“Tough love.” We know the phrase well. It expresses the reality that sometimes we have to do and say the hard things toward those we love in order to lead them (and us) to a better place in life. If you haven’t been in the place yourself to offer tough love, then most likely you know someone who has. And so you know from personal experience, or through the witness of another’s experience, the excruciating pain and heartache tough love produces.
I recall vividly the day I separated from my husband, and the myriad of emotions it produced. As I walked down the street with my suitcase in tow, tears streaming down my face, I thought to myself, How can this be right? How can walking away from my beloved be the right thing to do when it feels so wrong? Yet in spite of the tears, I knew that in order for my husband to confront the demons of his past, and get myself to a healthier place, I had to make the toughest choice I was ever called upon in my life to make.
When it comes to tough love – loving the right way – the tears and myriad of mixed emotions rarely lessen in time. In fact, if anything, they intensify because loving right is a long and arduous journey of setting boundaries and continuing to make tough decisions that, toward the recipient, seem harsh and unloving, and our hearts cringe with pain: hanging up on a phone call, saying no to handouts of money, calmly shutting the door on them when they arrive unannounced, refusing to bail them out of jail or other situations they have brought upon themselves. As our hearts writhe in pain in turning our loved one away, time and time again we are forced to ask ourselves, How can this possibly be love? How is this compassion? Where is the mercy in this?
Though it all feels so wrong, when we look at the life of Jesus, we see how His selfless love for mankind was nothing short of phenomenal, and it gives us encouragement and motivation to persevere through our tough love giving. He endured ridicule, beating, torture, and, ultimately, the most horrid kind of death possible, crucifixion. He did this out of love for all mankind and to heal the broken relationship between man and God. It was a sacrifice He made so we could be healed and restored to God, but it didn’t come without agony and struggle.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”(Mt. 26:36-46)
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. . . . 45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. (Mt. 27:27-31, 45-50)
Though Jesus knew the way He was loving us was right, as He hung on the cross, writhing in physical and emotional pain, it certainly didn’t feel right. He undoubtedly experienced some of the same emotions we feel: I know this is the right thing to do, but it feels so wrong. The pain this is causing Me is excruciating, but I know I am doing the right thing. This doesn’t feel loving or compassionate or merciful, but somehow I know it is.
Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice to heal and restore mankind to God, but this did not come without pain and agony and heartache. Likewise, when we sacrifice our human comforts and desires to give tough love, we do so with the confidence and hope that our loved one will recognize through us the love and compassion and mercy of God, and be restored to Him as a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-21).
Loving right often feels so wrong. How can something so painful to give be right? It is right because we have ultimately given God the right to handle and control the situation according to His sovereign purposes. It is right because we have ceased to fix the situation – the person – ourselves and have surrendered our will to God’s will. It is right because we know that God loves the person even more than we do, and it is only His perfect love that will ultimately change the heart and life of our loved one. It is right because even through the pain and tears and heartache, God is graciously and lovingly forming us more into the likeness and image of His Son. And it is right because, above all, God will receive the glory.
As hard as it is, my friend, keep “loving right,” and keep believing in God’s deliverance and miracle for your loved one. No matter how long and hard and dark the journey has been, God has not given up on them, and He never will. In spite of the tears and agony and heartache, believe that God is using you as an instrument of restoration to draw them to His love. And rest in the confidence that God is doing a great work in and through you.
In God’s divine love,