Speaking the Truth in Love: A Lesson in Spiritual Pediatrics

Galatians 4:12-20

July 18, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

I want to begin this sermon not with a comment on the text but with a personal update. I’ve been on the road a lot lately, most of the time preaching in various conferences. My travels have taken me to New York in May, to Wheaton in June, and to Michigan in late June and again in July. Earlier this week Marlene and I attended the annual Christian Booksellers Association convention in Atlanta. Many of you have prayed for me and I want you to know how much I appreciate your prayers. That’s the most important thing you can do for me as I travel from place to place. I depend on your prayers for the spiritual power to minister the Word of God effectively.

On the first Sunday of January, I shared five initiatives that the Lord had laid on my heart for Calvary. I haven’t talked about those initiatives since then so I thought today would be a good time for an update.

First, I said we needed 100 new Prayer Warriors to expand the prayer ministry. By God’s grace, more than 100 new people signed up by the middle of February. Second, I called for an expansion of our Internet ministry. Since then we’ve been broadcasting every week to an ever-growing audience from across America and around the world. The broadcasts are archived on our web site so that anyone with a computer and a modem can access those services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from anywhere in the world. We’ve also built an Internet broadcast studio in the basement. Third, I shared a dream of reprinting 250,000 copies of my evangelistic book from Moody Press called “An Anchor for the Soul.” We want to distribute the books to prisoners through a partnership with Prison Fellowship. I’m happy to report that just this week we placed an order for 50,000 copies to be reprinted. We hope to have them in time for the Operation Starting Line ministry in Mississippi in August. Fourth, I spoke about the need to start a ministry to international students who are studying in the Chicago area. In recent years huge numbers of international students have come to Chicago-area universities and graduate schools from all over the world. A week ago Saturday we sponsored a conference on how to reach out to international students. I hope to see that ministry blossom in the months to come. Fifth, I shared a vision that Calvary should become a leader in the area of racial reconciliation and genuine unity in the body of Christ. Many things have been percolating behind the scenes in this area. But the most important fact is the growing diversity of our congregation week by week. That’s a very positive trend, and one that I predict will continue in the days to come.

Helping Someone Who Doesn’t Want Your Help

As we come to our text, let me begin by asking a question. Have you ever tried to stop someone you loved from doing something really stupid? It may have been a foolish choice, a dumb business move, or it might have been a relationship that was obviously bad for the person. Perhaps you saw a friend starting to be unfaithful in marriage or perhaps that person wanted a divorce for a trivial reason. Or you could see them slipping into alcohol or drug abuse. Or you realized that their anger was out of control. Whatever it was, you saw it and you tried to step in and help them see the light. You wanted to save them from making a terrible mistake. And to make matters worse, you could see it but they couldn’t. No matter how much you talked or pleaded or argued or yelled or reasoned with them, they just didn’t get it. I suppose all of us have been there.

Whenever we get in that situation, two things generally happen:

1) The friendship is strained, and

2) Passions rise on both sides.

The conversation might go like this:

“Get out of my life.”

“I’m only trying to help you.”

“If you want to help me, leave me alone.”

“I’m your friend.”

“You’re no friend if you act like that.”

“Am I your enemy because I tell you the truth?”

That’s precisely where Paul found himself with the Galatians. In the beginning Paul had preached the gospel and won the Galatians to Christ. He knew them well and prayed for them by name. He rejoiced in every victory won and wept over their struggles. He loved them as his spiritual children and they looked to him as their spiritual father. And now the Judaizers had entered the picture. These false friends had seduced the immature Galatians into adopting the practices of Judaism. Now they were on the verge of turning from the Lord. When Paul calls them to account, they get angry at him for butting in. “Who is Paul to tell us how to live? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? Leave us alone.”

Paul is a parent in pain. At this point the potential for disaster is very great. What do you do when the people you love reject your advice and get angry when you try to talk to them? If you say nothing, things will get worse. But if you try to say something, things may get worse anyway. In that situation it’s easy to write people off. “Go ahead. Be a fool. Jump off that cliff. See if I care. I warned you. I hope you hit the bottom hard so it knocks some sense into your head.” You say that and then you shake the dust off your feet and move on down the road. Or you say, “Live and let live.” But Paul couldn’t do that either. He loved them too much to let them rush headlong off the cliff of self-destruction. Our passage tells us what Paul did, and more than that, it reveals the kind of heart that reaches out to those who don’t want to hear what we have to say.

I. A Reminder of Past Blessings

“I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:11-16).

Obviously there had been a serious rift in a once-close friendship. What had been warm became cool and then downright chilly. Paul’s friends were not so friendly any more. They changed because Paul’s strong rebuke had hurt their feelings. So how do you speak truth into that sort of situation without making things worse? Earlier Paul had called them “foolish Galatians” (3:1), a phrase J.B. Phillips translates as “Dear Idiots!” Here he is very tender and very personal. If they thought he didn’t care, his true heart will now be revealed.

