Speaking Truth in Love

Or Why I Prefer Ephesians 4:15 over Romans 15:14

Romans 15:14 (NASB95) And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.

This verse has been foundational to biblical counseling ever since Jay Adams was instrumental in restoring counseling to the church. It has been important for several reasons. One was its emphasis on laypeople [1]Paul is addressing the average Christian in the passage, not pastors or other professional ministers. being able to admonish or instruct each other. Jay Adams taught from this verse that counseling was not the domain of a professional class. The average church member should be able to take God’s Word and counsel other believers from it.

A second reason for its importance is based on the actual word translated, admonish, in the verse (νουθετέω). Early on it was called Nouthetic Counseling [2]Jay Adams was less than enthusiastic about it being called this, but he felt that since every counseling system eventually is named, he would like to name it rather than letting its detractors name … Continue reading because of this Greek word in Romans 15:14. It’s a wonderful Greek word, but it tends to communicate a sterile, firm, confrontational expression of biblical truth.  

νουθετεῖν, however, describes an effect on the will and disposition, and it presupposes an opposition which has to be overcome. It seeks to correct the mind, to put right what is wrong, to improve the spiritual attitude. …It does not mean “to punish,” but through the word to cause the appeal to the moral consciousness to gain a hold over men and bring them to repentance and shame, so that punishment is superfluous.[3]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Vol. … Continue reading

There are other Greek words that could have been used to communicate a more nuanced definition of biblical counseling. For example, parakaleo (παρακαλέω) means coming alongside someone, to encourage or comfort. It could be symbolized as teammates comforting each other after a loss where noutheteo might be pictured as a coach “admonishing” the quarterback after an interception.

This verse has had an outsized impact in the biblical counseling movement for good reasons. Even today the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s podcast is called 15:14 because of the significance of this verse. I like Romans 15:14, and have pointed many to it over the years.

However, I think another verse has all of the benefits and more of Romans 15:14; therefore, I think it better explains biblical counseling.

Ephesians 4:15 (ESV) Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

This verse occurs in a context where the Apostle Paul is describing how the church functions. In verse 11 we find that God gave gifted people to the church—they are spiritual gifts, but Paul relates them as gifted people, not just gifts. Then in verse 12 we learn that the immediate purpose of giving gifted people that minister the Word to the church is so the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry.

Then we’re taught at the end of verse 12 through verses 14 and 16 that the church is built up and protected from error by these gifted people and us exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church. The entire point of verses 11-16 is how the church is built.

In that context we’re taught that we should “speak the truth in love.” God’s people grow through proclaiming truth in love. Some think this is more than just speaking truth in love. In fact, one person translated it as “truthing” in love because it’s more than just speech. it’s also conduct.

This combination of truth and love is exquisite, and I think a better foundational verse for biblical counseling. It has the advantage of also being addressed to laypeople. The average Joe Christian is supposed to speak the truth in love and thereby help the church grow.

What happens if we have truth, but no love? We are offputting, harsh, probably unkind. What happens if we have love, but no truth? We are accepting, compassionate, but ineffective. We don’t actually help anyone. Eph 4:15 has all the advantages of Rom 15:14 plus a clear emphasis on communicating truth in a loving way.

Any claim to speak the truth without love is not really speaking the truth. Any claim to love without the truth is not really love. Love is not indifferent to truth.

Growth for you and me means having difficult conversations about spiritual truth because we love people. Any claim otherwise (e.g., I don’t have a personality that can do difficult conversations) is just an excuse for staying immature.

And when truth in love happens we grow. “Grow up in every way” means every way maturity should characterize us.

So what is the biblical counselor doing when counseling? Rightly understood he or she is communicating God’s truth in love. This means we don’t take the edge off of biblical truth, but we do communicate it with compassion, patience, grace, and mercy. We are not disinterested in the person in front of us—their struggles, history, hurts, concerns, weaknesses, and failures. So we point them to Jesus with kindness. That’s “speaking the truth in love.” And that’s what makes Eph 4:15 a great summary of the counseling task.

References

References
1 Paul is addressing the average Christian in the passage, not pastors or other professional ministers.
2 Jay Adams was less than enthusiastic about it being called this, but he felt that since every counseling system eventually is named, he would like to name it rather than letting its detractors name it. Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970), 52.
3 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, Vol. 4, Page 1018, 1020. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976.

A Better Illustration of Spiritual Blindness

Every pastor, every biblical counselor has talked to a counselee that really couldn’t see his sin very accurately. You’ve patiently showed him how he’s hurting his marriage, how he’s not fulfilling his biblical role, how he’s not loving his wife as Christ loves the church, and he’s not seen it. He refuses your counsel. He doesn’t own his sin. He rejects blame. It’s difficult to communicate the biblical concept of spiritual blindness—that we don’t see our sin very clearly. Sin deceives us to its existence (Heb 3:12-13), and we want to be deceived about it.

