Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Love Actually...Is Truth!

When blogging about the Christian worldview and framing apologetics arguments there is typicallyat least, there should be!a heavy dose of truth involved. But what does Paul mean when he admonished us to "speak the truth in love"? I think Paul was making an important point here, the subtlety and profoundness of which can be easily missed. An obvious response to this verse would be: "Well, Paul is saying we shouldn't bash people over the head with the truth because that wouldn't be loving." This may be true, but I think Paul's statement goes way deeper than that. I think it's worth exploring some further questions:

What does Paul mean by love?

It is useful to view Paul's statement in the context of Jesus' teaching[1] that the first and greatest commandment was "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37) and the that the second is like it: "‘Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt 22:38). If we consider Paul's statement in light of these two commandments on which "all the Law and the Prophets hang" (Matt 22:40), we can deduce that Paul is telling us to speak the truth as an outworking of our love of God and of people—not, on the other hand, as inspired by our love of the world, our love of popular approval, or our love of ourselves. The Greek term for love Paul uses here is agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaō) when he quotes the greatest commandments. The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. So then, speaking the truth should be done in self-sacrificial love as modeled by Jesus Christ. It should primarily be to glorify God, and also be edifying to those who hear it. And speaking the truth may be costly to us.

The Holy Spirit empowers us to love God and love others in a self-sacrificial way. Loving others without the Holy Spirit involves a self-serving, consumerist form of love that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives. This may not be immediately evident when we observe acts of love that are done in human strength such as generosity, kindness, or charity, for example. Humans are created in the image of God, so we naturally gravitate toward the notion of doing good unto others. But, loving others in our own strength, as well-intended as it may be, will ultimately end up being self-serving because of our fallen nature. Loving others certainly can provide us with a whole lot of earthly perks: a warm and fuzzy feeling; popularity and a good reputation; a wholesome family environment; a better marriage; a safer community to live in, etc. Loving others in our own strength, however, hardly ever leads us to speak the truth in love. Instead, it's more likely to move us to smooth things over and make everything comfortable. It can lead us to ignore inconvenient truths and live in denial. It can lead to double-mindedness, flattery, and people-pleasing. Living in the power of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, gives us a supernatural ability to genuinely love others self-sacrificially. Christ-like love, however, is often rejected by the world and doesn't necessarily come with all the earthly perks we might desire.

What does Paul mean by truth?

We can see from the passage above, that the alternative to speaking the truth in love is spiritual immaturity (being like "infants") and susceptibility to being to being deceived by every wind of teaching and the deceitful scheming of other people (Eph 4:14-16). Paul, then, is urging us to teach others to obey God's commandments so that they will not be caught up in circumstances or be deceived by false teaching, but will instead be anchored in the truth so that they will mature and be built up in the Body of Christ. This is the essence of discipling others just as Jesus articulated before His ascension to heaven, when He said, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matt 28:19-20). Teaching the truth about God's commands as laid out in His Word is an integral part of discipling others and building up the Body of Christ.  

Paul admonished believers to handle the "Word of truth" accurately (2 Tim 2:15). Paul made it clear that the only way to do this was to first understand that it is in Christ alone that all truth is rooted. Speaking rigidly about the law like the Pharisees did is not what Paul meant by handling the Word of truth accurately. Paul resolved to "boast in nothing except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Gal 6:14). While Paul stayed with the Corinthian believers, he described how, "When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power." (1 Cor 2:1-5). Speaking the truth, then, must be Christ-centered and must not rely on human wisdom, but on the power of God. Because speaking the truth in love rejects human wisdom, and centers on the stumbling block of Christ, it may often be offensive others. 

What does Paul mean by "in"?

The little word, "in," carries a lot of weight here. Paul's admonishes us to speak the truth "in" love. He doesn't talk about speaking the truth "with" love or speaking the truth "about" love.  I think there is a subtle but significant distinction here. 

