“Tough love”: Anger disguised as love.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 September

Contrary to popular belief, it’s as unlike love as we can get.

Tough love /təf ləv/ n. Promotion of a person’s welfare by enforcing certain constraints on them, or demanding they take responsibility for their actions.
2. Restrictions on government benefits, designed to encourage self-help.

When I wrote about love, I mentioned there are plenty more things our culture calls “love.” C.S. Lewis listed four, though he was looking at classical antiquity. Your dictionary’s gonna have way more than four; I bunched ’em into eight categories.

I also pointed out it’s important for us Christians, whenever we’re talking about love, to stick with Paul and Sosthenes’s definition as closely as possible:

1 Corinthians 13.4-8 KWL
4 Love has patience. Love behaves kindly. It doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion.
It doesn’t draw attention to how great it is. It doesn’t exaggerate.
5 It doesn’t ignore others’ considerations. It doesn’t look out for itself. It doesn’t provoke behavior.
It doesn’t plot evil. 6 It doesn’t delight in doing wrong: It delights in truth.
7 It puts up with everything, puts trust in everything,
puts hope in everything, survives everything. 8 Love never falls down.

Because from time to time people, including Christians, are gonna try to slip another thing our culture calls “love” past us, and claim we’ve gotta practice that. Usually it’ll be hospitality, which looks like love but is totally conditional. Whereas charitable love, the stuff the apostles described in 1 Corinthians, doesn’t keep track.

Another way we know we’re talking authentic charitable love, and not one of the other varieties of love, is by the way charitable love never contradicts the other fruit of the Spirit. Love isn’t joyless, impatient, unkind, evil, unfaithful, emotionally wild, or out-of-control.

Hence “tough love,” a popular form of “love” our culture tries to pass off as the real thing, would be a really good example of fruitless, inauthentic love. Because tough love is unkind.

The justification for tough love is that there’s love behind it: We want what’s best for ’em, and that’s love, isn’t it? And in the long run, that’s what they’ll have. But in the short term, in order to get us to the goal, we’ve gotta be unloving to these people. Contrary to the 1 Corinthians 13 passage, we gotta be impatient and unkind. Gotta get angry. Gotta emphasize, “This is because I love you, and it’s for your own good.” Gotta ignore their pleas for help, compassion, generosity, or grace—those things aren’t doing ’em any good! Gotta worry about yourself, and notice how their awful behavior is affecting you. Gotta stop putting up with them, stop trusting them, stop hoping they’ll get better, stop. Quit enabling. Just quit.

The justification is that the ends justify the means. It’s okay to be awful if it’ll all work out in the end. As William Shakespeare put it in Hamlet’s mouth, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” 3.4.178

But despite our good intentions, we’re justifying cruelty. We’re plotting evil. Which ain’t love, 1Co 13.7 no matter how thin you slice the bologna.

Be tough. But never cruel.

The reason Christians are willing to practice and endorse tough love, is because it appeals to the flesh. It’s a work of the flesh, actually: It’s anger disguised as love, which is what the “tough” part of tough love is all about. It’s fake fruit.

It’s what happens when Christians get tired of giving handouts to the needy. Or when fellow Christians see us giving handouts to the needy, and are tired of us being so generous, because their consciences are asking them why they’re so stingy, and they want those consciences to shut up and quit bothering them. So they redirect their ire to the bleeding-heart Christians: “Quit creating an impossible standard for me to live up to!”

Or more commonly, “Those people can’t really be all that generous and noble. They must have some ulterior motive, like works-righteousness. They’re acting out of their liberalism, not their Christianity.” Whatever justifies their apathy. “Didn’t Jesus say we’re always gonna have needy people anyway? Mk 14.7 How’s giving out handouts gonna fix their problems in the long run? ‘Give a man a fish’ versus ‘teach a man to fish’ and all that. Stop giving in to your compassion. Stop making them dependent on you. No more giveaways. Turn ’em away.”

Often Christians excuse it “because I was raised that way, and look how I turned out.” Well, these people nearly always turn out to be a--holes, so maybe they’re not the poster children for tough love. Doesn’t stop ’em from saying it.

Often Christians excuse it because they redefine “tough love” to mean “telling people no, though they wanna hear yes.” Because what’s wrong with gently telling people a hard truth? Even God does it. So it’s okay to tell people, “Sorry; I’m not helping you anymore. Fend for yourself.”

But here’s where we get to the real difference. When God tells us no, he does so kindly. We don’t. He provides options and resources. We usually don’t. He forgives when we botch things. We offer people three strikes, then we’re done; and if we dare to offer them four, much less Simon Peter’s seven strikes—which Jesus dismissed as too few! Mt 18.21-22 —even fellow Christians get on our cases for being a doormat.

