It’s the phrase that I suspect most Christians dread to hear but it’s one that I suspect is most used among believers too. Tim Wilson recently asked on twitter which particular Christian cliches irritate us the most and the phrase “I’m saying this in love” and presumably variants on that theme came up.
Why does it jar so much? Well, I think it’s because all that precedes or follows often feels less than, or even the opposite of loving. I’m not just talking about content either, it’s also about tone, timing and actions.
Perhaps too we are a little cynical and we need to be wary of that. We can presume that if someone has to say ~”I’m speaking in love” then it raises questions about why they need to make that clear. Don’t we assume that all Christian words and actions are motivated by love. It follows the old adage that “they protest too much.” I’m reminded of the occasions (more than once) when someone announced “I’m not seeking to take over the role of pastor.” I mean why would we assume that they were.
The phrase should therefore be superfluous, redundant. It should be clear to the hearer that we speak out of loving motives and clear from the outcome that not only the intent but the consequence was loving.
Of course, that may seem easier said than done at times. We are supposed to speak the truth in love and sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, sometimes it hurts. It may not be obvious when we have to make a difficult decision or say something hard to hear, especially a correction or rebuke that we are doing so out of love.
I think though that there are a couple of ways in which we can help one another out with this. The first is about all of us and our culture. One of the reasons why people might feel the need to emphasise loving motives is that too often we operate in a culture of suspicion where people presume the worst of others actions. If our default is to think charitable of others and assume the best of them that will help.
This might mean that sometimes we have to step in and support the brother or sister who has made the difficult decision or delivered the challenging message. Rather than being quick to tell them that they have hurt the feelings of others, we should prioritise encouraging the offended party to see the love in what has been said and done. Note that by this, I don’t just mean “but they meant well” rathe I mean “What they said/did was loving, they said it because they care and this is in fact what is needed right now, even if it hurts.”
Though, there is also I think a responsibility on us when delivering that tough message or painful rebuke or making the unpopular decision. We need to think about the things I mentioned above, tone and timing. I think we also need to take time to explain our reasoning. Don’t just say “I’m saying this in love”, instead explain why you think that this is the most loving thing to do/say in that context.