My guess is that if you have been a Christian for more than one year, you will know the verse in which Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love”. It is a verse regularly preached and regularly supplying the content of Christian advice. And it is a verse with seemingly assumed meaning.
“Love” is read and images of smiles and warm hearths emerge in the mind. Feeling good, lots of hugs, grateful tears, that sort of thing. Speak the truth in a way that isn’t harsh. Speak it in a way that will be received as loving by the hearer. Speak the truth in a way that won’t be considered mean. And, functionally, if to speak some truth would be understood to be mean, it may be better to not say anything.
Well, first of all, Paul commands us to speak the truth. That isn’t optional. Christians are truth speakers. We speak of what is true about God and man, sin and salvation, right and wrong. If you don’t speak the truth, you simply cannot be in obedience to Paul’s Christ-sanctioned instruction for Christian living.
And the simple speaking of the truth rules out all the warm feelings and hugs when sinners are involved. Try on this mental experiment with me. Imagine that you are a newly elected Representative from Massachusetts, and some federal bill is being pushed by the pom-pom fairy lobbyists to give preferential treatment to gay/lesbian couples in American adoptions, since husband/wife marriages oppressively promote false cisgender and patriarchal assumptions. You are holding a routine press conference when a reporter asks you your thoughts on the bill. It just so happens that that day you aren’t wearing pants as tight as Bruce Jenner’s new face, and so your testosterone and Christian courage are sufficiently circulating. And so you answer, with calm voice and level gaze, “I do not support this bill, because sodomy and lesbianism are abominations to God Almighty.” All you would have done in so speaking is paraphrase the Bible with succinctness. But your statement, already hate speech in some Western countries, would be considered akin to hate speech in America. Your quote would make headline news on CNN, and deranged talking heads with makeup would talk in circles about how much of a meany pants you are.
If tar and feathers don’t go well with your figure, just keep your mouth shut.
So what does it mean to speak the truth in love? It means that, as the Christian is to do all things, the Christian is to speak what is true united to love. To love another is to want their good in God. So because you love the sinner, you tell him that sodomy is an abomination, and call him to repentance and faith in Christ. Because you love your brother, you reprove him when he is sinning, correct him when he is thinking foolishly. Because you love God, you extol his greatness before the nations.
This is how Paul, the writer of, “speak the truth in love”, can write in the same letter that some adults are more like floppy children who need to grow up and that some men are scheming, crafty, liars and tricksters. It’s how he can write to Titus that an entire island of men are liars and lazy, evil beasts and carnal men after sordid gain. He charges his opponents on Crete with being worthless and detestable. “Ew Paul, you’re being so mean! Don’t you know that you’ll undermine your ministry and the name of Christ by saying such things?!” If Paul was held to the modern evangelical standard of what he must have meant in Ephesians 4, Paul would be in sin for writing such things. But he understood very well what he wrote to the Ephesians, and he was inspired to write all he wrote, including his letter to Titus, by the Holy Spirit of God.
The man who loves God and others will speak when others remain silent. He will charge through artillery and rain storms of lead to bring the Balm of Gilead, Christ’s truth in all its rich objectivity, to those in need. Christian, you need to be more parts Paul and less parts Lentz. For the love of God.