“This might hurt, but I’m just speaking the truth in love.”
It’s the quintessential excuse for telling people who constantly get under your nerves everything that’s been festering inside of you for the last three months.
This Christian cliche (often referred to as “tough love”) is derived from Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Ephesians.
“To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…. speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:12, 15; emphasis mine).
“Speaking the truth in love” or “tough love” is often described as a sandwich. If you need to say something hard to someone, smash it between two “slices of love.” In other words, affirm, exhort, and then affirm again.
It’s a good effort, but the tough love sandwich illustration is bologna and here’s why.
Genuine Christian love is a lifestyle of costly actions, not a few affirming words before and after a smack-down.
This shoot-it-to-them-straight kind of “tough love” done outside of the context of unconditional love is not love at all, but self-indulgence.
Jesus Calls Us to a Tougher Tough Love
Jesus’s kind of tough love isn’t about getting in people’s faces and giving them a talking to.
Jesus demonstrated the toughest of loves by laying down all his rights, his wealth, his safety, his comfort, his reputation, and his very life so his enemies could find true life and freedom and success (John 15:13; Romans 5:8).
That’s tough love.
Jesus calls us to demonstrate the exact same kind of unconditional tough love toward our neighbors.
Loving Unconditionally Does Not Mean You’re a Pushover
Unconditionally, loving your neighbor does not mean you become the nice guy everyone pushes around, manipulates, and takes advantage of.
In fact, Jesus refuted that idea when he told his disciples no one was taking his life from him. Rather, he willingingly laid it down.
Sometimes, tough love means having a hard conversation with a friend or a family member. But if it’s done outside of the context of humility, forgiveness, grace, and self-sacrifice–it’s not love.
The purpose of “hard conversations” has absolutely nothing to do with simply relieving your frustration but about bringing restoration to your relationship. If restoration isn’t your goal and strategy, then you should probably hold off on the conversation.
If something is continually bothering you in a relationship, take the other person out for coffee and express how much you appreciate the relationship. Then, in your own words, say something like “I know this isn’t what you mean to do, but when you make sarcastic jokes about my weight, it makes me feel ugly and unattractive. I’d like to be able to handle it with grace and just laugh, but it’s really hard because I’m insecure about it.”
This way, you’ve expressed desire to stay in relationship with them and revealed confidence in their good intentions–two things which will make what you say easier for them to swallow. You’ve also been completely honest and vulnerable with them–certainly not a “pushover.”
If this is all backed up by a lifestyle of service, generosity, and forgiveness, then they’ll have existing proof you really do value the relationship and are committed to their success.
I can’t promise they’ll receive your effort to resolve the issue, but at least you’ll have done your best without burning down the entire friendship.
As Christians, we are called to be people who restore and reconcile what was broken or torn apart. That begins with our relationships.
Except in regards to abuse of any kind, there’s rarely a legitimate reason to burn down a relationship.
We Love Because He First Loved Us
Genuine Christian love is about laying down our lives and our rights in order to help others succeed. That’s tough to do.
Tough love isn’t always about getting in your friend’s face and “saying what they need to hear.” It’s about laying down your life for your friends so they can live.
Because that’s exactly what Jesus did for us.
This post is part of a series of articles talking about what it means to “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” You can read the first article (Why “Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself” Is So Important to Christianity) here and the second (How Do You Love Your Neighbor?) here.