When you tell an addict you can’t give him money or drugs, but will totally help him get treatment, that’s compassion. It’s not tough love; it’s love. But when you tell this addict, “I’ve had it with you; I’m done. Leave, and don’t come back,” that’s not compassion. Maybe you hope your closed door will drive him to reform. Problem is, he’s usually too wrapped up in his own emotions to know this. Or care. All he knows is what he sees, and what he sees and hears is, “Go away. There’s nothing here for you.” He has to seek compassion elsewhere.

Tough love lacks compassion, and if you have any, you’re not permitted to show it. But compassion is a form of love. Once you divorce love from “tough love,” all that’s left is tough. Merciless. Unforgiving. Unkind.

Angry, vengeful behavior.

The actions of tough love expose what it really is. The harshness, strictness, lack of grace, lack of compassion: Tough love is anger. Not love, but anger disguised as love.

Whenever people practice tough love, it’s because we’re frustrated. We want people to behave themselves, in a way we approve. Sloppy people need to get their act together. Messy people need to clean up. Undisciplined people need to straighten up. Addicts need to stick with the program. Sinners need to reform. And needy people need to stop having so many needs… and stop coming to us with all those needs; we’re sick and tired of bailing them out.

If we’re truly pursuing the Spirit’s fruit—i.e. the Spirit’s character—we should be more like him. Now imagine the Holy Spirit if he decided he was only gonna practice tough love. Yep, nobody’d be saved by grace. All his encouragement, blessings, gifts, help: Gone. You don’t get it till you first prove you’re worthy of it.

We really don’t need to imagine it, ’cause we see it in the Old Testament: It looks like wrath. Once the Spirit had enough of ancient Israel violating his commands, worshiping every filthy idol they could find, ignoring or abusing the needy, and imagining God still loved ’em because they went to temple and God is gracious: He let their enemies have at them. He stopped holding back the famines, and instead held back the rain. He let them be consumed by debt, consumed by disease, consumed by crop failures, consumed by anything and everything. He let them die.

But there’s still a vast difference between when God does this, and when we do. When the Hebrews snapped out of it and repented, God forgave them and poured out his grace. In comparison, the person practicing tough love forgives nothing: You gotta earn back our trust. We feel vindicated for being cruel: “My harshness worked!” We sometimes feel justified in being more cruel: “Nah, I’m not gonna take you back just yet. You need to suffer a little longer. Actions have consequences, y’know.”

Tough love gives us permission to mistreat people for “the greater good.” But there is no greater good. Because it produces people who can’t tell the difference between charitable love and tough love. So they respond in tough love: They won’t love their neighbors, family members, fellow Christians, nor definitely their enemies. They mistreat and manipulate them, through tough love, to do as they wish. They treat ’em like enemies. And you’ll notice they have a lot of enemies.

Tough love isn’t love. Period.

Quitting tough love.

If your usual practice is tough love, stop. Repent.

That compassion you’ve been bottling up for a good year: Uncork it. (And if you lack it, seek it.) Be compassionate towards everyone. Everyone. ’Cause when you do nothing practical for them—you feel sentimental, but never follow up with actions—it’s meaningless; Jm 2.15-16 it’s another form of fake love. Compassion without action is dead.

Ask God to strip the anger out of you. Forgive those who act the way you don’t want ’em to. Stop trying to force them into your mould. Start trying to love them—actually love them—by being patient and kind and good and gentle with them.

Don’t just stop behaving harshly towards people. Go apologize for behaving harshly towards them, or thinking harsh things about them. Yes, that’s hard to do; I know from experience. When I first started teaching, I assumed—thanks to a lifetime of lousy examples—the way to get students to behave was through tough love, not compassion. I eventually realized I had to apologize to my students for my bad behavior. Let me tell you, you’ve got some pride to swallow. But you won’t grow any closer to God till you do it.

Once you do it, you’ll find you’ve grown a whole lot closer to those people in one sudden leap. Plus they help keep you on the right track, ’cause they’ll call you on it when you slip back into your old harshness.

Yeah, sometimes you still have to tell people “no” when they don’t wanna hear it. And when you’re being kind, sometimes people figure they can talk you into changing your mind. Or worse, bully you: Godless people regularly confuse kindness with weakness. But that doesn’t mean we have to adopt harshness again, and drive ’em away with a pointed stick. It’s not all that hard to be kind, yet firm. It just takes patience. Work on the patience.

Love behaves kindly. 1Co 13.4 Fill your love with kindness. Never toughness.