When blogging about the Christian worldview and framing apologetic arguments, there is typically (at least, there should be!) a heavy dose of truth involved. But what does Paul mean when he admonishes us to "speak the truth in love”? Paul makes an important point here, the subtlety of which can be easily missed. The 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 is true, but I think it goes 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: the first and greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37) and the second is "‘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 as a result of 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 is self-sacrifice. So then, speaking the truth should be done in self-sacrificial love as modeled by Jesus Christ. First, it should be to glorify God, and, second, to edify those who hear it. And speaking the truth may also be costly to us, costing us things like convenience, popularity, friendships, even our safety.
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, consumeristic 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. Humans are created in the image of God, so in some ways we gravitate toward the notion of doing good unto others.
But, loving others in our own strength as well-intended as it may be, ultimately ends 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, or a safer community to live in. Loving others in our own strength, however, hardly ever leads us to speak the truth in love because it isn't God-honoring. Instead, it's more likely to make us smooth things over so things will be more comfortable for everybody. 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 sacrificially. Christ-like love, however, is often rejected by the world and doesn't 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 "tossed back and forth by the waves," 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. He says, "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 admonishes believers to handled the "Word of truth" accurately (2 Tim. 2:15). Paul makes it clear that the only way to do this is to understand that it’s in Christ alone in whom all truth is rooted. Speaking truth about the law like the Pharisees did is not what Paul means 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 stays with the Corinthian believers, he describes 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—not relying 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 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.
First, 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 service. 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 someone without backing up our words with loving actions is disingenuous. Speaking words of love alone, can quickly turn into flattery and empty words. Love is more authentically demonstrated in the way we treat others. In other words, we need to aim at doing love, and speaking truth in a way that honors God first and foremost.
Second, 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 someone, we will want to be honest with them. If you saw someone you loved self-destructing, you would do what you could to save them. In actuality, the only life-preserver that will save someone who's spiritually drowning is the gospel. This should be our motivation behind speaking the truth: to help others find the Way--Christ Jesus.
Keeping our motives pure can be costly. It can cost us friendships, popularity, and convenience. I am a people-pleaser by nature and as a result I am constantly struggling with the temptation to do and say things 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.
Finally, Paul shows that Christ-centered truth is inseparable from Christ-like love. As 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" (Jm. 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, "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.
Essentially then, love and truth are interdependent. Truth is, by its very nature, completely submerged and saturated in love! God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), just as he is truth (Jn. 14:6). And the truth of the gospel of Christ is the purest expression of love. In other words, in Christ, love actually is truth. And love and truth are an integral part of discipleship.
As Paul shows us, speaking the truth in love is key to establishing unity in the Body of Christ. This is because what unifies us as believers is not brushing fundamental truths under the carpet to keep the peace, but rather upholding the Gospel of Christ in our churches and uniting together in the name of Jesus. Paul explains that with Christ as our Lord, believers will be united together, speaking the truth in love, as we "grow up in every way into Him who is the head," which allows the Body to "build itself up in love" (Eph 4:15-16).
Anna-Maeve Martin has worked in international development, civil liberties, and church ministry (missions & outreach). She has two Master's degrees in History of Ideas (Leeds University, UK) and Government (University of Pennsylvania) and continues her studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is originally from England but now resides in Northern Virginia where she is a stay-at-home mom of three young daughters by day and a blogger by night at Faith Actually. Follow her on Twitter @FaithActually.