Tough Love


Lately, I’ve been ruminating on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Specifically, the moment they crash into his elite, well-ordered world, shattering the bliss once again. Things are going swimmingly down at the grain silos as the famine has come, and all the world is pouring into Egypt for food. There we find Joseph, in the thick of operations. No one could have predicted the moment those long-forgotten, but etched-in-the-memory profiles suddenly swam into focus. Now, Joseph faces the challenge of how to proceed.


The following chapters are a study in masterful, godly wisdom that examines the heart. It’s quite a rigamarole Joseph puts his brothers through – but it’s not done out of hubris. Study closely and you’ll see that his whole purpose was to see whether their hearts had really changed. Had the years of their father’s sorrow brought any real regret for their actions, or would they sacrifice yet another sibling to their own jealous self-interest? This is an important vignette in Scripture because it showcases how tough love really is sometimes. It’s not only severe, it’s justified.


We’re all familiar with the brilliant, touchstone passage on love from 1 Corinthians 13.


Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NKJV


In these words, we find the foundational grace of God’s heart. However, divine grace is always equally balanced with justice and judgment. If God is love, then love is fierce, passionate, jealous, demanding, and just plain incendiary. Ignore that to your peril. Love is not limp-wristed. Devotion is not all hearts and flowers. It’s not all affection, reconciliation or even forgiveness. Yes, it is rightfully passive and unspeakably humble at times, but there’s another side to the coin.


Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned. Songs 8:6-7 NKJV


We’ve had the flowers, chocolates, cute puppies and lace-edged missives, but are we ready for the fire? The purging, surging, passionate, primordial expression of the nature of God? This is the conflagration that burns away our idolatry and double-mindedness, leaving us slightly singed. Love commands from us the highest we are capable of. It requires accountability. It demands honor. Welcome to the balance in the complex equation of love.


Tough love. Not the kind we prefer, but dotage must be countermanded with discipline; ask any parent. We adore our children, but raising them to be responsible adults, not to mention righteous believers, will mean bringing the hammer down hard at times. It’s not simple in either work or romance, to defend our personal boundaries, requiring treatment that is both honorable and honest, but if we want any kind of healthful, wholesome relationship of longevity, we’re going to have to get tetchy about it. Paradoxically, liberty must be enforced.


Tough love isn’t just about being severe; it’s about being true. True to God, true to yourself, and true to the relationship you profess to cherish. Tough love is an imperishable divine ardor that refuses to feed the machinery of duplicity, or deception in any form. It exposes manipulation. It unmasks hidden pockets of hatred and contempt. It resists wanton, selfish behavior that tries to coerce pity, compassion, collusion or conspiracy. It holds professed repentance responsible and confronts contrary behavior that roguishly tries to charm itself out of trouble. Tough love does not indulge anything psuedo. It sees past political correctness and plastic niceties to discern real emotion. It frequently pours the acid test of integrity and authenticity on smiles, wiles and guiles, reducing them to a smoldering heap.


Overcoming, robust love is uncompromisingly confrontational. It’s not afraid to get up in your face, break your personal space and be unrelentingly abrasive. It’s not afraid to say things such as: If you love me and you’re angry, tell me why. If you love me and I’m disappointing you, tell me how. If you have a beef, I want to hear it. “You’ve got something to say? Say it!” Give me the chance to make it right. Do me the courtesy of personally confronting me instead of unloading your grievance on all and sundry. Don’t keep hiding behind your fastidious, but oh, so hypocritical manners. Spare me the passive-aggressive crap. Put up or shut up.


Lately, I’ve been sitting on the razor’s edge of tough love and the scorching self-examination it exacts. I’ve come to the conclusion: it’s way past time for playing games. Life is too short and much too precious. When you are spinning your wheels against deeply entrenched strongholds of personality, situations of addiction or profound demonic possession; when you have repeatedly, vulnerably, and open-heartedly confronted someone over issues in which they are steeped in denial; when you are mired in relational stalemates which bring no acknowledgement or fair effort at change, you have no choice. It’s time for tough love. There is an actual, ordained, anointed moment to stop praying, cease intervention, withdraw intimacy and simply release someone to the consequences of their actions and the unlimited mercy of the Lord. Stand up and walk away from the table of negotiation. You can do no more. At times, true love means actively letting go of things you have so desperately tried to keep from self-destruction.


You’re not God, remember?


Let love be unfeigned. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Romans 12:9


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