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I love James Dobson. He has had a more significant impact than I have—and most deservedly so. There’s no competition going on here. I don’t think about those things—who gets what. The main thing is whether the gospel is being preached (Philippians 1:18). He is my brother, and I applaud God’s grace that has been evident in his life.
This piece about “tough love” is not about him or what he intended. It’s about a phrase that has taken on another kind of life that is not helpful. I suppose twenty-five years from now if someone barely remembers anything I have ever said, they could easily take my words out of context and misuse them. In some cases, that is what has happened with the concept of tough love. In this piece, I want to challenge you in two ways regarding tough love.
Mable is at her wit’s end with her daughter. She’s ready to dish out some tough love. Biff’s teen has broken curfew again. He says it’s time for a little tough love. Bart is frustrated with his friend. “It’s time for some tough love action,” he says. May I have a dollar for every time I have heard the tough love mantra attached to these tones? It’s in these contexts where folks play and misapply the “tough love card.”
Since the Bible does not mention tough love, it would be best to start with a biblical framework. Words like mercy, kindness, or grace are better for framing your goals for corrective care. These are the words that I typically attach to the discipleship process. For example, when I counsel a couple where sin has captured one of the spouses (Galatians 6:1), I might say it was “a mercy from the Lord that has interrupted your plans and brought you to this place of change.”
I talk about how kind and gracious God is to intervene in their lives to stop them from sinning. These words apply to any person captured by sin. Though he may feel like “tough things” are happening to him, you want to make sure that he sees what is happening through the lens of mercy, kindness, and grace.
The Givers – How you think about a concept will set the stage for how you respond to others. I like how Paul talked about tough love in Romans 2:4; he used the word “kindness,” which means “loving-kindness.” It is the loving-kindness of God that brings change to someone. If you want to help someone change, try loving-kindness. Let’s reframe our three frustrated friend’s struggles.
The Receivers – I was counseling someone years ago, and he said I was mean. I asked him what did he mean by the word mean. He said someone warned him before he met me that I would get deep into his heart. I followed up with, “Did your friend say I was mean?” The counselee said, “No, that was my word, not theirs. What they said was that it would get rough because you would get into my heart.”
The counselee saw getting into his heart as being mean, which skewed his interpretation of what was about to happen. He was afraid of the counseling process. My fearful counselee even talked himself into being afraid as he was driving to the office. He expected the worst and prepared accordingly; he entered the session in a defensive posture. He was expecting tough love, not mercy, kindness, and grace. If you believe the change process will be tough love, you will get what you expect.
Whether you’re giving or receiving corrective care, your presupposition sets your mind and guides your actions for the experience. It would be best to think about any discipleship opportunity as the Lord doing redemptive work. Attributing adverse connotations to redemptive purposes is not wise. Any transformative action in a person will be hard, but the guarantee is that if you’re willing to root out the sin, you will experience the mercy and the grace of God.
I do not see God’s intervention in my life as tough love. I see it as His mercy. To think Creator God would slow down long enough to think about me, act upon me, and motivate me to change is stunning. Oh, my soul. I can hardly bear the thought. God loves you if you are His (John 3:36). You should not be afraid of Him. He does not use tough love but merciful, gracious, loving-kindness.
While I want to be cautious about how I speak for Him, I don’t believe He wants His children to think about Him as tough. I’m a parent too. I don’t want my children to think that way about me. I hope they will remember me for mercy, grace, and love, not tough disciplinary actions, even though I have not withheld firm, corrective care.
Too often, when someone talks about tough love, they are talking from a frustrated heart. Like Mable, Biff, and Bart, they have had enough of their family and friends, and it was time to react to them in a hard manner, one that would change them (1 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 12:7-12).
Strong, directive care is proper if it is born out of a heart that produces compassion, mercy, grace, and love for the person they are helping. The Lord chastens the one He loves (Hebrews 12:6). If you love the ones you chasten, you should expect these three things in this order.
As an illustration of these ideas, I have appealed to my small group members about how they talk about the depth and degree in which we speak of holding each other accountable within the group. My appeal is to use wisdom to communicate about what goes on in our small groups. There is a temptation for some people to leave small group saying something along these lines.
Wow! We had a great group tonight. We pulled out the two-by-fours and got after it, talking about sin. God stepped all over our toes. [Small group member] brought his A-game. There was blood all over the floor. It was so awesome.
This retelling of a small group night does not communicate the grace and mercy of God. It is an unwise speech that can cause a brother or sister to stumble. It would be better not to talk about tough love in hyperbolic ways but to use the biblical language of mercy, grace, and love. The small group member could speak to their friends like this:
Wow! We met God in our small group. He was so gracious to us. Some things were going on in my life, and [small group member] loved me enough to address them. My wife was blessed. It edified our group. God’s fame was made even more fabulous. I experienced mercy from the Lord.
This retelling is more accurate, and it leaves you with a better view of who God is and how He cares for us, plus His diligence in our lives. It is vital to know how to think about love and communicate its effects on others.
Part of the problem with how we talk about discipline is our weak understanding of God. For example, if things go the way we want, we believe that God is good. “Yay! God came through for me.” If things do not go the way we want, we think of God as being hard and difficult. We define God by how our life goes. God is merciful, kind, and gracious all the time. That’s it.
As you work through the character traits of God, there is not a trait called tough. As His children, we are supposed to imitate Him (Ephesians 5:1). Therefore, our aim is not to be tough on others but merciful, kind, and gracious, even when we administer hard things into their lives.
How you answer these questions reveals where you are with the “tough love problem” and your application of God’s mercy and His grace. Your thoughts reveal your functional theology. Even if someone is “mean” when correcting you, if your heart is in the right place with God, you will find God’s grace and mercy, even though it was an imperfect presentation. (I’m not speaking of abusive situations but of someone who genuinely loves you and wants the best for you.)
When people like Mable, Biff, and Bart come to me with the tough love question, I attempt to ask them questions about their hearts before we get into a discussion about how they should administer “tough love” to the person who they’d like to see change.
Tough love could be a tough concept to get your head around, but when you think about loving-kindness, merciful actions, or grace-filled interventions, your mind will adjust, and you can proceed biblically. When your heart moves from the cross, your counsel will come across as more tough than redemptive. May those within your care experience your corrections with love. When I discipline my children, my hope is that when it’s over, they will say these four things about themselves.
I do not ever want them walking out the door, thinking, “Boy, that was tough.”
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).