Firstly, in his use of the word, "in," Paul presents love as the context for our speech. In other words, loving actions and behavior towards others should provide the backdrop for speaking the truth. Young Life's founder, Jim Rayburn, talks about "earning the right to be heard" when ministering to young people and sharing the gospel with them. The gospel is best communicated within a context of friendship or loving outreach. I think Paul is saying something similar here: the truth is better received when it's delivered within the context of Christ-like love. 

Interestingly, Paul didn't say speak love, he said speak truth. He isn't talking here about love as the content of what is being spoken. Have you ever heard the saying, "actions speak louder than words?" Simply saying nice things to some one without backing up our words with loving actions is disingenuous. Love is more authentically demonstrated in the way we treat others than in our words alone. Therefore, we need to shoot for doing love, and speaking truth. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't express love verbally. Often, verbal expressions of love will merge with truth. For example, I tell my husband and daughters how much I love them all the time. I am speaking the truth about my love for them! Setting out to speak truth in love is different from setting out to speak words of love alone, which can quickly devolve into flattery and empty words. We need to be sure that our speech is not peppered with gushing expressions of flattery that do not truthfully reflect Christ-like love for others. In the same way, speaking words of encouragement to others, unless anchored in biblical truth, can too easily turn into people-pleasing even though our intentions were good to begin with. This is true of those who emphasize tolerance and cultural sensitivity over biblical truth in the name of loving their neighbor, which usually leads to watering down the gospel. But Paul urged the Galatians to "act in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). We need, then, to be careful that the things we do and say are not aimed at pleasing people first, but God first. 

Secondly, Paul's use of the word "in" shows that love should be our motive for speaking the truth. Our motive for speaking the truth should be rooted in our love of God and our love of people. The fact is, if we truly love some one, we will want to be honest with them. If you saw some one you loved dearly going down a path of self-destruction, you would do what you could to save them. In actuality, the only life-preserver that will save some one who's spiritually drowning, is the gospel. This should be our motivation behind speaking the truth: to help others find the way, which is Christ Jesus. 

Keeping our motives pure can be costly. It can cost us friendships, popularity, and can be really inconvenient! I am a people-pleaser by nature and as a result I am constantly struggling with the temptation to do and say things that I think will make people happy or make people like me more. At times, it has been tempting for me to make a friend feel better about a problem they are having, rather than speaking the truth to them about their situation. The truth can make us uncomfortable. This can lead us to brush it under the rug, or tell ourselves a different, more palatable story. In doing this, however, we put our feelings before our obedience to God.

I believe that people-pleasing is the essence of what is wrong with the emergent churches movement in which cultural-sensitivity often trumps biblical truth. In this context, the desire to make to make people feel better, and more comfortable, is more important that teaching obedience to God as Jesus commanded us to do. Turning a blind-eye to inconvenient truths and watering down the gospel so as not to "turn people off" might be pleasing to people, but it is disobedient to God. 

Paul, on the other hand, spoke a lot of truth even when it was costly to him. He angered 
Jewish leaders and Roman officials, which landed him in prison and led ultimately to his execution under Emperor Nero. He also spent a good deal of time refuting false teaching in his letters to the early churches. And he addressed issues of sinoften with black-and-white, hard-hitting truth. But for Paul, the central, vital, life-giving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ was what really mattered. In the Epistles, Paul comes back over and over again to the gospel of Christ as being central to his ministry. He showed us that our faith should be firmly rooted in the gospel, so that we will not be blown about by every wind of teaching. It is the transformative power of the gospel that is the driving force behind Paul's endeavor to speak the truth in love. 

Finally, by using the word, "in," Paul shows that the nature of Christ-centered truth is essentially inseparable from love. It is the purest expression of love. Truth is, by its very nature, completely submerged and saturated in love! Love actually is truthAs demonstrated above, love without truth is people-pleasing. But just as dangerous is truth without love, which can lead to hard-headed legalism, hatred, and division. Truth without love is like faith without deeds. And we know from James that faith without deeds is dead: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." (James 2:18-19). 

