When Tough Love is Necessary

Love isn’t always meek and mild. Sometimes love is firm and tough, but it’s no less love. Consider Jesus’ response to the moneychangers in the temple.

They had turned from prayer to profit, but Jesus didn’t sit idly by. When certain men turned religion into racketeering, He insisted that they leave the premises. His words are strong, “It is written,” He said to them, “My house will be called a house of prayer. But you are making it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves.

Harsh actions? Yes. Loving? Yes. Jesus loved too much to do nothing in the face of corruption. Did these men later return and become men of prayer? We don’t know. That certainly would have been Jesus’ desire.

When physical abuse, sexual unfaithfulness, sexual abuse of children, alcoholism, or drug addiction persist in a marriage, it’s time to take loving action. In fact, a spouse isn’t showing love when he or she accepts such behavior as a way of life. Such behavior destroys the individual and the marriage.

Love must confront. In the Bible, confrontation is always seen as redemptive. Jesus said that if someone sins against you, then you’re to confront that person. If he or she listens and repents, you’re to forgive, and the relationship is healed. If there’s no repentance, you must take additional steps of tough love. The purpose isn’t revenge, but redemption. That’s tough love. That’s real love. (See Matthew 18:15-17).

Jesus’ recommendation was after the initial confrontation, if the offender doesn’t respond in repentance, then you’re to take two or three others with you to confront him or her again. You should choose trusted, mature people who understand how to be kind, but firm. Perhaps the knowledge that others are aware of the situation will motivate your spouse to seek help in breaking destructive patterns.

With individual counseling and the support of a caring Christian family, destructive patterns can be changed, and marriages can be restored.

However, if the person doesn’t respond positively to this second confrontation, Jesus’ instructions were that you should “tell it to the church.” Usually this begins by telling a pastor or staff member. The pastoral leader takes a representative group from the church and again confronts the erring spouse. Perhaps he or she will respond positively to the help offered, and the process of healing can begin.

If there is no willingness to deal with the problem, you should treat the individual as a pagan, not as a brother. If you apply this principle to the marriage relationship, does this mean separation? That’s certainly an alternative, and the purpose is still redemptive. A separation creates a crisis, which urges the spouse to take constructive action.

Choose Love Over Abandonment
It would be possible to improve on the pattern of confronting laid out by Jesus. If your marriage has been characterized by some of these chronic and irresponsible behaviors, how closely have you followed this three-step approach? Separation is the last of these alternatives to be considered after all else has failed; and even then, pray for healing and reconciliation. Some Christians see separation as a sinful action. In reality, it may sometimes be the most loving action one can take.

Your attitude isn’t to be on of abandonment, but of love. Love is caring so much for another’s well-being that you refuse to play into his or her sick behavior. People are healed when someone loves them enough to stand up to their inappropriate actions and behavior.

God is your best role model for this kind of boundary-setting love. Over and over again, He promises to bless those who obey His teaching and to bring discipline to those who refuse. Some Christians define love as placating his or her spouse’s desire without regard to his or her behavior. God doesn’t do that. God love you unconditionally, but His approach isn’t the same, whether you obey or disobey His Word.

Sometimes in the name of love (or out of fear), you can tolerate destructive behavior in a spouse until you hate that person. Then you act out of self-defense. How much healthier would it be to act earlier in the relationship while you still have emotional energy with which to endure the process? You can’t have the benefits of a warm, loving relationship unless you’re willing to be responsible for your own behavior.

Tough love may seem harsh, but it can be necessary. Firmness with kindness is the proper approach. You can’t be reconciled with an abusive spouse until the abuse has been dealt with thoroughly. You must be open to walk the long road of healing, but don’t ignore the abuse. Set the boundary of tough love now rather than later. Later may be too late.

Article from HomeLife Magazine

Gary Chapman is an author and marriage conference leader and serves on the staff of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. He and his wife, Karolyn, have two grown children.

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