How Can I Speak Truth in Love Rather Than Truth or Love?
We learn a lot from an apostle, interventions, surgeries, and a five-year-old boy's near tragedy.
Read below or listen to the podcast.
An Intervention at the YMCA
As usual, Lauryn Lax arrived in the morning at the Nashville YMCA ten minutes before opening. She had a favorite Stairmaster and wanted to make sure she secured it for her multi-hour workout. However, this morning would be different. She wouldn’t even get in the door.
Johnny Phipps had organized an intervention. As Lauryn pulled into the parking lot, a group of friends from the gym gathered to escort her to the hospital. At only seventy-nine pounds, Lauryn was suffering from anorexia, a body image disorder that, if left untreated, can lead to organ failure and death. Thankfully, she had a group of friends who loved her enough to confront her with the truth and get her the help she needed.
An intervention isn’t a tribunal of judgment. It is a friend loving someone enough to speak the truth with humility and care—not to judge but to help.
I could have told a story about an intervention for alcoholism or domestic violence. It could be pornography, gambling addiction, compulsive shopping, or prescription medication abuse. For some, the issue is habitual lying, bi-polar disorder, a divisive spirit, or just a perpetually sour attitude.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an intervention. Having established a foundation of grace from which to speak in his introduction, verses 6-10 of chapter one are some of the most forceful, pointed, and hard words he ever wrote. You’ve heard the saying, “The truth hurts.”
Sadly, some of us like hurting people with the truth, wielding the sword to wound where our desire is condemnation, not restoration.
But Paul speaks the truth in love, with a deep desire to see the once beautiful but shriveled girl become healthy again. That is the intent of Galatians 1:6-10.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! 10 Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
The Focus of Paul’s Concern
Did you notice what Paul is concerned about? It isn’t the Galatians’ physical health, emotional condition, or moral stature. This is a theological intervention aimed at restoring their doctrinal understanding of the gospel. I wonder if we would have even considered this kind of intervention on the list of possibilities.
As we read the rest of the New Testament, there are many other issues Paul and the other Apostles tackle. But none as forcefully as this. Secondary theological errors are corrected and practical, Christian living matters are addressed. But these five verses are different.
In verse 6, Paul charges the Galatian believers with rejecting Jesus. While the word is translated deserting Jesus, the original Greek word Paul uses has the sense of putting something down and exchanging it for something else, like trading in an old phone for a new one. In effect, the Galatians were trading their previous understanding of what Jesus had done for a new perspective, which is why Paul exclaims in no uncertain terms, “You are turning to a different gospel.” And as verse 7 indicates, a different gospel is no gospel.
Paul is willing to engage in the conflict of intervention because he loves these Christians and knows that what someone believes about the core message of the Bible affects every dimension of how we live. It impacts me at the level of identity and influences not only my actions but my emotional condition. As a church, we say that grace changes everything. So does the absence of grace.
The Heresy of “Jesus Plus” Salvation
A fundamental question each of us must ask is this: Am I standing on the foundation of Jesus’ merit before the law of God, or am I standing on the foundation of my own merit. According to Jesus, one is solid rock; the other is quicksand.
In verse 7, Paul refers to “some people” who had infiltrated the church after Paul left. They were teaching that Jesus did a lot to effect forgiveness and reconciliation between sinners and God. To these teachers, the cross was necessary but insufficient. In other words, Jesus built most of the bridge over the rocky ravine of hell. All we have to do is build our small part to complete the project.
We call this a “Jesus plus” doctrine of salvation. Jesus did his part. All we have to do is the “plus.”
In verses 8-9, the apostle condemns this perversion of the gospel is the bluntest terms possible, pronouncing a curse upon any who corrupt the gospel of grace by mingling human works into the salvation equation. The message Paul had preached was not that Jesus did a lot but that Jesus did it all.
The Greek word for curse is anathema; a term is equivalent to saying, “Go to hell.” Paul isn’t being mean or snarky. By using the word anathema, he is stating in unambiguous terms that “Jesus plus” is a demonic corruption of the gospel intended to repel sinners, deceive believers, and minimize the cross of Christ. If this false gospel of legalism has its origins in hell, Paul demands it go back to where it came from.
You need to know that the Jesus plus equation is alive and well today. The plus is anything we look to that improves our standing with God other than the blood of Christ and his imputed righteousness. It can be a spiritual practice such as Scripture reading and daily prayer. The plus plays into the equation when we base God’s approval on our performance by turning the means of grace into substitutes for grace.
For others, the plus may be a theological system such as Calvinism or Arminianism. Even the translation of the Bible one uses or the worship style we prefer may become a ground of righteousness. Even in pastoral circles, what leaders wear, whether robes, jeans, or something in-between, can be an unconscious “plus” in our functional experience of grace. Anything— even good things— can deceptively become pluses to which we look for righteousness apart from or in addition to Jesus.
Wounding to Heal
For Paul, the “plus” problem was as big of a deal as finding lead in the public water supply would be today. Its presence is deadly and must be eliminated at all costs. For Paul, the price was speaking the truth in love.
Why is speaking the truth in love costly? Let me ask it this way. Why might you fear intervening in someone’s life with the truth? The answer: we fear how they might react. If they don’t respond well, we could lose a friend, strain the marriage, or make a roommate arrangement awkward.
