It is a simple phrase, a brief phrase, one in which, if it had been omitted, would not have been missed. Nevertheless, it has always caught my eye, perhaps for the very reason that it seems expendable. Look with me at verse 15.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…
We will look at the full text next week along with verse 16, but for now we are focusing in on the phrase, “speaking the truth in love.” In the Greek the phrase is actually simpler. It literally reads, “truthing in love.” There is good cause to add the word “speaking,” as most translations do, but we should understand that “truthing” is not limited to speaking. Our whole way of living and relating to one another should be done in truth.
And that certainly fits the context of the passage. Verse 14 has just said that we are not to be as children “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” The obvious remedy is to speak and practice truth. Build on the elements of the faith. Grow in knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and then, as Jesus said about those who heed his own words, when the rain falls and the floods come, our house of faith will remain standing.
Truth matters. But so does love. Or does it? I know love matters, but does it matter as much as truth? That really is what I want to explore. I want to know if “in love” is an aside, a mere nod to having good manners – Paul knows his mother is going to read the letter and so he slips it in.
“In love” appears three times in this passage composing verses 1-16. Other than the word “one,” which serves as the adjective for each element in verses 4-6, only the word “body” occurs more (four times). In verse 2 we are told to bear with one another in love. The passage concludes in verse 16 by speaking of the body building itself up in love. It is easy to see why “in love” would be added in verse 2 since the verse is about getting along with one another. And it is not too difficult to grasp its significance in verse 16, as growing together is the emphasis. One could say that is the point here as well in verse 15. The whole passage is about unity; to have unity there must be love so that we can get along and work together.
That is true but I want to contend that the love is more deeply wrapped up in “truthing” than just getting along. I would say there cannot be truth without love. We can neither understand truth fully, nor communicate truth fully without love.
Let me make my case. Look with me at Paul’s prayer in 3:14-19:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every familyï»¿ in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In this tremendous Trinitarian prayer, Paul prays to the Father to grant the Ephesian believers power through the Holy Spirit so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith that they, being rooted and grounded in love, might have strength to comprehend and to know the love of Christ. Note the connection. In order for them to have real understanding of the love of Christ, they need to be grounded themselves in love. They cannot be expected to understand what is not taking place within themselves to some degree.
Theologians divide the attributes of God into two categories – communicable and incommunicable. Incommunicable attributes are traits of God that we do not share – traits such as having no beginning, of never developing or changing, of self-existence. These are traits that are communicated to us through Scripture and to a degree we can reason them, but we can’t identify with them, and so our understanding is very limited. Communicable attributes are traits of God that we can have somewhat more understanding because to some degree we share in them. Take, for example, God’s knowledge. His knowledge is profoundly greater than ours in that he knows all things perfectly, but we can at least understand the idea of knowing since we hopefully do some of it ourselves.
Now within the category of communicable attributes we can group some into the subsection of moral attributes. These include holiness, righteousness, goodness. These are attributes that, though we cannot be as God who bears these traits in perfection, still we can to some degree share in them, enough for us to understand better than we do his self-existence. And the more we do share in them, the more understanding we have of God as holy, righteous, and good.
So it is with love. John says in 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Mental assent is not enough. Intellectual comprehension does not suffice. What we cannot experience ourselves – if only to a small degree – we cannot adequately understand. And, thus, to know the truth of God one must be able to love.
Look at it another way. We cannot begin to understand the mind of God if we lack the same motivation in our minds. Back in college I had a roommate, of whom one could say lived in the single-minded pursuit of self-pleasure. It must have been around Christmas when we were talking, and he made the comment, “Everyone knows they would rather receive gifts than give.” He was in earnest. He believed that. He could not conceive of a mindset that took more pleasure in giving than in receiving presents. And so he looked upon others who indicated they took such joy in giving as acting hypocritically or with intent to manipulate others to get what they wanted. That is how he would have acted. In other words, his inability to love unselfishly hindered his ability to understand a rather common trait in other persons.