The best ministry always flows out of relationships. It’s about more than the impartation of principles or cold Bible doctrine. Ministry is about people. Paul knew that. He could never win them if they remained angry with him. How does he express his love without giving up his principles? He begins by reminding them of past blessings they had enjoyed together.

1) I became like you—that is, I lived like a Gentile. Do the same thing!

2) You did me no wrong—”I didn’t take this personally.”

3) I’m not basing our friendship on how you respond to me.

He then reminds them of how they first met. He was sick and the Galatians took him in and cared for him even though it wasn’t easy for them to do so.

1) He was repulsive but they took him in.

2) He was a man but they treated him like an angel—or like Jesus!

3) His coming was a trial but they did not turn him away.

We can’t be sure of the precise nature of his illness. Evidently it was so serious that he spent some time in Galatia recovering from his sickness. It may have been malaria or a disease of the eyes call opthalmia. Both diseases were prevalent in that region in the first century, and both could easily have produced the results he described. He must have been a mess to look at. The disease not only weakened him; it also disfigured him so that he was disgusting to behold. The word “contempt” means to treat with utter disregard and the word “scorn” literally means to “spit out.” They could have spit him out but instead they took him in. What a lesson this is. Often the best ministry happens in our weakness and pain. When we are at our lowest, God many times uses us to touch people with the truth.

Now we come to the heart of the passage in verses 15 and 16:

What happened to your joy?

You would have given me your eyes if you could have.

Am I now your enemy because I tell you truth?

It’s easy to see why they loved him in the beginning. He brought them the gospel which spoke of a loving God who loved them. Paul pointed them to the Cross as God’s way of forgiveness. He led them to Christ and Christ gave them freedom. Through Paul’s preaching (even from his sickbed), they discovered a way out of the prison house of pagan superstition. No wonder they loved him so much.

As Pastor Timothy Hoke points out in his sermon on this passage, if you do not love the pastors and teachers who show you the grace of God, something is wrong. If you are not grateful for the Word of Life that sets you free, something is wrong. The Galatians didn’t love Paul because he was eloquent or handsome or charismatic or a builder of buildings or a good administrator. They loved him because he preached the gospel to them. And that brings us back to the central point: What happened to your joy? What made the dramatic change? Paul is saying, “My feelings for you haven’t changed. Why have your feelings for me changed? Have you changed simply because I told you the truth? Evidently the answer was yes. When they liked his message, they treated him like Jesus, but when he said things they didn’t want to hear, they turned on him. When he rebuked them for leaving the gospel, they grew cold as ice.

Christians can be fickle. Every pastor and every church leader learns this sooner or later. Sheep bite! As Howard Hendricks likes to say, “If you work as a shepherd, you’re going to get sheep dung on your boots.” There are always some who will not endure sound doctrine. They want their ears tickled or they want to feel good or they want to hear about the latest fad or they want health and wealth and prosperity. While walking down the aisles at the CBA convention this week, I saw a TV ministry with this slogan: “Money, thou art loosed!” That certainly fits the spirit of this age. We Christians like fads. For a while it was psychology, then it was political power, then it was anything that makes us feel good and today it’s no-demand Christianity. We shouldn’t be surprised when some people reject the truth in favor of a message that makes them feel good.

II. A Warning About False Friends

“Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you [from us], so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you” (Galatians 4:17-18).

When Paul says “those people,” he is referring to the Judaizers who were courting (that’s what the Greek phrase “win you over” means) these young, impressionable Galatian believers. His argument against them goes like this:

1) The false teachers eagerly pursued the Galatians.

2) This was very flattering.

3) It was also very confusing.

4) They wanted to make them their personal disciples.

5) They wanted to break up their friendship with Paul.

The Judaizers said, “Join us and forget about Paul. Be part of our group.” Paul responds with a stern warning: “They treat you like royalty now but soon they will enslave you!” He paints a picture of a classic dysfunctional relationship. The Judaizers pretend to be your friends but they want to control you. Here is a warning sign for all of us to consider: Something is wrong in a relationship if one person or one group needs to be in control all the time. If they have to know where you are and what you are doing and why and how you are doing it, and if they want you to come to them for approval, and if they disapprove when you don’t, something is wrong! Legalists prey on the weaknesses of others to gain control. They find emotionally crippled people, promise them the moon, and then they enslave them.

Paul wanted the Galatians to follow Jesus Christ first and foremost. He wanted them to be zealous for the right things and for the right reasons.

III. A Declaration of Personal Concern

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (Galatians 4:19-20).

The language is tender and personal—”My dear children.” Paul uses the image of a woman in labor to explain his love for the Galatians. The word “formed” was sometimes used for the development of a baby in the womb. Paul’s only concern was to see Christ fully formed in his followers. Nothing else mattered to him. That’s why he cared so deeply and that’s why he spoke so strongly.

