Asserting Love

I’m not a Southerner myself, so this is admitedly hearsay. However, I understand that there’s a Southern coloquialism that’s quite popular: “bless her heart”. What on the surface sounds to be a sweet, well-meaning phrase is in practice used to preface something unkind, harsh, or that we’re not proud to say. You know, like saying “Bless her heart, she can’t pass up a donut to save her life.” That kind of thing.

I feel like I’ve stumbled across the Christian equivalent of ‘bless her heart’ recently: “I say this in love”. Just like its Southern counterpart, the way this phrase is used sometimes feels like a magic wand, or a secret code. It seems to allow Christians to set aside responsibility for any consequences of their words about to follow. It functions as a free pass to say whatever we want.

This past week I’ve seen many things said “in love”, especially in regard to my creating space for conversation about how we understand homosexuality in the Church. Despite the stated intent, being “spoken in love”, I didn’t experience it as such.

“Saying this from a place of love”, or any of its derivatives, feels eerily similar to something Jeff and I call the “I’m Funny Rule”. The rule is this: an inversely proportional relationship exists between how often a person feels the need to tell others how (adjective) they are and the reality of how true that (adjective) is in actuality. The more often a person says “I’m really funny”, the less likely it is to be true. It’s the same with humility, inteligence and physical attractiveness: the more a person talks about how that characteristic applies to them, the less true it seems to be. The most hysterical people typically don’t run around announcing it—they just are. The same thing holds true with those that are highly intelligent, and is especially true for the humble. They don’t need to convince others how true those things are, it’s plainly obvious.

This rule reminds me of  how my 4 year old daughter plays ‘make believe’. The majority of time spent playing ‘make believe’ is comprised of her running around asserting who she is pretending to be. “Hey, Mommy!  I’m Cinderella!  Look at me, Daddy!  I’m Cinderella!  Hey, brothers—it’s me, Cinderella!” This cycle can (and often does) repeat for hours, with no end in sight. She is so busy asserting that she’s Cinderella (or whatever role captures her attention that day), trying to convince us of who she wants to be, that she often never actually gets around to the business of being Cinderella.

Lately the phrase “I’m saying this in love” strikes me in the same way. If we are confident that our message is inherrently loving, there should be no reason to convince others of the point. It almost seems as if we doubt our own motives so we try to cover our bases by “saying things in love”. I wonder if we are acting out our faith the same way my daughter plays “make believe”? Do we assert that we’re acting out of love, or do we simply act out of love?


13 thoughts on “Asserting Love

  1. Your absolutely correct. Reminds me of the phrase “Love the sinner but hate the sin” that was bantied about at NWYM Sessions. Often the phrase, or the one you pointed out, preceeded some of the most vicious and hurtful statements regarding those of the GLBTQ community. I can’t see into the hearts of such people, but its hard to imagine those statements coming out of love.

    • It certainly seems like there’s room to grow in regard to how we treat each other, especially those in the LGBTQ community. It makes me think deeply about how we express the love we claim. Thanks for sharing your heart, Stan.

  2. You make a good point. Though I do believe that often those words are genuine, yet they can come across as cliché or as a license to speak harshly. Sometimes I have the responsibility of correcting my kids and I want to reiterate within that conversation how much I love them and how proud I am of them because those truth are intrinsically essential to them receiving my words as they were intended. Does that mean they do not know I love them unless I say it? No – But sometimes it is important to express love verbally, even if it is already felt (At least that’s what my wife tells me!). This can be especially true when touching on topics that are very personal or delicate.
    Is there space within the conversation for someone who fundamentally disagrees to say so? If love is purely emotive, then we will only feel loved by those who reinforce our perspective and assure us that we are moving in the right direction. However, if love is someone’s overwhelming concern for our very best, regardless of how they are treated in return, then even if their perspective is painful or flawed, we can still receive their words as an expression of love.

    • Thank you for the respectfully dissenting voice, Andy! This blog is intended to be a place where all viewpoints are treated with respect if not agreement, and you fit right in. Please keep contributing!

      I agree that voicing love directly has value, and didn’t mean to imply that love should only be shown and never expressed verbally. As you say, there is tremendous value in confirming our love through words. I’m not sure that I’m on board with the parenting analogy, for two reasons: 1) parents (hopefully) are constantly reinforcing the needed corrections of their children with loving actions, and 2) parents and their children are not on equal levels of power. Parents hold positions of authority over their children. Unfortunately, in Christian circles, I often see communication that mirrors this power dynamic inappropriately. Christians attempt to assert spiritual authority over each other (as a parent over a child) rather than aknowledging each other as equals, and respecting difference. It is from this dysfunctional dynamic that I object to the “I say this in love” phrase.