In verse 10, we get a hint of Paul’s potential fear of intervention. He writes, almost as if to convince himself that this is the right thing to do, “Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
The only way Paul dares to speak the truth in love is with confidence that his identity is not defined by the Galatians but by God. He isn’t living to gain God’s approval. He already has it in Christ. Therefore, he is set free from people-pleasing and can love them by speaking the truth they desperately need to hear.
Have you ever thought about that? If you fear others’ opinions and reactions, you can’t really love them (or be loved by them), especially when love requires an intervention of truth.
When my wife, Kristy, was doing her hospital rounds as a pharmacy student in the early 90s, she had the opportunity to sit in on and observe several surgical procedures, from nasal reconstruction to heart valve replacements. In every case, the surgeon wounded the patient. Creating an incision was the only way to access the problem that needed correction.
That is what Paul is doing with the Galatians. Like a skillful surgeon, he opens his listeners’ hearts with the scalpel of truth. His aim is not merely to wound but to heal and restore.
This is what speaking truth in love looks like. It is painful but necessary.
Remember Lauryn Lax from the YMCA? When interviewed after her intervention, she referred to her gym friends as “my angels” and the intervention as a gift. If gym friends can love with such determined care, shouldn’t brothers and sisters in the body of Christ do the same?
The difficulty many of us face is engaging with truth and love is because some of us are tempted to use love as an excuse for not wounding with the truth. On the other hand, some of us use truth like a weapon where the motive is not to restore the sinner but merely to expose the sin.
So, how is it possible to speak the truth in love? How can we avoid the pitfalls of fearful avoidance or a weaponized misuse of the truth? I have four suggestions.
1) Only Wound to Heal
Like a good physician, we should never wound unless we intend to heal. This applies in person, on the phone, via email and text, and on social media. My preaching professor in seminary, Bryan Chappel, taught us that the law was given not just to expose our sin and make us feel guilty but was given to expose our sin to lead us to Jesus, who through the cross has born our guilt and shame and cleansed our souls of all unrighteousness with his blood. This means that, when I wound with the law in preaching, I also must heal with the gospel. The same is the case among friends and in marriage and between parents and children.
2) Engage in Self-Reflection
We should remember that each believer is the recipient of an intervention by the Holy Spirit who has convicted us of our sin and consoled us with God’s grace. The Christian is the person who has responded to their intervention with the humility of repentance, believing that Jesus is both their Sin-Bearer and Righteousness Provider. Being mindful of my moral failure revealed by the law and the love of God revealed in the gospel tunes my heart with the motive and ability to speak the truth in love rather than just truth or love. No longer will we neglect to engage out of fear but will enter in with the expectation of God’s Spirit to be at work in the surgery process—not only to wound but to heal and restore.
3) Ask Permission
Before you engage, it may be a good idea to ask permission. After all, you are holding a scalpel of sorts. Rather than launch into the truth, ask if you may inquire about an issue or speak into their life. If they say yes, begin with the anesthetic of grace, just like Paul did in verses 1-5 before expressing his concern in verses 6-10. Share your mutual need for Jesus and that you expect to need a reciprocal conversation about something in your life from them at some point.
4) Don’t Go Alone
This is just a suggestion but it seems to be wise. More than just as a witness, having someone else present who shares the same concern may keep the conversation from feeling like a personal attack. This is why interventions, like Lauryn’s at the YMCA, are not done alone but with friends.
The Son Who Didn’t Stop
Carson Fleming was five-years-old at the time. His grandfather had a large home with a long driveway in East Memphis. Riding his tricycle, Carson saw the long stretch of nicely paved asphalt. He began pedaling with purpose like a bat out of... a cave.
Nobody noticed until he was halfway to the street. On one side of the driveway was a hedge that prevented the UPS delivery truck driver from seeing Carson racing toward the intersection on his tricycle. But Durant, Carson’s father, saw him and the truck.
At the top of his lungs, with a shrill of panic, Durant yelled, “Carson! Stop! Stop! Stop!”
Just as Carson slammed on his brake and skidded where the driveway’s end met the road, the UPS truck thundered by. If I remember correctly, everyone began to weep, envisioning the tragedy of what could have been.
Why did Durant yell at his son? Was he angry? No. His loud, sharp, exclamatory words were born out of a deep love for his son. He saw the danger and intervened. It is the same for Paul for Galatians and God the Father for us.
Each believer in those churches and every one of us today is like Carson riding a bike toward the street into oncoming tragedy. We don’t face a UPS truck but the coming justice demanded by God’s law for traitors of the King. We either will stand upon the merits of Jesus unto eternal life or stand upon our own, only to feel the trap door open beneath our feet.
What is startling about the gospel is that it is the King himself who rode a bike in the form of a cross. But Jesus didn’t stop at the end of the driveway. The Father allowed his son to face judgment in our place. The Savior was cursed so that we can be free. He was wounded unto death so that we could be healed and restored.
Jesus didn’t just do a lot. He did it all. He didn’t build his part of the bridge, waiting for us to finish the project. Our reconciliation with God is all of grace. It is a gift that requires no assembly on our part.
Maybe this morning has been a gospel intervention for you. Perhaps you are like the Galatians and have added a plus to your salvation equation. If so, what an opportunity you have right now to confess and believe that Jesus really has done it all.