Mark Shaw
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What Is “Tough Love”? Part 1

November 10, 2014

What Is Tough Love--Part One
Mark Shaw

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Mark Shaw

What Is Tough Love--Part One

BCC Note: You’re reading Part 1 of a two-part post by Dr. Mark Shaw on Tough Love. In Part 1, Dr. Shaw contrasts the world’s definition of “tough love” with the Word’s definition. You can also read Mark’s post at the Faith Church website here.

God’s Indispensable, Infinite Love

In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, we read:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

Most believers are familiar with this passage because God is love and these verses are an encouraging description of God’s love of flawed, fallen people. On my best day, I need God’s patient, kind, and non-irritable love; how grateful I am for His grace and mercy. This passage describes love to us in a way that is reassuring to sinful humanity.

Here at Faith Church we’ve been learning how to love our neighbors in practical ways through an expository sermon series through several passages of Scripture including the book of 1 John. This year’s theme at our church, Loving Our Neighbors, reminds us of God’s love to us and how we are to manifest that love to others without compromising the truth of the Word of God. Difficulties arise within our own sinful hearts as we heed the call to love our neighbors, and so I have been challenged recently to ponder the concept commonly called tough love.

What Is Tough Love? The World’s Definition

Where does one go to discover the definition of tough love? Well, I went to Wikipedia, which is not always the most accurate source of truth because it’s written and edited by almost any willing Internet volunteer around the globe. However, I deemed that this is precisely the place to obtain a fairly accurate picture of what our culture thinks of the concept of tough love.

The Wiki definition is:

“Tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. The phrase was evidently coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book Tough Love in 1968… In most uses, there must be some actual love or feeling of affection behind the harsh or stern treatment to be defined as tough love. For example, genuinely concerned parents refusing to support their drug-addicted child financially until he or she enters drug rehabilitation would be said to be practicing tough love.”

If you are familiar with many of my publications, you will not be surprised that I find it interesting that the first example of tough love they mention is addiction-related!

What Is Tough Love? The Word’s Definition

Let’s take a look at this definition through biblical eyes. A person receiving tough love is being treated “harshly” or “sternly,” but note that this can only apply to human love since God is never harsh in His love to His children. Another note is that this definition is based purely upon the human perception possessed by the recipient of tough love. If we Christians believe that humanity is sinful from head-to-toe, then we understand that while humanity may perceive harshness in the love of God through discipline, however, that perception is not true since God’s love is anything but “harsh.” According to 1 Corinthians 13:4, love that reflects God’s love is patient and kind, not harsh or stern.

Here’s an encouraging thought:

God’s children will never experience His wrath directly since that righteous wrath was poured out on Jesus at the Cross for our sins.

I am grateful that the Lord is never harsh toward me—whether I realize it or not. Though God’s discipline of me may seem unpleasant in the moment, according to Hebrews 12:11-12:

“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. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees…”

Do we see what God’s Word is exhorting His children to do here? We are not to be discouraged (evidenced by drooping hands and weak knees) when disciplined by the Lord because He is loving us by practicing what the world calls tough love—albeit, tough as defined by the one who is being disciplined and in the moment views it as painful.

The “long run” goal of those described in Wikipedia’s definition of tough love is to “help the person” being disciplined while God’s long-term goal when disciplining His children is for them to be trained to yield peace and righteousness. Ultimately, through the trying, unpleasant moment of tough love, God’s goal is always to glorify Himself as that person becomes more conformed to the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12 warns God’s children not to incorrectly view His sometimes painful discipline as “harsh.” While the phrase tough love may be an accurate way to describe a form of human love (like when parents set tough limits on a person who is killing herself with a drug habit), it simply conveys the human perspective of the one either doing the disciplining or being disciplined. It’s tough because of how unpleasant it seems at that moment for both human parties. Yet the worldly concept of tough love only describes human love and falls woefully short as a description of God’s love since His agape love is never sinfully harsh and is always constructive.

Join the Conversation

How would you compare and contrast the world’s definition of “tough love” and the Word’s definition of “tough love”?