It’s February and love is in the air. Hallmark, Hershey’s, and Zales have made a fortune reminding us of our need for love (and their products to express it!).
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket here, but love is, well...tough.
Most of us have heard the term tough love. But what does it really mean? And can a Christian be both tough and loving at the same time?
Before we dive in, let’s tackle the word tough or we will miss the idea of the term entirely.
Tough can be construed as a positive or negative term. It’s positive when we view it through the lens of one being able to handle whatever life throws at them because they are tough, able to withstand. Strong.
Or tough can have a negative connotation when we view it as a trial or a hardship.
He is going through a tough season right now. We shy away from that kind of tough.
The tough I’m referring to doesn’t swing on either side of the proverbial pendulum. We tend to get caught up in our human perception of what tough love might be. Perhaps we see a Drill Sergeant in the Army who shouts obscenities, breaking a person down in order to make them strong. That’s not God!
The kind of tough love I’m talking about is not human. It cannot be understood by the flesh. It is completely spiritual and completely complete. Love is of God. God is love (1 John 4:7-8). Everything God does is impelled and influenced by His love.
The Bible uses different words for love. Some of these words mean “affectionate love”; others indicate “friendship”; and still others, “sexual love.” There is a distinct word for the type of love that God displays. The Greek for it is agape, and it refers to a benevolent love that seeks the best for the loved one. Agape is selfless. It seeks only to benefit the other. This kind of love is what Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 13, also known as The Love Chapter.
Loving someone with God’s love doesn’t mean being a doormat like we might think when we remember Jesus’ words of “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). Nor does it mean turning a blind eye or turning away from relationships altogether.
God’s kind of love says each one of us is worth it. Each one of us is worth loving no matter what. And the “no matter what”includes sacrifice—enduring, even unto death. God’s love for sinners is why Christ died on the cross (we are all sinners). That kind of love is radical. That kind of love is tough. And that is the kind of love God wants us to grasp personally so that we can express it relationally. The question is: how? How do I love the way God does—especially when others disappoint and hurt?
The best way to observe tough love in action is to observe how God dealt with people in scripture. God is our ultimate role model and example. Once we have a biblical view of God’s tough love, then we can understand how to apply His principles to our relationships.
How God Uses Tough Love And So Should We
God Communicates Verbally
Whenever God’s people rebelled against Him in scripture, He always spoke to them first. Take a look at one example:
When King Manasseh led the entire nation of Israel into idolatry, “the Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they would not listen” (2 Chron. 33:10). God’s love reached out with words in order to spare the nation from the trouble ahead.
Words are God’s gentle but tough way to draw His people back to Himself. The Lord said of His people, “I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love” (Hos. 11:4). God’s gentle way is why He tells us, “By long forbearance, a ruler is persuaded, and a gentle tongue breaks a bone” (Prov. 25:15).
We Must Communicate Verbally First
We must not assume others know when they have hurt or wronged us. Neither is it healthy to avoid communication altogether or use passive aggressive behavior to get our point across. We should pray and examine ourselves first (Matthew 7:5), then proceed to speak the truth gently in love, giving the person an opportunity to respond. Confrontation is tough, but a necessary part of tough love.
God Asks For A Decision And Waits For A Response
Here is another example from scripture: The prophet, Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. He first used tough love by verbally confronting the people and then asked them to make a decision. Elijah asked, “‘How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’ But the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). Then Elijah confronted the idolaters so that the people had sufficient time to make their decision. The Lord doesn’t say choose and then the moment someone refuses to choose He smashes them like a bug. No, He gives people “time to repent” (Rev. 2:21).
We Must Patiently Wait For A Response
Waiting is not easy, but a necessary component of tough love. Real love waits and hopes that words of correction will take hold of the heart.
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:15-20). Notice that it was love that motivated Jesus to verbally rebuke His people and yet love also waited at the door for them to hear His voice and respond. We too must give our loved ones an opportunity to respond.
If there is no change after your conversation, it doesn’t mean to sweep the problem under the rug, implement passive aggressive punishments, or other unhealthy and ineffective ways to deal with a problem. It means you must revisit the same conversation. Psalm 106 is an example of God speaking over and over to His people.
God Takes Indirect And Direct Action
Some of God’s actions are hard to handle, but His sole purpose is to bring a wayward soul back to Him.
He might use the circumstances around a rebellious person such as when He withheld rain from the Israelite’s so their crops would die (Deut 11:17). The Lord is the one who blessed the people with the rain in the first place. Here, we see Him withholding the blessing of rain (indirect action) to get the attention of His people.
When God’s words, patience, and indirect action do not produce the necessary changes, the tough love increases.He will bring direct action and allow consequences of the person’s rebellion to come against them. Again, He does this because He desires the best for His people (Psalm 84:11).
Maybe your thinking, is this kind of correction really a sign of God’s love? YES!
“Because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Hebrews 12:6
We Must Take Indirect and Direct Action
When my sons were teenagers, I taught them to do their own laundry. The thing is, they really didn’t enjoy doing laundry so, they would just wear dirty shirts, jeans, and very, very smelly socks over and over. I tried speaking to them first. Still, they refused to keep up with cleaning their clothes. Rather than nag, (I should say after nagging didn’t work) I decided to let the consequences eventually catch up.
When my boys took an interest in girls, their desire for clean clothes shifted from unimportant to very important. But then another problem occurred. Often, when I needed to do my own laundry, I would find moldy wet clothes in the washer. I first spoke to the boys, warning them. When the behavior continued, I told the boys they would have to pay for the soap they were wasting. They didn’t like it, but they paid. Unfortunately, I was still finding wet clothes in my machine.
Finally, I took a very direct approach. I gave both boys a list of laundromats in our area. They were no longer allowed the privilege of using my machine even if they had bought the soap. Of course, I was not popular with my boys for quite some time. Yeah, they were quite angry with me. Today they understand completely.
Ask For Help
Sometimes we must call on others when implementing tough love. We should ask a trusted friend or an elder at church for help. Doing this is an indirect way of allowing others to encourage or admonish your loved one. The biblical example is found in Matthew 18:15-17. In this passage, Jesus taught His disciples that when a conflict would arise (when not if) between two people the first step was for the offended person to go to the other alone and explain the offense. If that didn’t bring repentance and change, he should take another person with him and try again. If this approach failed to bring any change then you should take the last step of asking your pastor to go with you to approach him or her. This could also mean getting some good Christian counseling.
I am convinced many Christians have bought into the world’s misguided concept of love. Love doesn’t mean getting your way. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is give people a wake-up call. If we have fallen asleep while driving and are heading toward a cliff, would we prefer other drivers on the road to allow us to continue on our way? Of course not! We would thank the person who came alongside our car and rammed into it. If the result is saving our lives or relationships, then it is the most loving thing they could do. That is tough love.
Remember, tough love always begins with prayer then speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Tough love is never offensive or harsh when it speaks. Tough love is strong and yet kind and stands up for what is right (1 Corinthians 13:4) Tough love doesn’t play games or use passive aggression. It doesn’t force, manipulate or beg. Tough love is gracious and ready to forgive.
Yes, tough love is tough. But that is the kind of love that endures—just like our merciful God’s love.
I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your thoughts below.
In Christ’s love,
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