In this life we will never have 20/20 vision about our own sin. The Laodicean church shows us that.

Revelation 3:17 (ESV) For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Did the Laodicean church think that everything was okay while in fact, everything was radically wrong? Did they really believe that things were A-Ok when they were really wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked? Yes they did. So do you. And so do I (Cf. Mt 7:3-5).

So what illustration can a biblical counselor use to communicate our tendency to be spiritually blind? Most use physical blindness which works, but has limitations. One, a physically blind person knows they are physically blind; a spiritually blind person often does not know they are spiritually blind. Two, physical blindness as an illustration is all or nothing, but there can be degrees of spiritual blindness.

Protanopia or deuteranopia are types of color blindness. With protanopia you cannot see the color red (1% of men) and with deuteranopia you cannot see the color green (5% of men). Most commonly a colorblind person struggles to differentiate between reds and greens. What is life like for the colorblind? They go through life without seeing all the colors we see. Most times it doesn’t affect them—at least in ways they are aware. They look at their child’s crayon drawing, and they don’t know what they’re missing. They notice the cut and shape of a new dress on their teen daughter, but they don’t know that the colors are fantastic.

We had a student in our church who didn’t know he was colorblind until he took his vision test for his driver’s license. You need to be able to distinguish between reds and greens if you’re going to have a license—stoplights demand it! His family enjoyed camping and in looking back, it made sense that he wasn’t ever impressed with the sunsets while sitting around a campfire. His life worked fine—as far as he could tell—while being colorblind.

YouTube videos of colorblind people seeing colors for the first time are somewhat common now.[1] http://enchroma.com/ A company called EnChroma worked with Valspar Paints to develop glasses that allow colorblind people to see colors. It’s amazing. In one I saw a guy look at a sunset and say, “So is that what you guys see every day?” He’d never understood the glory of a sunset.

Colorblindness is a better analogy to our spiritual lives than total blindness. Think about what it means to be colorblind. You can function fine. You might know that you’re colorblind, but you really don’t know what that means. You don’t know what you’re missing because you’ve never seen it. You look at a flower garden and you can see the different shapes and some differences in hues, but you have no idea that you’re missing the eye-popping colors in the garden. You’re missing something that is obvious to everyone around you. That’s spiritual blindness. You and I can function in life, and because we can, we don’t notice our blindness to our true condition. We go through life ignorant of the depths and extent of our sin. We cannot see it.

Sin is blinding. By nature it fools us, and when we’ve sinned for a long time in the same way, we become less and less able to see it in all its ugliness. I’ve rarely, maybe never, talked to a person whose tongue was destroying his family who thought his problem was as severe as it really was. That’s the human condition. Sin is blinding.

Colorblindness is a better illustration of spiritual blindness than actual blindness. It illustrates the blindness-to-our-blindness characteristic of spiritual blindness. It illustrates that we can function with our spiritual blindness. We’re not incapable of making our way through life. And that fact keeps us from seeing our sin very well.[2]The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.

References

References
1 http://enchroma.com/
2 The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.

3 Cautions with Personality Tests

A while ago I was playing a game called 9 Books with our family and a family friend. It’s one of those parlor games where you need to know the trick to get it, and once you get it, you can never play it again. In this game we put books in a 3×3 pattern on a table and one person left. The rest of us picked a book and then the absent person was called back. Our family friend pointed to book after book and when she pointed to the one we picked as a group, he called it out. The trick was to figure out how he knows, and I must not be good at it because I was probably the last person to figure it out. In my case I had a lot of guesses, but when I finally guessed correctly, it was an aha moment.

Tim LaHaye’s Spirit Controlled Temperament was like that for my family (and many other evangelicals) when I was growing up. I was taught the four temperaments—choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholic—and we took the test to figure out which one we were. It seemed to explain each of us. (For the record I was a choleric-sanguine mix.)

Those two incidents are analogous to me for how people tend to feel when they get the results back from a personality test. It seems insightful; there is an aha moment. When I find out I’m Cool Blue (Insights Discovery), it seems to give me information that I didn’t have before.

And personality tests are big business. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most commercially successful personality test; it’s used more than two million times a year. But there are others–close to 2000 personality tests on the market today.[1]Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver However, it’s questionable to me if they really are helpful for sanctification. Like parlor games I think they can be fun and interesting, but I question whether they actually lead to greater growth. Apparently some outside the church wonder similar things, even calling them the astrology of the office.[2]Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, … Continue reading One author said, “Personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”[3]Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, … Continue reading I’m sure some are more scientific and others less so (I’m looking at all you otters in the 4 Animals Personality Test), but I wonder if any are truly helpful for the biblical counselor. They’re interesting. They’re probably fun. But are they actually insightful? Can they really help me change?