Head-knowledge alone doesn't save us, for even the demons know the truth. I have known people who have a keen grasp of theological concepts and can even articulate the atonement, for example, with amazing precision. However, their hearts have been unchanged by the gospel. Head-knowledge alone doesn't change the heart. We know from Scripture that, "knowledge puffs up while love builds up" (1 Cor 8:1). Head-knowledge can be a source of pride—an unhealthy form of self-love that turns us away from God. If we don't experience heart-change in response to the truth of the gospel, our faith is dead. Truth without love, then, is nullified for Christ-centered truth cannot exist apart from love.

When should we speak truth in love and when should we remain silent?

If love is our motive for speaking the truth, this should cause us to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in discerning when we should speak and when we should remain silent. Sometimes, I have found that holding my tongue with regards to a friend's sinful pattern of behavior and praying for them has born more fruit than if I had confronted them right then and there. We should certainly err on the side of showing grace to some one who is suffering from depression, or to some one who would be discouraged from accepting the gospel by having to deal with heavy-hitting truth before being given new eyes to see. Confronting a sin issue in a brother- or sister-in-Christ is best done with humility and gentleness. We should also live by example. If we are truly humble, we will have a teachable heart ourselves and allow others the same freedom to speak truth to us when needed. Speaking the truth should go both ways! We have to be willing not only to give it but to receive it as well!

The practice of "accountability" between Christians has grown in popularity over the last decade or two; many Christians are in "accountability groups" as a means to dealing with besetting sin, it's increasingly common to have "accountability partners," and we often ask our fellow believers to "hold us accountable" when we're dealing with a difficult relationship or situation. I think these are great ways to encourage each other to grow spiritually and to guard against pride and self-righteousness in our hearts. I also think that the practice of holding other Christians accountable can go over-board (as can happen with any trend in behavior). We can too easily tip the balance from speaking the truth in love into nagging people or hitting them over the head with THE TRUTH. If we are tempted to be judgmental and critical of a fellow believer, church, or ministry we should check our motive: is it to prove we are right about something, or to point that person, church, or ministry back to the gospel from which they may have strayed? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching that undermines the gospel? Are we holding a friend accountable, with gentleness and humility, for their own good or is it more about venting our grievances? 

There are plenty of things happening in Christianity today that may make us angry: the emergent church; the prosperity gospel; and the problem of worldliness seeping into Christian culture. All of these things get me really fired up. I think this is righteous anger. And I think we need to address these issues head on, for issues such as these directly impact the gospel-centrality of the Christian faith. But there are other issues to which we should respond primarily with grace, because they don't directly affect the gospel. Satan cannot destroy the gospel. Therefore, he will do all he can to distract us from it and cause division among Christians. Some Christians get all wrapped around the axle about peripheral matters like whether or not to have a Christmas tree due to its "pagan origins" or whether or not to let our kids believe in Santa, and then lambaste other Christians who don't have the same perspective. But these minor issues distract us from what really matters. We can also be over-critical of our fellow believers, obsessing over each other's differences and flaws, which can lead to pride, hatred, and division.

As the key passage from Ephesians above illuminates, the building up of the Body should be a strong motivator for us as believers. We should, therefore, avoid causing disunity in the church unnecessarily. We need to speak up, however, in situations when the truth of the gospel is compromised in any way. Speaking the truth in love within the context of defending the gospel will culminate in strengthening the Body of Christ, even though there may be those that fall away as a result.

Most importantly, we should speak up when it comes to matters of salvation. Jesus did not beat around the bush when it came to this. He mentioned hell 23 times as is recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee's home, for example, He told the Pharisees, "Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering." (Luke 11:52) Not exactly cordial dinner conversation! Jesus was far more concerned with speaking the truth to them than sparing their feelings and sticking to safe topics of discussion. And from this passage we also learn that knowing the law is not enough. The disciples came to Jesus and told Him the Pharisees were offended by what He had been saying (Matt 15:12). But, Jesus answered that the Pharisees’ failure to see the truth right in front of them would be their downfall and He continued to uphold the truth, even when it offended people.

