I heard it just the other day listening to a podcast. The pastor said, “We have to do both love and truth. We can’t just be loving… we also have to be truthful.”
This sort of sounds wise, but in fact I think it’s deeply problematic and several levels. So my proposal is simple: let’s stop saying this entirely. Let’s stop trying to balance love and truth.
Think about it for a second with me:
Love isn’t deceitful, is it?
When we contrast love and truth like this, the vision of “love” our language presents is a kind of “niceness” that’s apparently willing to deceive others in order to make them feel better.
When I hear leaders contrast love and truth like this, the implication seems to be that “love” is the easy thing to do. It’s simply placating people, saying whatever needs to be said to maintain warm fuzzies.
And if that’s what “love” is, then I agree that it is a terrible strategy for life and leadership. But what people are thinking of when they use “love” like this isn’t actually love (as Jesus defines it, at least).
No that’s, not love. The nervous managing of other people’s emotions is a form of codependence. We call it Hang Out culture, where making sure everyone else is happy is the #1 goal.
What a weak vision of love! We’re doing ourselves (and those who listen to us) no favors by talking this way. Contrasting love and truth implies that “love” is less than truthful. We’re capitulating to a vision of love that falls far short of the New Testament’s vision.
Love in its fullness is seen in Jesus
Contrasting love and truth cheapens our vision of both love and truth. It makes love into “niceness” and truth into “toughness,” as if the truth is always negative. Much of the time, the truth that Jesus speaks to people is positive. It’s truth about their identity. Truth about their authority. Truth about their belovedness!
And it’s all done in love. What the New Testament proclaims is that we see what God is really like in Jesus. And what we learn when we look at Jesus is that “God is love,” as the Apostle John put it. What does that love look like? That’s the question.
It’s scary for a lot of people to realize that, according to the New Testament, love isn’t part of an equation that needs to be balanced by anything else. Rather, love is the whole ball game! It’s remarkably easy to miss this, I think because we’ve been hypnotized by our culture’s vision of “love.”
To jog our memories, here’s a cursory overview of how central love is to the vision of the New Testament writers.
- Love is what Jesus hangs all of the law and prophets on (Matt 22:34-40).
- Love summarizes (Gal 5:14) and fulfills (Rom 13:8-10) the entire law.
- Love is the goal of all instruction and training (1 Tim 1:5).
- Love is how faith works itself out, and this is the only (!) thing that counts (Gal 5:6)
- Love is the way we know we’ve passed from death to life (1 Jn 3:14).
- Love is the way that everyone around us will know we are Jesus’ disciples (Jn 13:35).
- Love is the way we are filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:19).
- Love is who God is, and our love is evidence we are becoming more like him (1 Jn 4:8).
I could go on. “Love and truth” aren’t the vision for Jesus or the New Testament writers. It’s just love! But it’s love as seen in Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to live in reality and call his disciples to do the same.
Love is full of grace and truth
I hope you can see how problematic it is to contrast love and truth (or to try and “combine” them, which still means you think they’re different).
Here’s my proposal instead: a better vision of love is to see it as “full of grace and truth” (as Jesus is presented in John 1). And what do I mean by grace and truth?
Grace is not just God “pulling his punches,” giving me a “pass.” No, grace is all about mutuality and connection in relationship. Grace is God’s empowering presence that reaches out to connect. Grace is God’s desire to be with us. It is the gift of his friendship with us.
“Grace is not just pardon for the poor sinner but “participation in the divine nature,” as Karl Rahner said.
And truth, as we see in Jesus, is all about seeing people as God sees them (not just what’s wrong with them), and calling them in love to live out their true identity in Christ. Truth is vision, empowerment, enlivening hope that calls people into God’s kingdom. Truth is about naming and living in reality as God sees it.
Love is full of grace and truth! Which doesn’t mean we try to “balance” grace and truth… no, it’s not about balance at all. It’s about learning to live in the fullness of both grace and truth, both “turned up to 11” at the same time.
Our temptation is to try and and separate them… we want love to be “niceness” or “toughness,” but real love is neither of those things (nor is it a combination of the two). It’s a third category that transcends the false binary of “love and truth.”
Questions for discussion
- Do you use the phrase “love and truth”? What work do you think it’s doing for you? I’m genuinely curious… maybe I’m missing something?
- What new possibilities does thinking about love as “full of grace and truth” open up for you?
Leave a comment below to start a discussion!