And so with God. If you cannot love, you cannot understand God’s love, and so you cannot understand God. However much academic training you may have; however much biblical knowledge you have attained, if you do not love you do not know the God who loves.
This was the problem of the Pharisees who were devotees of the Scriptures. Even so, as much as they honored the Scriptures and strove to follow its teachings, they still missed an essential component taught in Scripture, namely, merciful love. Jesus pointed this out to them. Jesus converts a hated tax collector named Matthew, who then invites Jesus to his home for dinner with his fellow sinners. The Pharisees observe this and are offended that Jesus – supposedly a man of God – would rub elbows with such detestable people. And so he tells them: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Hear again that line: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ ” He is quoting scripture, Hosea 6:6. Why didn’t they already know what that verse means? Why didn’t they know what it says about God? Because they did not love, at least not love “sinners.” They could not identify with such a mindset.
Truth – if we are to know truth and to speak and live out truth – must be known and practiced in love.
So what does this “in love” look like? Before I go on, let me advertize free material I have written on this subject, called “Speaking the Truth in Love.” You will find the material, both in manuscript and audio form at https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/lectures/by-series/speaking-the-truth-in-love.
“In love” means we must desire the good of others.
That was the difference between the Pharisees’ attitude toward sinners and Jesus’ attitude. Jesus actually cared about the souls of the sinners. This sounds like an obvious principle to take for granted but is one easily ignored for that reason. I recall sixteen years later (because it was so funny) my first month or two in my position the comments of a couple to me. I had in the first month a kidney stone attack. The following Sunday during announcements, I thanked the congregation for praying for me and added what I thought was a humorous description of the episode. After the service, as I was shaking hands at the door, a couple stopped and made clear to me that as occasional visitors from out of town, they had come to hear the sermon and did not care to have time taken up hearing about my medical condition. Then as they walked away they smiled and assured me they were speaking in love! Speaking the truth in love was not what they were doing. Getting an annoyance off their chest – that is what they were doing. And I’ve no doubt they felt better for it.
Getting a matter “off our chests” is often the real motivation of our speech. Someone has said or done something that troubles us. And so we react. Maybe we are intent on putting a person in his or her place. Maybe we are not thinking about the person at all. We just feel compelled to correct his mistake or sort out a mishap, and so we speak out or take action, only to find matters getting worse. Instead of our clear logic winning the day, the offender has only dug in his heels and brought others into what is now a controversy.
Why are they so unreasonable? Don’t they care about the truth? Doesn’t it matter to them that what they were doing was wrong? Can’t they see we were only trying to help them?
Well, that is what they do not see. They see, rightly or wrongly (maybe even sinfully) that we were attacking them. They feel threatened. They didn’t hear logic; they heard attack and they put up their armor of self-defense. That is the natural reaction of us all. Our defense mode kicks into gear, and it takes effort to let it down.
What helps it to go down is to know and to feel that the person speaking to us actually cares about us. He or she cares that we are built up in our faith. How does he do that? It varies from person to person, from personality to personality, from case to case. I give suggestions for what to in my paper on “Speaking the Truth in Love.” The point is that if my goal is to build you up in Christ, then that very attitude will give me the wisdom needed to say and do the right thing. If I remember that the goal is to build up the offender, then I will think and act in such a way that the offender has not only been corrected, but has benefited from it and is positively motivated to improve.
Let your operating word be to encourage. Remember Jesus Christ, the servant who would not break a bruised reed; and that should be an apt description for each one of us. Your brother in Christ is bruised by sin – his own and the sins committed against him. Your sister is wounded by hurts experienced both in the world and in the church. Each one is acting out in some degree from woundedness. Our Christian family members get pounded by the world – pounded with temptation, with mockery, with direct and indirect opposition to their faith. And worse, they often get beat about by the church and fellow believers who sin against them and reprimand them, and, like the Pharisees, impose standards on them. Then there are their own failures that taunt them – from shameful sin to embarrassing deficiencies that get them into trouble. It is out of these sins and wounds that they operate in the church and even carry on ministry, thus leading to their offenses. This is not an excuse of their offenses; rather, it is a call to consider the burdens of our brothers and sisters, and to follow our Lord's example of coming alongside them to heal, not wound; to build up, not tear down. We are to be about the business of building up, of encouraging the body members of Jesus Christ. And once we understand that; once we operate out of that motivation, we will find ourselves wiser.
