Learning how to speak the truth in love isn’t always easy. I can think of many times I’ve sold out truth for the sake “love,” or the other way around. That is, I’ve spoken the truth, but not in a very loving way. They needed to hear it after all, and I’m not afraid to speak the truth. Someone has to do it.
So I tell my wife what I think about how she’s handling the stress of getting ready for having people over. I tell her how to fix it. “Just stop worrying, trust Jesus.” It’s the truth! It’s a solution to a problem! And it makes things worse. I remembered to speak the “truth,” but I forgot to be loving.
Or, maybe I see something that is true – I see my spouse struggling and it looks like I may have a solution, or a way of helping. But it didn’t go well the last time I tried to jump in and say something. So instead of taking a risk, I don’t say anything.
Maybe it works out okay. Maybe tension mounts inside of me, until I say it in an unloving way. Or maybe I just believe that you don’t upset the people you love, so I just keep it to myself. I take, for the moment, the easy path.
It is easy to sell out being truthful for the sake of being “loving.” It is also easy to sell out being loving for the sake of telling someone a truth they need to hear whether they like it or not.
According to the Bible, however, we can’t have one without the other. Without love there is no communication of truth. Without the communication of truth, we can’t truly be said to be loving towards the other person.
The Importance of Waiting and Exploring
When working with married clients in a counseling setting, I try to model in the very work I do with them the kind of work that is needed between spouses in a marriage.
For example, I believe a good counselor will listen way more than he or she speaks. Exploration is required. Observation. Listening. This is how we “gather data,” and those familiar with science and the scientific method will agree that we must gather before we analyze – or else there is nothing to analyze!
I believe there is something to learn here about how best to approach people, whether in a counseling scenario or a marriage: we all want to be heard. None of us appreciates being summed up by someone who just met us or hasn’t taken the time to know us.
Isn’t this exactly what happens in a lot of arguments? What started off as me giving advice to my wife somehow becomes an exchange of “You are mean!” “You are wrong!” “You don’t understand me!” “You are just (fill in the blank).”
Unfortunately, we get it the wrong way around, and often. I think it’s helpful to remember that it is not very loving to draw conclusions about someone we have not taken the time to get to know.
Maybe that is what makes conflict in marriage so painful – the person that should, of all people, know me the best, is completely missing the point of what I am trying to say. He doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get not only what I am saying, but who I am! How could this be?
We all long to be seen, heard, and known. That’s exactly what makes it so hard to slow down and listen before we speak. Imagine you’ve hired me as your counselor and, in the first session, within minutes, I tell you who you are, what you’ve done wrong, and what you need to do to fix it.
I may even be giving you good advice. But I don’t think that’s why a person benefits from counseling. Counseling is about a person-in-process spending time with another person-in-process, present, listening, and feeling with the other. I truly believe that the same is true of marriages that work.
In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas states:
“Just when we are most eager to make ourselves understood, we must strive to understand. Just when we seek to air our grievances, we must labor to comprehend another’s hurt. Just when we want to point out the fallacies and abusive behavior of someone else, we must ruthlessly evaluate our own offensive attitudes and behaviors.”
This is powerful stuff, and it echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:3-5:
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye.”
I like to think of this more as an “order of operations” – remember foundational math? Just as we are to multiply and divide before we add and subtract, so too we are asked to search our own hearts and faults before pointing out the faults – in a truthful and loving way! – of the other.
A quick note – many have made the mistake of thinking Jesus is telling us that it is never okay to point out faults in others until we have removed our own faults from the relationship. But then we would never speak the truth in love!
If we are being asked to wait until my slate is completely clean before approaching someone else about something we see that’s potentially wrong or hurtful, then it is never okay for anyone to talk to anyone about anything even slightly negative!
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians
Speaking truthfully, as well as speaking lovingly, are both obviously ideal. In fact these ideals are so widely accepted as “good” that we don’t have to look far outside the context of the Christian church to find them. Almost everyone holds these as virtuous and “good.” But the Christian call in Ephesians 4 is to something more profound – we are to speak the truth in love. Notice that word “in”– the two are not to be separated!
Ephesians 4:15 is a key passage to consider:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV)
Notice the word “rather” that begins this quote. This is a contrast word, meaning something came before it. In the previous verse, Paul speaks of “unity,” specifically “the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God,” and that we are to grow “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 14). In other words, learning to speak the truth in love is how we grow! We are called to grow, through speaking the truth in love, more and more like Jesus, and speaking truth in love is how we do it.
In the next chapter, Paul tells husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her,” clearly linking the context of marriage relationships with the context of relationships within the church. We are to speak truth to each other to build one another up.
When we speak, it should be in the interest of preserving the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” as Paul writes in the beginning of Ephesians 4. He says some other things here as well, which I have been lately convicted to try to follow and remember when I find myself in a not-so-loving confrontation with my wife.
In fact, just last night, after leading our community group in a short dinner-mediation on this very concept of “speaking the truth in love,” about 15 minutes after the last guests left our home, it happened: my wife shared an idea with me about her business, and I responded in a way that caused her to feel unheard. I wrestled hard and, at first, unsuccessfully, to remember what Paul says in the first sentence of Ephesians (4:1).
“I…urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
That phrase – the unity of the Spirit – has been huge for me in the past several hours as I climbed out of the emotional darkness I often sadly succumb to when I feel disconnected from my wife. It’s hard to remember in our hurt that, because of Jesus, unity is something we already have! As believers, we are always already unified through the Spirit in Christ, according to this passage (and many others).
I think the real warfare is not with our spouses, but within ourselves! It’s hard to remember what is true when we are feeling offended, missed, and unheard. Paul talks about no longer being “children, tossed to and fro by the waves,” as quoted above (Ephesians 4:14).
Most commentators note that Paul is referring to false teachers who twist and distort the truths of the Gospel. I think there’s room to include myself in this group – sometimes, when I am talking to myself (on the inside), I think I am a false teacher to myself!
I tell myself in subtle ways that being more like Jesus is not my goal – winning is! And I tell myself, sometimes, that Jesus is not my true source of identity – being wronged is! It’s easy for me to be a false teacher to myself. And when I become this, it’s hard to speak truth in love.
Known By God
So what’s the solution? I believe we are to start with remembering who we are. Remembering who we are, and who my spouse is, is profoundly important for speaking truth in love, maintaining unity, and growing to be like Jesus in our marriages and relationships.
When we understand more thoroughly where we’ve come from, and how it has affected and shaped us, we understand more clearly who we are. When we understand more clearly who we are, not only as shaped by the past but re-created in Jesus, we understand not only how we struggle and why, but what we have been freed from!
And when we understand our freedom in Jesus, we are able to risk the openness, honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability it takes to speak the truth in love. We are able to slow down and explore rather than tighten up and defend. And it is through this mutual exploration that deeper connections happens in marriage.
So Where Do I Go From Here?
If you’d like to learn how to apply what has been discussed here to your own struggles and story, I or one of the many qualified counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling would love to work with you and walk with you.
“Sunshine,” courtesy of Andrew Welch, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Growth,” courtesy of Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Together,” courtesy of Matthew Fassnacht, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reflection,” courtesy of Bryan Minear, unsplash.com, CC0 License