A Christian is called to speak the truth in love. [Ephesians 4:15] This means to be faithful to both truth and love at the same time. But it can be challenging in difficult situations, where truth and love seem to be opposed.
In such a situation, it’s typically quite clear that objective right and wrong is a matter of truth: wrong things are really wrong, right things are really right, and the rightness or wrongness of things doesn’t change even when a situation is difficult. It’s also clear that the difficulty of the situation calls for love: someone trapped in a dilemma needs compassion, understanding, and help. But it is too simple to say that truth is only about objective things that are always right and wrong, and love is only about compassion for the person struggling with the difficulties of a situation. There is more to consider.
Truth is not just objective, it is also subjective. The difficulty facing a person is also true. If a life-guard, trying to rescue a drowning swimmer, is being dragged down by the desperate clutch of someone panicking, the panic and the dragging-down are as real and as true in that situation as the objective importance of life-saving.
Similarly, love is not just a matter of compassion for a person trapped in the difficulties of a situation, it also includes a genuine desire to keep the other from doing wrong. Love does not condone wrongdoing, because wrongdoing by its very nature is harmful to the one who does it.
How does Jesus handle situations like this? Let’s look at an example.
The Gospel of John [John 8:1-11] tells of a situation where a woman caught in the act of adultery was dragged before Jesus by a group of people. Here was someone who had been caught cheating on her husband. The people wanted Jesus to condemn her harshly. But he didn’t. Neither did he say that the cheating was OK. Instead, he calmly pointed out to her would-be condemners that they too fell short of what was asked of them, and he did so in a way that gave them time for that truth to sink in. Each of them chose to walk away. When they were gone, he told the woman not to sin any more, and sent her away peacefully.
In this, Jesus shows a commitment to the truth, both the objective truth that cheating on one’s spouse is wrong, and the subjective truth of a desperate woman surrounded by accusers, facing a harsh punishment. He addresses both the cheating and the desperate situation without denying the importance of either. At the same time, he showed a commitment to love in rescuing the woman from her dilemma with kindness and compassion, while still calling her to abandon wrongdoing and to do what is right.
How do we emulate Jesus in situations like this?
If others around us are facing a difficult situation and we are called to “speak the truth in love”, then, like Jesus, we should start by loving with all our heart. When we speak, we should lovingly speak the truth, acknowledging both the objective truth about the rightness and wrongness of things, and the subjective truth about the challenges of the situation. But keeping in mind that Jesus, not us, is the master of being loving and truthful at once, and knowing our need for his help, we should pray intently. We should pray for the people involved, and for the situation. But we should pray also for ourselves, for wisdom to know what to do and how to do it, and the courage to act rightly and lovingly. Jesus, who loves us and all those in that situation, will not abandon us. We need to do our best, stay calm, be wise, and act in love, trusting in him.