Have you ever been in a conversation that required you to speak the truth, but you knew immediately that the truth alone was going to be inflammatory and offensive?
In these situations many of us find our thoughts racing for a way to say what we know is right while desperately seeking to be as far removed from an unnecessary and judgmental tirade as possible. For handling situations like this, often we in the church are given the simple Sunday School answer derived from Ephesians 4:15: “Speak the truth in love!” But what does that really look like?
What Is Love?
First, let’s define love. It’s the month of February, and many of you likely just celebrated Valentine’s Day, the worldwide celebration of love. Unfortunately the world has a distorted view of love. It often tells us that if we disagree, we are being unloving. However, in opposition to the world we are biblically commanded to love the way that God does, and God’s love “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6) regardless of whether or not the truth is agreed upon.
The Greeks used four different words to describe various types of love—eros (romantic), phileo (friendship), storge (family), and agape (universal). We are talking here about agape love. The apostle Paul famously defined agape love in a scriptural passage frequently googled on Feb. 14: 1 Corinthians 13:4–8. Paul wrote, “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; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (ESV). This is the type of love that God has for the world (Jn. 3:16). This is the type of love that we are commanded to have for God and for each other (Mt. 22:36-40). My friends, this is the type of love that Paul is advocating for when he says in Ephesians 4:15, “speak the truth in love.”
Deeper than Feelings
God’s definition of love through Paul tells us how to practically speak the truth in love. It is hard to control how we feel, but this definition of love does not list a bunch of feelings that we should have. This definition of love gives us a list of actions to take. Unlike our initial, unchecked feelings, these actions are more firmly within our control, and our Lord wants them to be an integral part of our character. In fact, earlier in Ephesians 4, before encouraging us to “speak the truth in love” (v. 15), Paul speaks of “bearing with one another in love” in verse 2. There he lists three qualities that inform how our character, or “walk,” should look when bearing with one another in love. Those qualities are: humility, gentleness, and patience.
A Humble, Gentle, Patient Love
When we find ourselves in any situation in which we know that speaking the truth in love is going to be provocative, we have from Scripture one of the most easily received approaches—love that is humble, gentle, and patient.
When we find ourselves in any situation in which we know that speaking the truth in love is going to be provocative, we have from Scripture one of the most easily received approaches—love that is humble, gentle, and patient. For me, this type of love means underscoring the humiliation of my own sins while also keeping my tone of voice gentle as I speak any truth. Our Lord and Rabbi Jesus said, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:5). We are better off highlighting the “planks” we’ve had in our own lives when we speak the truth in love to others. That takes humility, but this humility is often greatly appreciated.
This approach is especially important when sharing and defending the gospel. In my last article, I wrote about 1 Peter 3:15, and we must remember that Peter admonished us to defend our faith with the qualities of “meekness [gentleness] and fear [respect].” Yes, some elements of the gospel truth will naturally seem ridiculous and even offensive to some, no matter how it is approached. As Paul wrote, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). Despite this, 2 Peter 1:5–7 admonishes us to “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with . . . virtue . . . knowledge . . . self-control . . . steadfastness . . . godliness . . . brotherly affection . . . [and] love.” Peter says that doing this will “keep [us] from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).
Reflecting on this topic has personally been humbling. Plenty of times I have fallen short of speaking the truth in love. My prayer is that we all strive to do well in representing the One we serve, to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:1–2, ESV).