Imagine you are talking to two other people after our Sunday Celebration Gathering and one of them starts opening up about how hard their week was. It turns out her husband has filed for divorce and moved out this week. As you try to think through an appropriate response, the third person in the conversation rushes in saying, "Well, it takes two people for a marriage to go badly. Have you considered what you could have done differently to prevent this sort of thing? What part do you own in this problem?" As this "truth person" says this, you and your hurting friend stand there wide-eyed and dumbfounded. Seeing that you are both non-responsive, the "truth person" follows it up by saying, "What? I'm just saying the hard things because I love you."
A lot of times this is the way people think about "speaking the truth in love" or "biblical accountability." We think that it's saying the hardest things possible while saying "I'm just loving you with the truth." Others tend to obscure the truth in the name of "love," which is better labeled: "anything-goes" tolerance. The reality is that we can speak true things and fail to fulfill this biblical command, and we can have the kindest of intentions but still miss the mark of truth.
So what does it really mean to "speak the truth in love?"
"Speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) is the heart of true biblical accountability and the responsibility of every believer in the church. To fulfill this essential function, we must learn to speak God's truth, which follows the contours of the gospel of Jesus Christ while embodying all the characteristics of biblical love.
According to this verse, the truth of God is literally "in" the love of God. You cannot separate the two, and we must not view them as opposing forces or opposite ends of a spectrum. In the gospel we find the fulfillment of all truth and the greatest portrayal of biblical love. There is no truth that does not fully align with the gospel's expression of God's love, and there is no genuine love that does not reflect the truth of what God has done to save sinners in Christ.
Today in part 1, we will look at how the truth we speak must follow the contours of the gospel. Tomorrow we will look at how the characteristics of love shape our communication of that truth. As we look at gospel-shaped truth, we will apply it to a conversation with a believing friend who is struggling with depression that is manifesting in extreme sadness.
The Truth: Following the Contours of the Gospel:
The Glory of the Creator in His Holiness - To speak the truth we must acknowledge the glory of God as our Creator. When we encourage, we draw attention to how anything good in this world is a faint reflection of the goodness of God. When we exhort, we motivate people with just how awesome our God is. When we rebuke, we recognize that God's grace always upholds his righteousness and his love is a holy love. Here's how this might look in our conversation with someone experiencing depression: "I'm so sorry you are hurting. Your sadness makes me realize that we are so far from experiencing the glory of God that he intended for us. But one thing that helps me when I feel depressed is to get out in God's creation, get my eyes off of my situation, see his beauty, and remember that he is still in control. Why don't we go outside and take a walk together, and we can spend some time remembering who God is from my favorite Psalm: Psalm 46?"
The Fallenness of Man in the Flesh - To speak the truth, we cannot deny the fallenness of man or the fallenness of the world in which we live. We must call sin "sin," not just "brokenness" and seek repentance accordingly. At the same time, we recognize that we are not only influenced by our own sinful condition, but also the fallenness of the creation around us. These influences include our fallen bodies, fallen relationships, fallen heavenly beings, and the fallen natural world. To speak the truth is to carefully discern the role of all of this fallenness as we point one another to Christ. It might sound like this: "I can hear that you are really feeling the weight of how bad things are in your life right now. I also know that the enemy of our souls wants you to stay discouraged and anxious. I just want to encourage you: guard your heart in this time. I'd encourage you to find some Psalms of lament and use them to express your heart to God (I'll email some over later today). I want you to know that it's OK to not be OK, but let me fight with you in prayer so that your hurting heart doesn't turn into a sinning heart. The longer we dwell on what is wrong, the more prone we are to bitterness and all kinds of other sins, so let's bring it to God in honest prayer together instead."
The Grace of God in Christ - To speak the truth is certainly to apply the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is to get grace to the front, realizing that if someone is in Christ, he is a new creation, and therefore we must not regard them according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16). We recognize the power of the Spirit to bring transformation, and we call attention to the Spirit's work when we see the evidence of it. To speak the truth is to use grace as God uses it: not as a way to condone sin, but as a means to both cover sin and to transform us from it. Here's how this looks in coming alongside someone struggling with depression. "Hearing that you are depressed makes me think of one of my favorite verses about Jesus which is found in Isaiah 53:3, "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief...." Jesus felt all of the sadness and disorientation that you are feeling right now. In fact, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was betrayed, he was so sorrowful that he sweat great drops of blood while he prayed. But he went even further for you. He took on your sin and suffering to save you to the uttermost. He died for you so that your life would be defined by his life and power, not death and depression. But even while you are depressed, you can remember that he knows and can feel that pain with you. Can I pray with you that you would feel the nearness of our Savior in your sadness?"
The Hope of God in Redemption - To speak the truth is to speak in an other-worldly way. As believers, we have the hope of eternity in our hearts. Our future eternal home motivates us to put off sin that will have no place there. It reminds us that this world is not our home, and that we are seeking a better country. Our hope of eternity reminds us that the Kingdom of God is the only Kingdom that will last, and we must seek his Kingdom above all. Our hope of eternity reorients our hearts to the place where God is at the center. "I'm looking forward to the day when there is no depression, aren't you? There's a day coming when there won't even have something to be depressed about because sin will be no more. And our glorified bodies won't be prone to depression either. But I get that today isn't that day, and some forms of sadness are completely appropriate. Let's listen to this song about heaven and then pray together... maybe that will help set our hearts on that day together."
Hopefully that gives you a window into how the gospel shapes the truth we speak to one another. Love is written all over it. Notice in all of the examples that as we speak the truth, we are entering into people's situation and becoming vulnerable alongside them. Prayer and scripture are essential to doing this.
But there is more we can say about how we communicate in love, and we will say that tomorrow.
For now, do you know and apply the gospel so much that it guides the way you speak to others? How can you speak this truth to someone this week?