To love or to speak?
A perennial question
I was speaking at a church camp this last weekend on the familiar topic (for me at least) of why the one-another speech of the Christian community is so vital to our spiritual health, as individuals and as churches.
I was warming to my theme, and explaining that as we speak the word to each other in love in a whole range of ways—encouraging, exhorting, teaching, admonishing, comforting, reminding, and so on—we “let the word of Christ dwell among us richly” to our immense benefit.
And then in a delightful instance of one-another speech, someone asked an insightful question: How does speaking the truth in love to each other relate to all the other ways we can love and serve one another? Is speaking the only or even the prime way we love one another? Can we love one another without speaking the truth to each other?
As I started to waffle out an answer, I realised that I had been dealing with this question in various forms for years.
Is word ministry the only ministry or the best ministry? What about the place of compassion and good deeds? Is ‘trellis’ work less valuable or important than ‘vine’ work? Surely some of us are good at speaking and ‘ministry’ stuff, and some of us are good at getting in and loving others practically. Why don’t we just let people play to their strengths?
Christian love and Christian words—how do they fit together?
Perhaps the most obvious answer to the question is the one that I started to give on the weekend.
The joyful obligation to love one another is surely bigger and broader than just speaking biblical words to each other. Love is expressed in a multitude of kind and beneficial actions. The many ‘one-another’ commands in the New Testament give numerous examples, such as serving, forgiving, accepting, bearing with, and generally ‘doing good’ to one another.
In fact, it’s very possible to be so focused on words as to fail to love others.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 Jn 3:16-18)
This is an important lesson. Words are sometimes easier than action (#IStandWithUkraine). Are kind words that don’t lead to loving action really love at all? No, says John.
So perhaps ‘speaking the truth’ in love is a subset of loving action. There are lots of ways to love one another, and sharing a biblical word with someone is just one of them. To be sure, it’s an important one, and one we should all strive to practise—because it is a command for us to obey just like all the others. But it’s no more or less important than all the other ways to love.
Is that the way to think about it?
I don’t think so. And in the process of rambling around in my answer to the question I’d been asked, I managed to remember and express why.
Christian love is love in the truth. Let us not love in words but in deed and in truth, says John. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth, says Paul (1 Cor 13:6). And it is this truth that we are to speak to one another in love in Ephesians 4:15.
Love is a kind of knowledge. Love is not a sentiment or a feeling, although it is often felt. Love is not just action, although it is often expressed in action. Love is a certain kind of knowledge of what is true and good—a knowledge that longs for and seeks that truth and goodness, not only for ourselves but for others. (If that sounds a familiar idea to some readers, it’s because I wrote about these ideas a few months ago in this article …)
The question is: If love is a kind of knowledge, where does this knowledge come from? How do we get to know it?
Some of it comes to us quite easily in everyday life. I know that you need food and warmth to survive—it’s a knowledge is that is acquired pretty quickly and instinctively by all of us. To wish you well but not give you those good things when you need them is a failure to love you in the truth. It may be a warm sentiment expressed with kind words, but it is not love, because it ignores the truth of your need.
This may be an everyday, common knowledge, but it is still a God-given knowledge. We know this about each other, not only because God created us to have these needs as humans, but because he gave us the capacity to perceive and know this about his world and each other. All love comes from God, because all truth and goodness come from him.
However, the ultimate truth that reveals the whole nature of the world and ourselves and where we’re going is found in only one place—in Jesus Christ, God’s final and complete revelation of himself and his purposes.
All Christian love and service, therefore—in all its forms and in all its expressions—is based on the truth that is revealed to us in Christ. In him, we no longer think about anything as we did before (2 Cor 5:16-17). Faith in him and his gospel is the foundation of love. Faith rolls up its sleeves and gets to work in love (Gal 5:6), because by faith we are set free to know the truth about the person God has given us to love.
This means that speaking the truth in love is not just one form of love. It’s the activity that defines and generates Christian love. We know what it means to love by hearing and knowing the truth of Christ. Every practical action of love or service that we undertake—in church or at home or anywhere—is founded in the God-given truth about ourselves and the world and Christ. The gospel word drives and shapes it all.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer draws a contrast between ‘emotional’ or ‘self-centred love’, and the true ‘spiritual’ love of the Christian community.
Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone; it knows that it has no unmediated access to other people. Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love for others means on the basis of a general idea of love, growing out of my own emotional longing—all of which in the sight of Christ may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness. What love is, only Christ in his word can tell me. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for the brother truly looks like. Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the word of Jesus Christ alone.
The word of Christ tells us what God is doing in our world through his gospel, as we wait for the hope of glory. The word of Christ reveals the future of all of us, and commissions us to make disciples of all nations while we can. It urges us to persevere in gospel truth and to communicate it to others.
This is why speaking the truth to one another is not so much one kind of love, but the foundation and well-spring of all Christian love. By speaking the truth of Christ to each other in multiple different ways and contexts, we do the ultimate good for each other. We grow each other in the knowledge and love of God, and that knowledge teaches us how to love others.
Perhaps this is why the great hymn to love in 1 Cor 13 proceeds directly to an exhortation for us to pursue gospel speech with one another in 1 Cor 14. Knowledge on its own can puff up. But love builds up, because on the basis of true knowledge, it seeks the true good of those around us.
Every form of love and service and practical help in our churches is determined and framed by this truth, the truth of the gospel.
Do we want to grow in genuine Christian love? Then let us keep teaching and encouraging and spurring one another to love and good deeds, by sharing with each other the word of Christ.
Pete Orr gave an excellent two-part talk on this subject at the recent Priscilla and Aquila Conference at Moore College—that is, on the ‘one-another’ commands of the New Testament, and how ‘loving one another’ and ‘speaking to one another’ fit into that. They are definitely worth a listen.
Thanks for the continued helpful feedback on the 2wtl book. I’m hard at work on the next (and final) instalment. Stay tuned for that next week, God willing.
I was amused at how many comments I received about the phrase ‘hotsy-totsy’ in chapter 4 pt 2. Some Brits got in touch to ask whether this was a strange piece of colonial slang, as did some Americans. And some Aussies wrote in to say they’d never heard the expression in their lives.
I picked up the phrase and threw it in (not really thinking about it) on account of listening to a lot of PG Wodehouse on Audible recently. (If you like that sort of thing, Stephen Fry’s reading of ‘The Jeeves Collection’ is side-splittingly brilliant.) ‘Hotsy-totsy’ is one of the many phrases that Wodehouse uses to excellent comic effect, but judging by your reactions, perhaps it belongs to that earlier era and should stay there.