The 2016 biennial planning committee was discussing the literary context of the theme verse for the gathering, Ephesians 4:16, seeking guidance for our planning process. We moved to a discussion of 4:15 and the meaning of “speaking the truth in love.” We discovered that speaking the truth in love is not always a simple and straight forward process. We asked if there is an inherent tension sometimes between truth and love.We associate love with supporting others, encouraging and comforting them, easing their pain and hardship. In other words, we associate love with caregiving; but love and caregiving are not necessarily the same thing in every case. Love makes demands, has expectations, both opens up new avenues and closes off others. At times it is difficult to love and to be loved. God’s deep love for us can be probing and unsettling. It can make us uncomfortable with what we have done and who we have let ourselves become. Love is not always the same thing as caregiving.
We can speak the truth in many voices, and not all of them are loving. We can use truth as a weapon to diminish others, to create distance, to gain power, to self-justify, and to wound. Truth is easily misused in the service of ego and pride. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector speak essentially the truth in Luke 18:9-14, but God heard in their words very different things. Truth can reveal more about us than we wish to admit; but it can also liberate, clear the decks, and make room for the future. It all depends on the voice we use. Paul admonishes us to use the voice of love as we speak the truth.
Speaking the truth in love is all about how and why we speak. Do we speak the truth because it is the best thing for the other person or this community to hear? Will it open a future to them that they cannot now envision? Will it move them in the path of joy and wholeness? Is it about their being built up or about our being vindicated and reassured of our own righteousness? The truth is the truth, and love is love. Speaking the truth in the voice of love is the challenge.
We sometimes must say difficult things because loving can mean advocating for change. This is true in our families and in our churches. We all have had conversations that were difficult but necessary, conversations we would have preferred not to have had and for a while avoided. Our churches sometimes need to have these conversations. We need to talk truthfully about who we have become, how our community has changed, and what new things God is wanting to do among us and around us. We avoid these conversation because they will necessitate change, and change feels a lot like loss.
Maybe speaking the truth in love is about telling one another what time it is when we have lost track of ourselves and the world around us. When my sons were young and we would be reading together or playing with Legos or lying in front of the fire telling spooky stories, I would have to say “Boys, it is time to go to bed.” I didn’t want to say it, and they didn’t want to hear it; but it was the truth. It was the best thing for them. It laid the foundation for a better tomorrow for them. Maybe that is speaking the truth in love.
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State