How Love Paves the Way for Hard Conversations
We recently had a difficult family meeting. Our kids had been acting disrespectfully, so we sat down in the living room to talk it out. Hard words were shared; tears were shed. Though it was not a comfortable confrontation, the kids knew we shared our hard words in love. How? Because that same living room is normally where we play games, wrestle, read Scripture, sing songs, dance, and tell stories. That room is known mostly for enjoyable love. So when we sit down to have unenjoyable conversations, they may not like it, but they never doubt our love for them.
A healthy church should be like a living room. What normally marks its relationships is thoughtful encouragement (Heb. 3:13), Scriptural instruction (Rom. 15:14), hopeful songs (Eph. 5:19), glad thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:18), weeping together in grief (Rom. 12:15), joyful testimonies (Ps. 66:16), generous hospitality (1 Pt. 4:9), and welcoming fellowship (Rom. 15:7). When churches are rich with this sort of love, it strengthens relational equity that supports hard conversations.
In recent months, our church has needed this kind of strength. We’ve had lots of particularly difficult conversations. By difficult, I mean we’ve needed to say hard truths to people we love.
“We have serious hesitations about your relationship with that person.”
“It appears your ambition for money and affirmation are driving you into dangerous territory.”
“Your social media presence is not honoring to Jesus and is provoking division.”
“You’re treating your spouse in ways you wouldn’t treat an enemy.”
“We fear your thinking is being more informed by the news and social media than Scripture.”
“Your apathy toward others’ suffering is gravely concerning.”
“We’re compelled to warn you that your sinful pattern is leading you toward judgment.”
In isolation, these statements could sound harsh, judgmental, and condemning. But in the context of loving relationships, God can use these words to give life (Proverbs 18:21). This doesn’t mean that just because you love people, you will always deliver hard words well. It also doesn’t mean that just because someone loves you that they will receive hard words well. But saying hard things and loving the people we say them to are both necessary because God commands them both.
TRUTH & LOVE
We are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:25). While truth and love are relative in the culture, they’re not relative in God’s Word. The Apostle John tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2; cf. 2 Jn. 6). True love is defined by God’s Word. We love God by obeying His commands, (Jn. 14:15) and we love others by allowing God’s commands to govern everything we think, do, and say to them.
This certainly means we should say truthful words in a loving way. But in the church, we ought to do even more. We ought to trust one another because we love one another. Love is why we teach (1 Tim. 1:5), it motivates sacrificial living (Eph. 5:2), and it distinguishes us as God’s children (Jn. 13:34–35). Truly, if a church lacks love, it has nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).
We also love by having hard conversations. We shouldn’t enjoy rebuking others, but we should help them honor Jesus and experience the joy of obedience to him (Jn. 15:11). Admonishment shows love by exposing sins, addressing immaturity, or correcting error (cf. Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 4:14; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:12–14).
Paul publicly admonished Peter because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:11–14). Paul’s love for Peter, Barnabas, the Jews, the Gentiles, the church, and the name of Jesus compelled him to have a hard conversation. Love must do the same for us.
PAVING THE WAY
The old adage attributed to Richard Baxter rarely proves false, “If people can see you love them, you can say anything to them.” What follows are five suggestions that display the kind of love that paves the way for hard conversations.
1. Pray together.
The Apostle Paul’s relationships were marked by prayer. God used prayer to endear churches to Paul and to knit Paul’s heart with the churches. His many hard conversations were done through tears and with tender compassion (Acts 20:31; 2 Cor. 11:2). Though he was occasionally misunderstood, his prayerfulness proved his love for those churches (cf. 2 Cor; Gal.).
As we pray with and for fellow believers, God builds trust, love, empathy, and humility. Prayer guards us from self-righteousness and cultivates empathy toward others. Indeed, it’s difficult to look down on people you constantly lift up in prayer. Having hard conversations is easier with people you’ve prayed for and with often because you both know your hope is ultimately in the Lord.
2. Welcome correction.
While our elders have shared hard words in recent weeks, we’ve also received hard words. Some members have shared their disappointment and frustration with the way we’ve handled some difficult issues. The conversations were heart-felt and humbling—and to be honest, they hurt. But we needed to have them. Our leadership had left some brothers and sisters wounded, and we needed to talk it out.
As pastors, we’re not above correction. We should be models of receiving it. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1–5 that we must “first take the log out of [our] own eye” so we can see clearly to correct others. Pastors who are known for being humble, approachable, and willing to be corrected will be better received when we come to correct others.
3. Be scriptural.
When Scripture is central to the life of a church, it’s natural for it to be central in personal conversations. If we’re known for showing impartiality in our preaching, then we’ll be trusted to show impartiality when engaging in conflict. If we’re known for striving to live according to God’s Word, then we’ll be trusted when we call others to live it according to it as well.
When confronting a challenging issue, open the Bible. Don’t use it as a bully’s bat, but as a surgeon’s scalpel. When everyone sits before the open Book to hear what God says, it brings humility and helps us discern the difference between sin and personal opinion. Prayerfully commit to letting God’s voice be heard most clearly and let the light of his Word lead the way (Ps. 119:105).
4. Encourage often.
As a parent, it’s easy for me to constantly critique my children. If I’m not careful, the only real conversations we have are when I’m frustrated with them. Because of this, I strive to make encouragement prominent in our house. There’s no perfect equation, but I hope to give three or four encouragements for every critique.
Similarly, pastors must often say hard things. But we must not only say hard things. We ought to “encourage one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). The more we regularly encourage people, the easier it will be when we discuss something potentially discouraging.
There’s nothing more encouraging than keeping Jesus central to your conversations. The aim of admonishment isn’t to shame but serve one another by lifting our eyes to Jesus. Revisit his promised mercies that help in your weakness (Heb. 4:14–16). Remind one another that Jesus was condemned so they don’t have to be (Rom. 8:1). Trust that he invites you because you are weak and that he will give grace to pursue peace (Matt. 11:28–30; 2 Cor. 12:9–10; Eph. 2:14).
5. Keep trusting.
Sometimes, hard conversations don’t resolve smoothly. The split between Paul and Barnabas is a sobering reminder that disagreements can lead to undesired division (Acts 15:36–41). We must be careful not to evaluate the effectiveness of a hard conversation by someone’s immediate response. Planted seeds often take time to sprout. If people choose to leave your church, then send them out in a way that lets them know they could always come back if they desired.
Several years ago, our elders received a surprising note from a former member. The sister had left our church three years prior after receiving what we sensed was warranted reproof. In her letter, she thanked us for saying hard things to her. She admitted that at the time she was offended and angered, but as time went on the Lord used the confrontation to help her grow. Today, she’s walking with Jesus more faithfully. God used her humble response to encourage us.
You’re not responsible for how someone responds to your reproof. But you are responsible for the way you love them. Hard conversations must happen, but make sure people have no doubt that your motivation is always, always, always love.