Some people invest them with almost biblical importance. Here are three cautions I have about personality tests.

Caution: We Might Confuse Personality with Spirituality

So you’ve taken a personality test and the results say you are a patient person. That’s great! God gives some people a greater measure of patience in his common grace to us. But don’t confuse the results of a personality test with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23-23). Those are virtues that are the result of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. They are by definition, unnatural. So be careful not to take the results of a secular personality test as evidence of spiritual growth. They’re not the same. God’s work in us is something that can only be explained by the Spirit, not by personality.

Caution: We Might Believe that Personality Is Fixed

Even though some have found evidence that variables in taking the test can affect your results (i.e., you can get different results with some tests depending on when you take it), overall we are tempted to think like the world that our personalities are fixed. So we get our results back and believe we cannot change. But where your personality is not Christlike, it has to change. It can change. The Great Commission and the 2nd Great Command aren’t just for extroverts. Us introverts have to share the gospel and love our neighbor. A personality test result is not an excuse for avoiding your neighbor too. Even introverts can be progressively sanctified resulting in loving others better. Personality tests are based on the assumption that personality cannot change. That’s not a biblical assumption.  

Caution: We Might Believe they Are Explanatory Rather than Descriptive

This is my primary concern. I can regard them as tools of self-discovery that explain me. I think they tell me why I do something rather than what I do, and the personality test makers promote them this way. They sell them as describing why we think and behave like we do. There are two potential ways I can misuse this assumption.  

  • Accusingly: “You do that because you’re an otter!”
  • Excusingly: “I cannot really help it. It’s what Cool Blues do.”

But Scripture doesn’t let us accept such poor explanations for our behavior and thinking. Instead it teaches us that all sin comes from the heart (Mt 7:15-20; 12:33-35; 15:10-20; Mk 7:14-23; Lk 6:43-45). It’s the bad fruit of a bad tree. It’s good news then that Jesus changes hearts. A personality test might describe the characteristic ways that I handle conflict or whether I prefer people or tasks, but it can never explain why I do what I do. The Bible is rich with motivation theory. Why let the insights of unbelievers explain you?

Like parlor games, personality tests are probably mostly harmless—with the above cautions in mind. Just don’t expect your personality test to say something about you that is more important than what Scripture already says about you. Be careful making life decisions off of a personality test. Don’t live based off the “insight” you received.

Are there any cautions you might add? Any pushback you might give?

References

References
1 Louis Menand, “What Personality Tests Really Deliver,” September 3, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver
2 Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office,” September 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/personality-tests-office.html?.?mc=aud_dev&ad-keywords=auddevgate&gclid=Cj0KCQjwt-6LBhDlARIsAIPRQcKIMy3FHWkex5pioSrHoedPIYPm4wDTUeOyl8Pw-shMfjvQBhuM1GkaAl_QEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds
3 Annie Murphy Paul, National Public Radio, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?,” June 25, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/25/483108905/personality-tests-are-popular-but-do-they-capture-the-real-you

The New Puritans Don’t Do Forgiveness

In an interesting article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum decries modern cancel culture, pointing out that some feel trapped in a world of unforgiveness. Who’s trapped?

  • An editor of the New York Review of Books that “was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer.” 
  • Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it.
  • Alexi McCammond was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and then people discovered and recirculated on Instagram old anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she had written a decade earlier, while still a teenager. McCammond apologized, of course, but that wasn’t enough, and she was compelled to quit the job before starting.
  • One former journalist told Applebaum that his ex-colleagues “don’t want to endorse the process of mistake/apology/ understanding/forgiveness—they don’t want to forgive.” Instead, he said, they want “to punish and purify.” But the knowledge that whatever you say will never be enough is debilitating. “If you make an apology and you know in advance that your apology will not be accepted—that it is going to be considered a move in a psychological or cultural or political game—then the integrity of your introspection is being mocked and you feel permanently marooned in a world of unforgivingness… And that is a truly unethical world.”[1]Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.

Applebaum calls the self-righteous mob the New Puritans, and they are professional shunners. When “sinners” offer the apologies demanded, they know they won’t be accepted. They truly are trapped in a world of unforgiveness.

Unbelievers talk about forgiveness, but mostly just to say that something or someone cannot be forgiven. Cancel culture is just the latest example of unforgiveness, but we have been an unforgiving people from the beginning. Outside of Christ changing us, how could anyone forgive a debt—and that’s what forgiveness is. An offender has a debt that only the offended can write off. How can anyone do that? Only believers can, and only believers that recognize they have sinned greatly against the King and inexplicably been shown mercy (Mt 18:23-35).

