “accept first.” He openly invited the “classic” sinners, as well as hypocrites with hidden sins, to rush in to the Kingdom of God.
It’s no mistake that Jesus says the greatest commandment is love (Matthew 22:36-40):
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It’s no mistake that Jesus’s “sheep/goat” judgment is based on expressed, charitable love (Matthew 25:37-40):
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
It’s no mistake that Paul says love fulfills the Law and prophets (Galatians 5:6b, 14):
“The only thing that counts is faith, through love, working [Gr. pistis di agapes energoumene]. … For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
It’s no mistake that Jesus mandates a “plank-removal” prerequisite to judgment (Matthew 7:4):
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
It’s no mistake that Paul lambasts those who hypocritically judge unbelievers and hedonists, as if they themselves were completely faithful and pure (Romans 2:1):
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
It’s no mistake that Paul explicitly declares love superior to faith (1 Corinthians 13:13):
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
It’s no mistake that John predicates true faith on expressed, merciful love (1 John 4:7-8, 18):
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
It’s no mistake that Paul gives us only one continuing debt — that of loving others (Romans 13:8-10):
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
It’s no mistake that James lauds the “royal law of freedom” — loving others — by positing that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:8, 12-13):
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. … Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
These aren’t typos.
The specific admonitions to specific audiences in Scripture are not our “highest pillar.”
Niddling legalism and culture mores — even those declared universal, like Paul’s opinions about gender and hair length — must always be subordinate and subservient to the royal law of freedom.
It’s one thing to recognize this “king love” hierarchy in the Kingdom of God.
It’s another to express it.
And to express it truly — to fight past the human propensity for self-validating hypocrisy and judgment — requires overwhelming love-driven practice.
To hit the target with a weak bow, one must aim shockingly high.
So aim shockingly high.
For a thought experiment that explores the disruptive force of love under New Covenant morality, read “The Fourfaced Writ.”