1) I am in agony for you.

2) I want to see Christ formed in you.

3) I wish I could be with you in person.

4) I want to believe the best about you.

Paul is a parent in pain. “If only you knew how much I hurt for you …”

Here is the true goal of all ministry: To help others become like Christ. John Calvin remarked that “if ministers wish to do any good, let them labor to form Christ, not themselves, in their hearers.” Every Christian should take this to heart. Our supreme desire should be that Christ be formed in those who follow us. Let every reader ask this question: “Are those who follow me becoming more like Jesus?” It’s very easy for all of us to live for compliments: Isn’t she a wonderful BSF leader? Isn’t he a fantastic soloist? Isn’t she gifted at teaching our children? Doesn’t he make a fine elder? But in the end, those things do not matter. We must labor to form Christ in our hearers, not an image of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if a pastor is known as a wonderful preacher or not so long as his people go away knowing that Christ is a wonderful Savior.

Four Take-Home Truths

Let’s wrap up this message with four take-home truths. These principles are meant especially for those who find themselves trying to help someone who doesn’t want your help. How do we rescue someone who doesn’t think he needs to be rescued?

A) A gentle approach always is best.

This is one of those principles that is easier to think about when we aren’t in the middle of a controversy. When the sun is shining and all is well, we all agree that being gentle is the way to go. It’s harder to remember this when angry clouds are rolling overhead. Yet Proverbs 15:1 is still true: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” And most of us have learned this truth the hard way. We’ve tried yelling, threatening and even swearing but it never works out right. Being gentle may not make sense but it is God’s way, the way of Jesus who was gentle, meek and mild.

B) Being gracious does not mean being soft on sin.

This is the flip side of the first principle. Gentleness doesn’t mean winking at sin or looking the other way or making excuses for wrong behavior. Being gentle means we don’t overreact; it doesn’t mean we don’t react at all. Foolish behavior needs to be confronted, especially when there is a chance to save someone from a potentially life-changing mistake. We need to be like Jesus who was full of grace and truth, always in perfect balance.

C) Love tells the truth even when the other person doesn’t want to hear it.

This means that sometimes we will have to speak up even when our words will be misinterpreted. There are occasions when we know that no matter how hard we try, the person listening to us simply cannot or won’t see things from our point of view. Where moral issues are at stake, when a loved one has come to a moment of crucial decision, then our obligation is to speak the truth in love. That means telling the truth and then leaving the results with the Lord.

D) When truth and love combine in us, the result is a powerful impact for Christ.

Here is one reason the Lord Jesus could not be ignored. He did not speak as the other teachers, always quoting someone else. He spoke as one having true authority. And yet no one could deny the love that motivated him to heal the sick, calm the storm, cast out demons, and raise the dead. Truth and love met in perfection in Jesus. When we are able to make some small approximation of that divine combination, our words will be heard and lives will be changed.

If people think we hate them, they won’t listen to what we say no matter how well refined our arguments are. I don’t think that’s a surprising thought. After all, I find it hard to listen to someone if I think they can’t stand me personally. But if I believe someone cares about me, I’ll pay attention to what they say even if I know I’m going to disagree with them.

And as I stand back and view things in a biblical perspective, I believe this is why Paul wrote as he did in our passage. Even though he has strongly (some would say harshly) rebuked the Galatians, he reaches out to them and embraces them by the words he writes. They may not agree with what he says but they cannot deny his love for them.

Questions to Ponder

As I come to the very end of my message, I would like to challenge each person who reads these words to carefully consider three questions:

1) Is there is a broken relationship in my life that I need to deal with?

All of us have relationships that aren’t right and most of us have some relationships that are truly broken. That’s the way life is in a fallen world. And we can’t fix every relationship and make everything right. But perhaps the Holy Spirit is tugging on your heart and reminding you about a particular relationship. Is there someone you need to contact? A friend or a loved one you need to reach out to? Will you respond to the call of God’s Spirit and do what you can to make reconciliation?

2) Am I willing to hear the truth even when I don’t like it?

Maybe a friend or a parent or your spouse or a co-worker has been trying to talk to you and you haven’t listened because you know what they are going to say and you don’t want to hear it. Will you put down your defenses and let God speak to you through someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth?

3) Do I need to tell the truth to someone who doesn’t want to hear it?

You may be in Paul’s position at the moment—faced with the task of speaking hard truth to those who don’t want to hear it. It’s easy to give up, get angry, or make excuses. Are you ready to say what needs to be said and to say it with as much love as you can possibly muster? Do it. Don’t delay. Speak the truth in love. And let God take care of what happens after that.

We need the wisdom of God and the love of Christ in order to help those around us. May our hearts be cleansed from impure motives. May our anger be replaced with genuine concern for others. And may we be like Jesus who was full of grace and truth.

O Lord, grant that we may be like Jesus so that those who follow us might become like him. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?