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:26–27 (ESV)

If you don’t understand and appreciate the gospel, you will never be a forgiving person. We who have been so generously forgiven, must generously grant forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an exclusively Christian virtue. I’ve seen marriages invaded by adultery fully restored. Not left in an uneasy truce, not left weakened and ill, but completely reconciled and whole. I’ve seen daily verbal assaults and general selfishness of a spouse forgiven. A marriage that should have so much distance after years and years of sin has become a glorious example of Christ’s love for the Church. I’ve seen siblings reconciled after incredible hurt has been done. Again, I’m not describing holding the offender at arm’s length after proclaiming forgiveness. I’m describing real reconciliation. Can your religion—or irreligion—do that? I don’t think so.

Have you ever thought about whom[2]Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4 you’ve sinned against most in your life? For me, it’s easy. I’ve been married 29 years, and while I’ve sinned against my parents, my siblings, and my own children, I’ve sinned most against my wife, and it’s not even close. Yet she is the one person I am closest to in this world. We are best friends. How? God has forgiven her, and therefore she regularly (often daily) forgives me. That’s the only explanation. So many marriages eventually crumble under the cumulative weight of each other’s undealt with, unforgiven sin. Why is ours stronger than it was before I started sinning against her almost three decades ago? There is only one answer—Christ-honoring, God-glorifying, Gospel-motivated forgiveness.

Real, genuine, biblical forgiveness is amazing. The world has nothing like it. They have no way of healing broken relationships. They continue to harbor bitterness. Only God could come up with forgiveness. The New Puritans don’t do forgiveness. They don’t do grace. They don’t do mercy. Aren’t you glad that God does all three, and because he does, we can as well?

References

References
1 Anne Applebaum, “The New Puritans,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/.
2 Meaning, which person? All of our sin is ultimately against God, Ps 51:4

“I Forgive You, but I Need to Establish Some Boundaries”

I’m teaching on forgiveness in a class full of freshmen, and it brings up interesting questions. For example, I was asked do we ever set boundaries with a person that we’ve forgiven? I think by that they meant that a person had sinned against them, they had forgiven the offender, but they didn’t trust them anymore. So are they justified in resisting restoring the relationship to it’s “pre-offense” status? Is it okay to put up some boundaries with this person?

One caveat for my answer is I will assume the offense is not a form of abuse. Abusive behavior has different dynamics—your greatest concern in that case is protecting the victim.

So with that caveat, I have two concerns with the question.

Boundaries Might Just Be an Acceptable Excuse to Avoid Actually Forgiving

Forgiveness is a step on the path to reconciliation. With many offenses, it’s equivalent to reconciliation. I’ve sinned against my wife hundreds of times, and her forgiveness has always reconciled us.

But what if you actually want to hold on to the hurt? In that case might you claim that you have forgiven them, but you need to set some boundaries? Those boundaries, coincidentally, will prevent you from fully reconciling. They will punish the offender for sinning against you. Remember that forgiveness is a promise not to bring it up to someone’s face, not to bring it up behind their back, and not to dwell on it. If you’re dwelling on it, you haven’t actually forgiven the offender. If you’re bringing it up to their face through an unnecessary use of boundaries, you also haven’t forgiven them. Really, you haven’t.

In fact, the use of boundaries can be a “spiritual” method to exact some revenge. And you and I don’t have the option of vengeance.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:18–19 (ESV)

So boundaries cannot be an excuse not to forgive the offender. You cannot claim you’ve forgiven him, but then refuse to work towards reconciliation; you cannot write them out of your life. Boundaries distance us from the offender. They don’t reconcile two people; they keep them apart. Is that what forgiveness should look like?

Or is your heart possibly deceiving you into thinking you forgave them, when you didn’t? You want to keep holding this sin against them.  

Boundaries Might Be the Idolatry of Self-Protection

Sin hurts. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the surprise of who did it. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the betrayal. In those situations and others we can become very self-protective. “They’ve blown it. I forgive them, but I won’t trust them again.” I understand that impulse, but we cannot worship the idol of never being sinned against that way again.

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Luke 17:3–4 (ESV)

Do you think that maybe on the third time in the same day a person might think, “I should set some boundaries so they don’t sin against me again”? But that’s not what Jesus says to do. He says forgive them and forgiveness is inherently risky. It means they might sin against you again. In fact, they might sin against you seven times in a day.

You cannot make not being sinned against an idol you worship. That type of self-protection could be a form of pride. “Nobody should ever sin against me that way.” Why? Are you so important?

It’s possible that the offender might sin against you again in a very similar way. If so, you confront them again, and if they repent, you forgive them. It’s not about protecting yourself from hurt. It’s not even about what’s best for the offender. It’s about glorifying God by being a generous forgiver (Eph 4:32).

We who have been forgiven so much cannot look for reasons not to forgive. The gospel demands more than that. Jesus forgave us much; we–by his grace–can do the same.

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