BY HANNAH Z.
[The] Truth that Loves
It was around 2015 when the slang term, “savage,” became widespread. It was also in 2015 that my friends decided I should bear that title, given my tendency to make harsh, albeit honest, criticisms about other people. Unaware, however, that someone could be upset by my behavior, I never saw the need to stop, let alone examine my motivation for making such icy statements in the first place. In fact, I even felt a little proud of my ability to be blunt, noticing that the people around me seemed to shy away from vocalizing difficult truths. America needs people like me, I told myself. There’s nothing wrong with tough love.
But when I entered college two years later, a few interactions soon led me to see the real heart behind those words—that even though toughness was there, it usually had very little to do with love. I was first introduced to this reality the fall of my freshman year, when an acquaintance opened up to me about an emotional struggle; instead of bearing with him in love, I chose to immediately tell him where he had gone wrong, and quite relentlessly. That same semester (having not yet fully learned my lesson) I fiercely corrected a junior in my a cappella group for making a small musical error and discovered the fallout one semester later; at the group’s annual spring break trip, a different member tentatively admitted that she had been afraid of me for several months.
So, yes, I had another name for my ruthlessness—tough love—, but my savagery was still savagery, nothing else. But thanks be to God, because a true “tough” love, in which honesty and love are not separate, does exist.
And it is made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ.
Now, keep in mind that, although Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17), he did not pretend that the people around him were blameless, with no sins worthy of judgement. Instead, he acknowledged their condition— “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17, ESV)—that the people might repent and so he would be able to heal them. We see this same love-in-honesty play out in the cases of the adulterous woman (John 8) and the rich young man (Mark 10).
The Adulterous Woman
“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So, what do you say?” (John 8:4-5, ESV).
It was probably quite surprising, then, to the scribes and Pharisees (the ones who asked the question), when Jesus did not say anything—or at least what they were expecting. Only after they continued to question him did he reply, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (v.7). And the religious leaders, realizing their own condition and thus, unworthiness to judge, were rendered speechless and went away “one by one” (v.9), until the only two left at the scene were—
- Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law and hence the only person who is able to condemn sin…
- the woman, who was just caught in sin, and one at the time punishable by death.
And this was their dialogue:
Jesus: Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?
Woman: No one, Lord.
Jesus: Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.
It was a beautiful scene. In his mercy, Jesus withheld his right to exercise judgement over this woman because he loved her. But that is only part of the story. He did not tell her that she was a sinner despite his love for her, as if stating her condition and showing his love were mutually exclusive. Instead, he spoke truth out of love, with this effect: “Because I love you, I want to end your enslavement to sin so that you might taste the joy of freedom in me. Therefore, go, and from now on sin no more.”
The Rich Young Man
Picture this. You’re Jesus, and you are on your way to the next town that you’re ministering to, and suddenly an eager young man runs up to you with a burning question— “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, ESV). So, in response, you begin with some of the Ten Commandments: “‘Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother…’” You notice the young fellow mentally sift through the items on the list, his eyes lighting up as he checks off each one, becoming increasingly convinced that he has obtained the passcode to heaven’s gates.
And beaming, he says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth” (v.20).
But you are not finished. And, being Jesus, you cannot say you love this man without telling him the reality of his condition. So, you do:
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v.21).
Unfortunately, this is devastating news to the young man. He goes away sorrowful, for he has “great possessions” (v. 22) that are too precious to give up for heaven.
Yet, it is because you love the young man that you choose to speak these words; unless the man knows what he is missing—a desire to follow you that is greater than his greatest possessions—and change his ways accordingly, he will not be able to take the eternal life that only you offer, because, as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life…no one comes to the Father except through [you]” (John 14:6, ESV). Thus, knowing what is best for him, you choose truth instead of silence.
There is another lesson for us to learn here. (End role play.) Think about the man’s response. It is worth noting that even truth spoken in love can produce unpleasant feelings, if not complete rejection. Indeed, truthful love will come at a cost, and whether or not we choose to speak truth should depend on what we know is best for the other person, not on how they might respond. Just imagine if Jesus decided to not save us through his death and resurrection because he knew that a majority of the world would reject him.
Truly, Truly, I say to you
So, speak the truth in love. In fact, speak it boldly, for without the truth of Christ to illuminate our darkened hearts (Romans 1:21), we will continue to believe that we are guiltless—a dangerous lie. If we deny our sin, we deny our need for a savior. But we know that one’s denial is not what determines one’s actual condition. Courtroom history is enough to tell us that. However, one thing it will determine, according to Jesus, is this: “…whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33, ESV). Why? Because our fallen condition has us naturally in enmity with God; only an honest admission of our helplessness can allow Jesus to save us from the Father’s wrath. And it is thus for this reason that Jesus speaks candidly to the adulterous woman and the rich young man.
“Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance move us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.” –Timothy Keller.1
1 Timothy Keller. (2013) The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.