We talk a lot about tough love and how necessary it is. But I think it is important to be clear about what this kind of love should really look like.
Tough love is the kind of love that usually requires confrontation. It is the principle that is on our minds when we deliver a hard truth or remove someone from a dangerous situation.
Sometimes in life we witness the people around us drowning with an anchor tied around their waist. Tough love is a knife cutting that anchor off, even if the drowning person hates us for it.
This is not an excuse to hurt those closest to us. Intolerance and undeserved criticism, as well as anger, violence and envy have no place being falsely labelled as love.
Our actions, even when in the form of tough love should demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit. Do they display gentleness and self-control? Do they promote peace and joy?
We throw around the word toxic now as if half the people we meet look like the inside of a poison control center. Real love can be misconstrued as toxic when it defies someone’s wishes but promotes their wellbeing. However, loving poorly and selfishly can very well be poisonous too.
When we begin to measure our love against biblical principles, tough love seems less and less applicable in everyday living. It is the choice we make in the extreme times, it is not the well-worn response to loving in the everyday.
It becomes the common response because it is easy and because compassionate love is hard and demands something of us. We sacrifice a piece of ourselves — our comfort, our space, our energy — when we choose compassion. It is much easier to harden our hearts and become callous by delivering tough love.
When I think about the hardening of a heart, I think of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus refusing to let the Isrealites go. It is important to remember that hardness of heart is always associated with rejecting God and never with loving others well.
I think deep down we know this. We just know that it is easier to harden our hearts because softening our hearts means there is a much higher likelihood of being hurt.
The idea of being soft-hearted or meek is universally rejected by the world. Even to the Christian, reading those words applied to us may make our stomachs squirm.
But Chritianity is meant to be radically countercultural. This means that when the culture turns their back on community in favor of apathy or hatred, we are meant to respond with love. That may look like meekness or soft-heartedness. I pray that it does.
There is a place for love that rejects watching our friends harm themselves or others. But there is also a space for love that gently takes their hands and walks alongside them. The trick is to find the balance.
I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about balance but I think that is because it is an important concept. Love is not just one thing. It is sacrificial but it is not emptying. It calls out cruelty and it allows for growth.
But if I were to guess what that balance looks like, I would argue for a much larger dose of compassionate love. After all, how often does something patient, kind and truthful have an edge that cuts the one it is meant to encourage?