I have heard this scripture used my entire life and in almost every context it is used incorrectly. The way that most people use it is as a rationale for being critical. “I am going to tell you something I don’t like about you or your behavior but don’t be mad at me because I am doing it in love.”
Judgment and being critical are some of the easiest things for us humans to do and we are good at it. Me, being chief among them. But what if this verse has nothing to do with bringing up negative things to others?
Truth, as it is used in this verse, is what you discover when you find out you are wrong. It is a brand new way of looking at something, a discovery. There is an openness and a humility present when you discover something. In our joy in our discovery we have a desire to share that with others because we are anxious for others to hear it because we love them.
The use of the word love here is not a feeling but a condition and a life. What is love? Love, according to Dallas Willard, is to will the good of another. For me to speak the truth in love is to only speak what is really real and do it for the good of another. Often, we tell people things because we are willing the good of ourselves rather than the good of another. That is not speaking the truth in love.
The Message translates Ephesians 4, “God wants us to grow up, to know the truth and tell it in love – like Christ in Everything.” In Eugene Peterson’s translation, the verse has little to do with our personal conflicts but with a rich maturity that leads to knowledge of the truths about Jesus and speaking up about these truths because that is the loving thing to do. It is an evangelistic verse and not some free pass to cut someone down because you “love them.”
This well known verse and entire chapter establishes that what is most important is the condition of our heart not the words of criticism we have ready to fire at someone. And it establishes that Christ is the one that is the source of our love. Our need to be right and better than others and to make sure they know it because we “love them” is nowhere to be found in the meaning of this verse.
So get off your high horse as you “speak the truth in love” because unless you are ultimately pointing to Christ and willing the good of the person you are speaking to you are neither being truthful or loving.