"Tough love" is willingness to do the "tough" things out of a heart of love. We generally think of tough love as taking the hard approach to discipline, refusing to enable harmful behavior, or calling out the error of others. The Bible says that such actions should always be driven by love. Biblical examples of tough love include Nathan confronting King David about his sin (2 Samuel 12) and various proverbs about disciplining children (for example, Proverbs 13:24).
Another way to conceptualize "tough love" is the concept of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Tough love often includes actions as well as words, but the general idea is that, no matter how difficult to receive or share, truth needs to be communicated and acted upon due to love. Pastor and author Warren W. Wiersbe said, "Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy."
When King David committed adultery and had his lover's husband killed, the prophet Nathan was the only one who confronted him about his sin (2 Samuel 12). Nathan spoke the truth to David in such a way that David became immediately repentant. This is tough love.
Have you ever heard, or even said, "this hurts me more than it hurts you" as a child is disciplined? When parents choose to do the hard work of disciplining a child, even when it inconveniences them or hurts them to have their child suffer negative consequences, that is tough love. Equally, it is tough love when a parent at times chooses not to rescue a child from negative consequences. Apart from love, discipline is selfish and can rapidly become abusive or neglectful. In love, and with God's wisdom, proper discipline can help train a child in the ways of God and will ultimately lead to better things (Proverbs 22:6; Hebrews 12:11). We discipline children because we care for them and want to equip them for life as an adult. We do the tough things because we love them.
Tough love occurs in adult relationships as well. Have you ever had to confront a friend about a pattern of sin or a harmful behavior in his or her life? It is unpleasant to do so, but we confront because we want our friend to be free from the bonds of sin. If we try to correct others without love, we are simply being judgmental (Matthew 7:1–5), but when we do so in love, we are fulfilling one of our Christian duties (1 Timothy 5:1–2; Galatians 6:1).
Tough love occurs between families as well. Have you ever enacted godly boundaries with a difficult relative? That is tough love.
Our love is founded in God's love and should be patterned after it (John 13:34–35; 1 John 4:16–21). As believers, we experience tough love from God. Hebrews 12:5–8 says, "And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? 'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.' It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons."
God's tough love is hard to receive, but we can be encouraged that while, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). So we can count it joy when we face trials, no matter their cause, and let those hardships be used of God to refine our faith and make us more like Him (James 1:2–5; Romans 5:3–5).
Tough love is just that—tough. It's difficult to give and difficult to receive. But when we acknowledge the serious and eternal implications of our choices, we come to understand why tough love is so important. We are engaged in a spiritual battle; Satan is looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). So we remain alert, we humble ourselves before God, we cast our anxieties on Him, we stand firm in faith, we submit to God and resist Satan, and we don't do so alone (1 Peter 5:6–11; James 4:6–10; Ephesians 6:10–18). We have the love of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the community of believers to help us. We give tough love to one another as a means of encouragement and mutual edification (Hebrews 10:24–25; James 5:19–20; Galatians 6:1–5).
Outside of the family of Christ, the ultimate tough love is telling someone that without Jesus Christ, their destination for eternity is bound to be separation from God. It may not be culturally acceptable to share the gospel, but eternity hangs in the balance (John 3:16–18). Love can be tough, but it is God's call to His people: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34–35).
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