When a rich young man ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him, asking “Good teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17), Jesus spoke forthrightly and told him to leave everything he had and follow Him. The man went away sadly because he had great wealth (Mark 10:22). But the Bible also tells us that, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” (Mark 10:21). It was because Jesus loved the man so much that He spoke the truth to him. The Greek word for love that Mark uses here is again agapaō—agape love. Jesus looked at the man with self-sacrificial love. By speaking the truth to Him, Jesus did not try to win him over right then and there, but caused him to walk away sadly. Jesus didn't tell the man what he wanted to hear in order to gain a new follower. He didn't focus on the common ground between the rich young man and Himself. Instead, Jesus showed him the cavernous rift that was between them. He wanted the man to hear what was good for him. If we really love some one, we will want to be truthful with them even if they reject us because of it.

What about "hot button," controversial issues like homosexuality and abortion? 

When should we speak up? When should we remain silent? A canned response to this does not suffice; we need to prayerfully seek God's guidance on a case-by-case basis and ask for discernment when addressing controversial issues. We need to ask, is this is a situation in which we are required to take a biblical stand for the sake of the gospel? Or is this a situation in which debating a controversial issue with an unbeliever is going to be a distraction from the gospel? It is important to make the distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of individuals. Like I blogged about in my previous post on Inconvenient Truths, we should stand firmly (but not always loudly) against the former, and show grace towards the latter, being truthful always. We should absolutely defend the rights of the unborn who have no power to defend themselves. But in advocating for traditional marriage and the right to life, we should never lambaste gay people or pro-choice activists with angry personal attacks. 

It is also important to treat the sin of individual unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians. Unbelievers are not held to the same standards as those who are born again, because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have not yet been made new in Christ. We should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ—not focus on their sins. Believers, on the other hand, are called to put off the old self that was governed by deceitful desires and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24). We are told to distance ourselves from those within the Body of Christ who are unrepentant about living a life of sin, and to welcome them back as soon as they repent. I Corinthians 5 provides a great model for how to confront immorality in the church. I don't think Christians do enough to turn away from sin in our churches and as a result, we are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the world.

What is the exact right balance between truth and love?

The exact right balance of love and truth is almost impossible for anyone (except Jesus) to achieve. A formulaic answer to this question is not sufficient, but we can at least endeavor to
 do love and speak truth in the power of the Holy Spirit, while prayerfully seeking to glorify God in all we do and say. And before we get too overwhelmed by the prospect of tipping the balance too far one way or the other, we can remind ourselves that quite simply love actually is truth.


[1] Despite claims that Paul was not familiar with the teachings of Jesus, the Pauline Epistles clearly echo what Jesus taught throughout. There is a growing tendency to deny this and under-value the prescriptive significance of Paul's letters as a result. Although Paul did not spend time with Jesus during His earthly ministry, we know that Paul was very familiar with the Jesus traditions having spent so much time in ministry with those who had known Him personally like Peter, Barnabas, and John Mark. While Paul gives instructions similar to those of Jesus it is true that he does not cite specific quotations often. Paul did not feel the need to specifically reference Jesus' teachings often because they were so well known by his readers at the time. Paul had already taught the Jesus traditions when he planted the churches initially. For the Post-Easter church, Jesus was significant not so much as a teacher but more as the Christ who had died and risen. Paul concentrates on the Christ event in a post-Easter context, but is clearly guided by the general spirit of Jesus’ teachings.There are, in fact, 25 places where Paul makes references or allusions to a saying of Jesus. 

1 comment:

molly.cyriac said...

beautiful inspiring enlightening and empowering post.God Bless you