Life Groups are small groups of 3–5 men or 3–5 women who are serious about helping one another live under the lordship of Jesus. These groups meet at least every other week, and involve three main ingredients:
1) We remember our stories
2) We listen well
3) We speak the truth in love
First off, the phrase itself — “speak the truth in love” — comes from the apostle Paul in the context of Christian maturity. In Ephesians 4, Paul casts a vision of the church in her mutual upbuilding. It goes like this:
First, the pastors of the church equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12a).
the work of ministry means the building up of the church itself (Eph. 4:12b)
the goal of this building up is that we mature in Christ (Eph 4:13)
[maturing in Christ means we’re not led astray by bunk doctrine and deceitful schemes (Eph 4:14)]
But instead of being led astray, which is the antithesis to maturity, we speak the truth in love, and thus mature in Christ (Eph. 4:15–16)
That’s the flow of the argument, which makes “speaking the truth in love” a pretty high priority in this thing called the Christian life. And we need to make sure we get this right. By “truth” here, Paul doesn’t mean brute honesty about anything. He means truth as that which accords to reality and is relevant for one’s maturity in Christ. In other words, don’t quote this verse to tell someone you don’t like their Type-A personality when it comes to dinner plans. You’re fine to tell them how you feel, but don’t try to stand on Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:15. That’s not what he means. He means truth as in gospel truth — God-truth, God’s-way-of-seeing-the-world truth, God’s-design-for-the-universe truth. Which doesn’t mean the particular things you like or disike about someone. Speaking the truth in love goes beyond the surface-level things that are easiest to see. It digs deeper, it draws out the heart, and it always, always, always is about the other person, not you. It’s for their good, not yours. That’s why it goes “speak the truth in love.” It always has the personal element in view. We want good for them, for Joe, for Ellen, for Tom. And when our speaking doesn’t want that, when we speak the truth to get it off our chest, because we think raw truth by itself is love, it actually becomes all about us. If we take the relational piece out, the part where we want a real person to be more like Jesus, then we’re just blasting truth because we like to blast stuff. And Christian maturity in others won’t be the fruit.
We are to speak the truth (the truth of God, gospel truth) in love (for the other’s good in Christ).
Here are a few guidelines for how to do that:
1. Ask another question first
Ask a lot of questions, actually — good questions. And then, once you think you’ve asked enough, go ahead and ask one more.
And then, when you’ve got something to say, ask that final question that goes something like this: “Do you mind if I share with you something I’ve seen?” Or maybe: “Is it okay if I tell you a couple thoughts I had about your situation?”
In almost every case, because of the relational foundation to Life Groups, the reply will be positive. Of course, we want that. That’s why we’re in Life Groups. But still, this is a good question because of the way it primes the person in front of you. It highlights for them that you’re not bee-bopping in to rant a handful one-liners. You have something for them, and you want them to know where it’s coming from.
2. Bring the gospel into the picture
Even if the gospel has been in the full context of everything said, take a minute and root what you’re about to say in the grace of Jesus Christ. Affirm the reality of his cross, of his favor, of his unwavering commitment to his people, all my mercy. “Friend,” you might say,
I just want to remind you that Jesus loves you, that he died in your place and suffered the punishment you deserved, and that he defeated death for you, that his Spirit lives within you, and that he’s promised to complete the work that he began. All by grace. He made you his — God your father, the church your brothers and sisters. He loves you. All by grace.
Sometimes it may be as simple as reminding them of their identity. You are a child of God. You are forgiven in Jesus. You are cleansed from every sin. Your life is hidden in Christ.
3. Be okay with simple, but not shallow
If we think we can’t speak unless we have something profound to say, chances are, not much will ever be said. Seriously, don’t go silent because you fear your words are not impressive enough. If the Spirit is working, and truth in love is welling up, you need to say it. And many times, that won’t mean a groundbreaking revelation. Most of the time, actually, it will probably be something we already “know.” But it’s good to say it again. Just don’t say the same thing over and over again in an artificial way that eventually gets so disconnected from how you feel that it means worse than nothing.
What I mean is: it’s okay to be simple, but not shallow. We can speak basic, shared, common truth that we embrace as Christians. But don’t stamp every circumstance with a canned line or two and leave it at that. One question to ask yourself is: “Have I seen what I’m about to say on a t-shirt before?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably best to hold on to that one.
Keep in mind, we know the stories here. We’ve been listening well. Now, when it’s time to speak the truth in love, bring all that together. Acknowledge the complexity, reach for the heart, and remember that God gave us the Holy Spirit, not a fairy godmother. The transformation we need doesn’t come in the dash of a wand — hardly more in a line we’ve got to say — but it comes in the slow path of faith, one degree of glory at a time, and God uses us speaking the truth in love to do it.