“… speaking the truth in love …” Ephesians 4:15
What a high challenge that is—to speak plainly yet the impression people get is one of unconditional love. We live in an immoral world and it is easy to be deeply disturbed by what we see and hear, so we live with a burdened, broken heart. All these things stir us deeply. We find it hard to tolerate it. But then, when we have an opportunity to speak out, it is often with pent up convictions which can come off scathing. Even confrontationally judgmental. We should realize in that moment of reckless outburst that we lose a hearing.
God desires us to speak moral truth repeatedly yet always with a loving heart. We must represent a God whose love gave guidelines for our good—to promote, provide for and protect us. No one was of higher standard than Jesus Christ, yet He ate with and was a “friend of sinners.” (Luke 15:1) This means Jesus somehow found some way to convey a heart of love, totally unlike the other religious spokesmen of His day. We must constantly desire that same spirit from each of us.
This much is sure, God never wants ultimate moral truth spoken out or declared by anyone without a heart of love. Let’s nail it down and plainly say it—if we are like Jesus Christ, we will learn how to speak God’s eternal truth in evident love. In Christ, truth and love were twins! That is why Jesus drew such a hearing continually.
Yet we, in our dark and demonic world, must consistently speak the truth in convincing love so that it is believable, spoken with reasonable and sound logic that it might be seen as a correct way of life; which means, in the context of a loving relationship. Only by doing so will we help young Christians by example and earn a fair hearing for the Lord with unbelievers. Again I repeat, few matters are more difficult, yet hitting the right balance is essential for our effective witness.
Once pointed out to me was Paul before a man who morally deserved no respect, King Agrippa. Yet, when Paul spoke to him, he used his title, “King Agrippa,” which indicated a degree of respect; the point being that Paul was not rude. That is both a strength and a skill, and a strategy. King Agrippa was not verbally slapped in the face before Paul presented his case. (read Acts 26) And Paul said to him, “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you” (Acts 26:2, NIV), and then he said, “I beg you to listen to me patiently.” (verse 3) Do we see his skill in showing respect for the king’s position, knowledge, and sense of ethics? Paul was not abrupt, dismissive, or intolerant. We must all learn that!
Again, when Paul was in Jerusalem caught in a Jewish riot and the crowd was aroused in violent anger and wanted to kill him, Paul said to the Roman commander, “May I [notice, May I] say something to you?” Then Paul explained, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please [notice, Please] let me speak to the people.” (Acts 29:39) When given permission, Paul then addressed the crowd that wanted to violently kill him, speaking in Aramaic, “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” (Acts 22:1)
There was a wise grace and a profound strategy in play at that moment of great hostility. Make sure that is noted and realized.
To Governor Felix he started a letter with much tolerance and respect saying, “Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings.” (Acts 27:26, NIV) This was not compromise but courtesy.
People today need to see a person of deep convictions and yet with the ability to speak moral truth that shows evidence of love. Many have never seen that displayed. Our example indicates what eternal truth looks like in a culture where there is no recognized ultimate truth.
What is required is not perfection—but authenticity. We may not, again like Paul, always win our case, but we can win respect. Especially young people will listen to truth that is presented in an atmosphere of ultimate sincerity and evident humility—which at the end of the day makes it an authentic witness. The result is that this will show people that Christlikeness not only is said in truth but said in attractive truth—in the context of a loving spirit. In the end it is undeniable and unforgettable, and most of all it has drawing power.
Far too often this is the perception of Christians—“They are intolerant, bigoted, hateful, and arrogant. They think they are right and you are wrong and they want to put you down. They do not respect anyone who disagrees with them!” So the first challenge is to prove this untrue.
Allow me to say it this way: they do not believe what you say is true until they believe what you are is real and authentic, humble and respectful. It is absolutely essential to build the bridge of a relationship with people who see things (the world of people) very differently than a New Testament believer. Only when people we encounter overcome this negative cultural perception of Christians being intolerant, arrogant bigots will they seriously listen. It’s a fact, we must be respectful and thoughtful, we must be loving and gracious. Chuck Swindoll called it being “a velvet covered brick”—solid yet soft!
Here is our challenge—we must build an authentic relationship with people who spurn and reject our most cherished beliefs. Of course, it’s easy to be diplomatic and gracious with people like us; Christ would want us to do that with people who are not like us and who think they never could be like us! We will take their anti-Christ objections seriously but respond as Peter said, “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15, NIV). We must model first of all how outspoken Christian witnesses lovingly engage with outspoken nonbelievers. So that, even if we lose on that encounter, we win because we have destroyed the negative perception of today’s followers of Christ.
John Stott reminds us that “love is as much a sign of Christian authenticity as is righteousness.” So then, let’s go back and remember that in the New Testament great stress is put on love as a priority. It is the first fruit of the Spirit of God in control of our life. (Galatians 5:22) It is seen as graciousness in the face of ugliness. Let’s lay it out in logical order: Biblical knowledge is vital, living faith is indispensable, personal experience is necessary, and active selfless service is essential, but—all of it is negated if we come off as a judgmental Pharisee! Tender love seen in us is to be viewed as primary, preeminent, principled, and paramount!
There is nothing that more powerfully challenges unbelief than love. It conquers and dislodges argument. Jesus died, and it seemed to many, as a victim, but He died in forgiving love and became a victor! He lost His life, but He is winning the world. Cannot we see that?
Here it is, in a hostile setting of conflict with non-Christians; am I the victim of my heated emotions, or am I the servant of unconditional love? Can I love people that I do not like? Can I sincerely love people that I passionately disagree with? — If there is doubt, it proves Christ is not in full control of me!
To be honest, this is “major league Christianity” to be sure!
Sometimes when we need to think like this as we face anti-Christian hostility, we must put aside any thoughts of dramatically persuading them or defining success as seeing someone instantly converted. But rather, we need to have the “long view,” to show compassion, warmth, and thoughtfulness and Christlikeness, to simply create the possibility of a hearing for the future. In the book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Conviction by Gregory Koukl, this Christian apologist called this a unique name—“to put a stone in their shoe,” that is, to make them walk with a limp!
My real life illustration is this one: In 1995 Norma McCorvey became a Christian. She was baptized and even later joined a pro-life group. Why is that important? Because Norma is the “Jane Roe,” yes, of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case that gave impetus to the abortion movement. Now, Norma McCorvey, the former “Jane Roe,” gave testimony that a total change started to take place for her when Christians with anti-abortion views started treating her with love and kindness, simply as a human being. She was no longer an evil opponent to the right to life movement but a human who needed someone to love her the way Christ loved people. It was first, love and grace that disarmed and humbled her. This made her tender and teachable, and then God’s truth broke through to her mind and heart. Christ changed her world view—not cold argument, rather the loving Savior Jesus Christ!
Paul’s thoughts in the Living Bible are paraphrased like this: “… we will lovingly follow the truth at all times—speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly—and so become more and more in every way like Christ …” (Ephesians 4:15-16, Living Bible)