Good stuff Ben. I think you’re spot on here and I often use this dichotomy without thinking about it. I’m repenting, telling someone else (you) and making a plan to stop lol. I’ve been thinking something similar lately with how we talk about God’s character of Love and/or Truth/Justice. I wonder if it’s similar and linked? If God is Love, then his justice and truth and even wrath are also a result of this character of Love. But we often talk of them like either/or’s….like separate compartments of God’s character.
Ben Sternke says
Yes – I think the main mistake is to think we need to “qualify” God’s love with something else. That’s just not how the New Testament talks about it!
I use what is in NIV – ‘full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14b) – rather than ‘love and truth’.
Your article is a good one.
Ben Sternke says
Yes – actually this is always how I’ve seen that passage translated, which is why people talking about balancing “love and truth” doesn’t make much sense to me. 🙂
Jeffrey Barclay says
On the mark!!! Timely! Been listening to and reading our missionary check-ins… all of them regularly talk about God giving them “a love” for their particular locale of missionary calling- a people group, a city, a region, a nation… The Holy Spirit’s movement seems related to that love. Good things are happening around our congregation, but I long for more “God things.” I know Jesus loves this city. But I am not sure that I do, at least not like a missionary might. Your article has re-formed some my thinking about love and I am finding knowing better how to love my city… Anticipating the faith that works by love, not balanced, rather reckless! Someone oughta write song called Reckless Love. 😉
Ben Sternke says
Good stuff, Jeffrey! Thanks for sharing.
John C Caron says
Never considered the conditional statement love and truth but have supported Truth and Love. Jesus said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life…..” The Truth is the Truth, a non-conditional statement. Jesus is the Truth!
Love is a conditional word, consider Jesus’s statement, “Love one another as I have Loved you.” If we accept the Truth then we must act out of His loving image that He left us and continues to exemplify in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acting in love (verb) signifies that we believe and accept the legacy that was provided for us and act on it. Simply stated, The Truth is fixed and love is amazingly variable based on faith, awareness, compassion and understanding. Glad you put this out there.
Great article Ben.I agree,that love and truth can’t be divided.Love is standing central in the New Testament.God’s language is love.Love is the number one fruit of the Spirit,and it is there for a reason.Matthew 22:34-40,gives me the answer to this reason.For me grace is,the undeserved goodness,that we receiving everyday.As you said Ben,love is the whole ball game.God is truth,His Word is truth.
Marilyn Hodgell says
As Luke has taught us… in our culture we use “love” in so many ways that we lose the importance of the word.
Ben Sternke says
Yes! Because love is so central to New Testament theology/ethics, we have to reclaim its Christian meaning and use it properly!
Griff Ray says
Ben, I totally agree in principle with what you are saying but the problem is our broken world (and broken church) has often redefined love. When I am genuinely loving someone who is outside of God’s expressed will for their life I often find their assumption is “it’s all good” because our culture teaches us all the time that “real love” doesn’t come with strings attached, no judgement, no expectations. God’s love is unconditional, in that it doesn’t ever give up on us, however, His love does call us to transformation, to die to ourselves, to sacrifice our will for His. “It’s his kindness that leads to repentance… a changing of our mind and behavior.” I would love to know when you get to this point in a “loving” relationship, when there is a breakdown on what love is and is not, what does it look like for you to proceed? (that sounds snarky but I don’t mean it that way.)
Ben Sternke says
Yeah Griff, good question! It’s hard to talk in generalities about this because each situation is unique, but a few axioms that have been helpful for me in expressing grace and truth to others… I always try to tell the truth about MYSELF first. I own MY Kairos about the situation/relationship… “I’m really struggling to understand your perspective here…” or “I just don’t see it that way – I have different convictions about this.” Oftentimes the boundary I need to set looks like gentle but firm non-cooperation, rather than a judgment or accusation. It’s more like “I can’t join you in celebrating this,” and less like “What you’re doing is sinful and you should cut it out.”
So it sounds different in each situation – and we learn wisdom as we walk it out, it’s a “learn as you go” kind of deal. Honestly, this kind of thing is a lot of what we work through in our cohorts (using the Grace & Truth Matrix as a “diagnostic” tool).
The word love came up to me when l’ve red your article again this morning Ben.The word love is so extensive and I want to mention a few forms of it.In the Greek language there are four different words for love:Eros,Filia,Storge and Agape.In short Eros is sexual love,filia is friendship relationship love,storge is family love and for your siblings.Agape love is the love for God and his love for us,and for each other.This is the love Jesus is asking from us.In the conversation between Jesus and Peter John 21:15, you get this kind of love Jesus is asking.Jesus ask him,do you love me more than these.Peter said,yes Lord,you know that I Iove you.Peter admits that he has not this love that Jesus is asking him.
Regards and God bless for you and the team,Ben.