By Ken Idleman
The title of this article is one of the most difficult implicit commands in Scripture: “[S]peaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). It is difficult to obey because it links in a single imperative the three most difficult aspects of life for human beings to consistently control: speech, truth, and love.
Our speech often betrays our secret thoughts and our untamable tongues. Jesus said, “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them” (Matthew 15:18). And our Lord’s brother asserted, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). So, who among us can testify that he has never had a sinful, vindictive, hateful, or judgmental thought? And who among us has never regretted something hurtful or unfiltered we said in a moment of weakness to another person?
Our experience with truth isn’t much better. How often have we lied to make ourselves look good? Who hasn’t passed on a juicy piece of gossip about someone else? Consider the times we have told people what they wanted to hear rather than what was true. Paul wrote, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25). And then, two chapters later, “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). The belt of truth holds the rest of the armor of God in place! Truth is the foundational virtue on which all others are dependent.
What about love? Well, sometimes we “feel” it and sometimes we don’t, right? But Christian love is not a feeling! It is an exercise of the will, not the temperature of the heart. It is a matter of obedience. It is extended universally to others by truly godly people, even when it is not reciprocated. It is the first fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is our primary identifier as disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).
It is a great daily challenge to consistently “speak the truth in love.” But as Christian leaders, we must strive to do just that in the following three arenas.
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). God made us with two ears and one mouth, perhaps because he wants us to do twice as much listening as speaking. God mounted our ears on either side of our mouth, perhaps because he wants us to be the first to hear and evaluate what we say . . . and in stereo! It is easier to “speak the truth in love” when we have listened first. Listening allows us time to evaluate the content and tone of the conversation and to be more thoughtful in our response. Being “slow to speak” means to be controlled in what we say. It means we thoughtfully respond rather than thoughtlessly react.
Conversations are frequently negative and critical in the present cultural climate. Divisiveness is rife. And even when we are with people who agree with our politics or values, we can easily get carried away into unhealthy rhetoric. So, let’s be vigilant to remain “in the moment” and deliver a “word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11, English Standard Version).
Though confrontation is a natural and necessary part of life, (almost) no one enjoys it. But sometimes a hard “meeting of the minds” simply must take place to renew a marriage, salvage a friendship, discipline a child, or correct bad behavior in an employee or a bad attitude in a Christian brother or sister. In this context, “speaking the truth in love” is critical. Confrontation will be agony if handled poorly, but it can be ecstasy if handled proficiently.
And the key to confronting effectively is found in the charge to “speak the truth in love.” Truth and love tend to get out of balance. Truth without love creates defensiveness or denial in the person being confronted. And love without truth simply results in an unresolved problem.
The ethical gold standard for effectively preaching and teaching the Word of God is to “speak the truth in love.” Obedience to this command is most vital in this context. The sermons in the book of Acts are the model for all contemporary preachers and teachers. From Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to Paul’s sermon to the Jews under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28), the balance between truth and love is laced into every message. So, remember these principles:
- If preaching is untrue and unloving, listeners will be subjected to public bullying. This kind of preaching is nothing more than a deceitful attack designed to manipulate and dominate. It is the doctrine and spirit of the Westboro Baptist Church.
- If preaching is untrue but loving, it means people will be misled, yet cared for. But real love is not possible without truth. To build a church by not telling people the truth from Scripture is to merely replicate a social club or a cult.
- If preaching is true but unloving, it will produce a community of people that has answers no one is interested in hearing. To be long on truth and short on compassion is to ensure a perpetually small and provincial body of believers.
- If preaching is true and loving, it will result in a growing community of people who will “become in every respect the mature body of him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”