      Again, I am open (even hopeful) for respectful disagreement. Please keep challenging me and sharing your perspective. I hope I haven’t heard the last from you.

      • Thank you for the warm welcome, and taking the time to respond. We are definitely in agreement that the authoritative component of my parenting example is not a good parallel to conversations between two Christians. The portion of the analogy I hoped to correlate was the necessity of verbally expressing love when a difficult or sensitive message is being communicated.
        That being said, ecumenical authority has been an important component of Christian history. It was authoritative councils throughout the centuries that identified the very books that comprise the Bible as being authoritative. These councils also guarded the trove of Christian belief and interpretation from many unorthodox teachers and sects. In our western mindset, many Christian movements have shifted away from any collective authority to depend solely upon personal interpretation. I have varied opinions on the rationale of some of those historical councils, considering the potential for corruption and ulterior motives. But I do wonder how much current distraction from following the Way would be averted if Christendom valued unity and authority more than individuality. How much more could be accomplished if Christianity were not fragmented into thousands of sects and fractions? I realize these comments are somewhat detached from the topic at hand, but it’s something I have been considering lately. Thank you for the conversation.

      • Great questions, Andy. Though I’ve been absent from the blog the past few weeks (an unfortunate mix of all the kids sick, me sick with a lung infection, getting ready to send my oldest to preschool, and being knee-deep in canning season) I’ve been mulling over the issues you raise. Your statement about wondering “how much current distraction from following the Way would be averted if Christendom valued unity and authority more than individuality” caught my attention in particular. Though seemingly detatched from the current topic, I have a sneaking suspicion they might be more deeply related. Thank YOU for the solid food for thought! (I’m guessing that this theme will pop up here again soon.)

  3. Kim,

    I think you’re absolutely right about the usage of the phrase in many cases. However, if what is said in love is grounded in the truth, my experience of such a statement is that the person speaking is trying to deliver a difficult truth while at the same time working against the misperception that calling something what it is is somehow unloving. This gets especially tricky in the Church, where the authority is not inherent to any person, but to the Scriptures. How is a brother or sister to do what (s)he is called to do in confronting sin (Hebrews 3.12-14) while simultaneously communicating humility and love in doing so?

    The Apostle Paul wrote a difficult letter to help a group of people whom he loved recognize sin and to turn from it, that they may actually glorify the God they said they loved. This letter – because it was filled with difficult truth that was nevertheless full of love – warranted the Apostle’s own clarification of intent: “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2.4). He was qualifying his statements by clarifying intention.

    It seems that, when the truth gets lost in a sea of misunderstanding, such qualifications are, in fact, wise. However, the wisdom of the qualification does not mean that its truth or love will be perceived. I think this is what Andy was saying, more or less, and I am inclined to agree with him.

    I also think you’re spot on in exhorting each of us to consider carefully the words we say, including questioning our motives, examining our intentions, and weighing our communications.



    • Rick,

      I agree completely with your assessment that a sea of misunderstanding calls for clarification. Your observation that there is no guarantee that such qualifications will be received as wise or loving also seems to ring quite true.

      For me, you hit directly on the tension of issue when you talked about “the misperception that calling something what it is is somehow unloving”. In this case (homosexuality being a sin), the Christian community experiences disagreement within itself. Many Christians understand the Bible to speak very clearly on the issue as you do. Many other Christians understand the Bible to speak just as clearly, but very differently. What are we to do then? It seems like the situation requires less calling “something what it is” repeatedly, and listening to each other instead.

      It feels arrogant and prideful to repeatedly speak ‘truth’ to people who understand it differently, especially when their understanding is based on the same source. I worry when we tell others of their ‘wrongness’ in places where there is disagreement on what the Bible teaches, and especially where people feel Christ leading them to consider differently. To me this way of thinking verges on treating our own understanding of the Bible as an idol, holding our interpretation paramount to all else.

      It is a difficult balance, confronting sin while communicating humility and love. Thank you for the reminder of the importance of grace as we figure out how to walk that road together.



  4. The midwest equivalent to ‘I say this in love…’ is ‘I just love Betty, but…’. You can bet that what follows the ‘but’ is something Betty would find unforgivable if she heard i. Nothing good ever follows that phrase.

    Another phrase I’m leery of is “Can I be honest?” My students love to try to pull this one. I like to surprise by saying no. They’re often shocked, but as I explain: “That usually means that you want to express an unflattering opinion without suffering any consequences. So if you decide to express your opinion anyway, just know that there might be consequences.”

    • Great teaching moment, Webb! I’m thankful for teachers like you that think critically and are willing to challenge students’ thinking.

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