“In love” means we care about truth being heard.
Some might be thinking now that this is all good and well, but it takes a lot of effort. I’ll do what I can but telling the truth is what really matters, and it is up to the hearer to accept it or reject it. Well, no doubt God will hold the hearer accountable. None of us will be able to excuse our sin before God by claiming that the speaker was not loving enough.
Nevertheless, by failing to act out of love and out of the desire to build up our brother or sister, we work against ourselves. Indeed, if we claim that truth matters but do not take the steps to see that truth is heard, we condemn ourselves. Proverbs 16:23 and 24 read:
The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
What marks the wisdom of an individual is his ability to not only know what is truth but how to get that truth accepted. His chooses his words carefully so that he will be heard. He will add persuasiveness to his lips. He will speak gracious words that are received like a honeycomb.
Not all that he says will be gracious. Speaking the truth in love, speaking wisely does not mean that the words will always be nice. Sometimes a stern reprimand is called for. Sometimes anger needs to be expressed. I spoke of Jesus who would not “break a bruised reed.” There are words of Jesus that still scandalize me by their fierceness. There is no one-model-fits-all way of speaking. You will have to prayerfully consider what is the best means of communicating what needs to be communicated. If you will take time to consider what will get through to the hearer – you are more likely to have success.
Truth – if you think truth is important – requires the effort to communicate well.
“In love” means we care about the whole truth.
“Do you want to know the truth?” We've heard that question before; sometimes we've said it. What usually follows is a negative comment. And, indeed, we often identify truth telling with criticism. People take great pride in having the fortitude to “speak the truth.” Some will argue that speaking the truth (meaning by that saying what others do not want to hear) is speaking in love.
I don’t argue with the logic, but if such persons have a true love of truth and for their neighbor, they will go all the way with it. If I am really concerned for truth, I will be as eager to spread good news as bad news, encouraging words as deflating words. I will be as quick to spot what someone has gotten right as I do error. Otherwise, I am not a truth lover but a mere faultfinder.
Let me give another time of receiving criticism. I received a letter that began with a compliment. The author expressed his appreciation for my ministry and for some talk I had given. I liked that. I felt good about myself reading his words. He then went on to admonish me. He felt some phrase I had used might have come across as insensitive to others. As I thought about it, I agreed with him. Now, was I able to receive his admonition and benefit from it because he first used flattery to soften me up? That's one perspective. Another perspective of what he did is that he took time to speak the whole truth – the positive, along with the negative. Because he made the effort to do so, I was encouraged and enabled to receive correction at the same time.
Speaking the whole truth – the good along with the bad – builds the church body rather than pulls it down. Speaking the whole truth enables the other person not merely to take the bad tasting medicine, but to weigh more accurately the good with the negative.
If I come to you about your sin or error only; if I do not also present your strength, what is good about you, I obstruct truth. I make it more difficult for you to put whatever failing you might have in the fuller picture of you. And if I leave you despairing, I am guilty of obstructing the gospel itself.
And I need to make the effort of seeing the good with the bad for my own sake. It is easy for me to get caught up in the sin of another brother or sister and then miss the fuller picture of that person. Many years ago when I was a school principal, I was asked by a secretary how I put up with a particular teacher who was poorly organized and thus caused me extra work. I replied that I think of his devotion to his students, which cannot be replaced. If I had let his lack of organizational skill be the defining element of him as a teacher, I would have missed the whole truth. I would have missed his real value.
What “speaking the truth in love” comes down to is to follow the command of our Lord, who said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It makes sense. That is what he had for us. He died for us out of love. If the one who is the Truth came into this world in love; if he who is Truth died for us in love, should we not then speak truth, the whole truth, in love?
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