If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1, esv).
Have you ever heard someone touting the fact that she’s “brutally honest” or that he’s “just a truth-teller”? While God is truth (John 14:6) and wants us to be about the truth, speaking only the raw truth and not loving others is a very brutal act. According to 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Eloquent speech without love is just empty sound. In fact, all truth and no love is brutality.
In our world, the concept of love is terribly misunderstood and distorted, and those distortions affect the way we hear God’s Word. Scripture uses three Greek words for the English word “love.” At the time the Scriptures were written, roughly two thousand years ago, two of the three words were commonly used: eros, which refers to sensual love, and phileo, which describes a brotherly relationship. But the term rarely used in New Testament times is the one that appears most frequently in Scripture and which Paul uses liberally in this chapter: agape, which means a selfless, giving, you-before-me love. Agape love is an act of the will, an ongoing choice to make.
Often when we use the words “I love you,” we don’t mean, “I commit to placing your needs above my own.” Instead we mean, “I love what you do for me and how you make me feel. How you treat me is working for the person I truly love most—me.”
That is not love. That is self-centeredness. That kind of love uses words self-servingly, as a weapon. Real love speaks the truth but never brutally.
Which is why, Paul explains, if we speak as clearly and plainly for God as angelic messengers but don’t love the people we’re addressing, then our audience can’t hear the message over the ringing in their ears. No matter how clearly we understand God’s truth or how capable we are of applying truth to life, if we don’t have a broken heart for the people we’re trying to reach, we are wasting our time. Our words are just a clanging in their ears. Our effort wreaks destruction in their lives instead of growth. When we present the truth aggressively or with a critical attitude, our listeners are irritated by what we say rather than edified. We’re clanging cymbals.
Even if we exhibit smooth communication skills, impressive knowledge, or strong faith, if it is not accompanied by love, the message will fall flat. People care about how they’re spoken to at least as much as what it is we’re saying. If we have a critical attitude—toward the lost or even toward Christian brothers and sisters—those hearing us will be unable to fully accept the message.
How sad that those who have the greatest message of love in the universe can be so unloving with it. It’s harsh and can be hurtful to others, not helpful. We can’t make the difference we long to make if love isn’t flowing through the message.
All truth without love just causes damage; it’s brutal. Love isn’t rude; it’s gracious. There is no place for an aggressive, boisterous, obnoxious, open-wide-while-I-jam-this-down-your-throat approach to others. That is not true love.
Father God, forgive me for the times I’ve spoken brutal truth without love—and hurt the listener. Jesus never did that. He was unyielding on truth but overflowing with love. I think of the woman whose life He saved in John 8:1–11. He loved her fiercely and told her the truth: “from now on sin no more” (8:11). Please make me more like Him. Teach me to “[speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). No more clanging—yes to agape, you-before-me loving. In the name of Jesus Christ my Lord, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), amen.