More than a few Christians have the misguided notion that withholding truth is love when it is painful to hear. They are wrong.
Theologically, there is something called the “double effect.” A good (or neutral) action can sometimes bring about both a good and bad result. We may only intend the good result, which does not come from the bad result but merely together with it. In such cases, it is not only permissible, but even praiseworthy, to perform the action because the good result will far outweigh the bad result. While surgery to repair an injured shoulder can be quite painful and lengthy to recover from, the end result (a fully functional shoulder joint) outweighs the temporary pain and discomfort.
Love itself sometimes brings about a double effect, especially when it comes to telling the truth. Jesus had no compunction in telling the truth, even if it cost Him disciples.
“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the twelve. ( Jn 6:53, 59-60, 66-67)
Theologian Frank Pavone puts it eloquently,
Truth is very much like food. We need it. Without it, we cannot grow, or even survive, as human beings and as a human community. We are made for the truth, to always receive more of it, to contemplate it, to find our fulfillment in it. And this is easy to understand when we realize that God not only gives us truth, as one of his greatest gifts, but he is truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). And that truth leads to another great gift and human need: freedom. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31).
Love gives the beloved what he needs, even when there is some pain involved in receiving it. Hence parents bring their children to the dentist, no matter how much the children may protest. In my ministry to priests as director of Priests for Life, I often give seminars about how to preach and counsel parishioners on some of the most contentious moral issues of the day. In the midst of this, I often address the relationship between compassion and truth. Many clergy and lay counselors see these two goods as being in competition with each other. They want their people to grow, but they want them to know that God loves them, here and now, just as they are. Indeed, God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us the way we are. Love calls us to change. To be compassionate, therefore, means we both perceive and provide what the person needs, and therefore we give them the truth that leads to conversion. At the same time, to bear witness to the fullness of truth means to bear witness to compassion, because if we do not see God as boundless compassion and mercy, then we are missing the full truth about him. One does not have to balance being compassionate and being truthful. One does not have to “shift gears” between being pastoral and being prophetic. They are all part of the same dynamic, two sides of the same coin: namely, loving our people.
..... Think, for instance, of groups like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They think that killing children by abortion is sometimes the most helpful course of action for a mom or dad. They even have Scripture studies and liturgies for “choice.” These people, presenting themselves as preachers of Christ, have in fact lost their way, and are “tossed back and forth by the waves” of the culture of death. Thinking they are serving God’s people, they are actually killing them.
The image of the body in this passage also shows us that when we share the truth of Christ, we are not talking about disconnected truths, but rather an integral person. The various truths of Christ are not like books in a library, where one may decide to check out whatever books one wants, and leave the rest behind, or where the library itself may choose to exclude some books from its collection. The biblical image, instead, is a living body. All the parts are, as Paul says, “ joined and held together by every supporting ligament." You can’t pick and choose which parts of the body should be there. When you accept the person, you accept the whole body. You can’t eliminate a finger without the head complaining. What you do to one part of the body affects the whole body. So with the truth of Christ, the reason we cannot withhold any part of it is because by doing so, we affect all the rest of it. All the truths are an integral unity; they are a living Body, Christ himself.
...... Love not only demands we omit nothing from the truth, but that love communicate that truth in a particular way. To communicate the truth in love takes more than following a set of dos and don’ts, or of choosing the right words or tone of voice. Something has to happen within ourselves before we do or say anything: We have to realize that we are speaking to our brothers and sisters, that we are all on the same side. People need to know that. A discussion of the truth, whether in private or public, should acknowledge the pain that people may feel about the issue we are discussing. The psychological attitude to take and to convey is, “We are in this painful situation together and need to help each other out of it.” If the person reacts angrily, we should approach in the way we would care for those afflicted by personal disasters. We are dealing with good people who have pain, not with enemies.
..... Speaking the truth in love can be seen when we don’t just speak at people, but, like the Lord, bring them into the process of discovering the truth. We don’t just serve up conclusions; we respect their mind and heart and will to engage and wrestle with the truth. All of us are called to wrestle with God, just as in that mysterious passage from Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled all night with the Lord. Jacob was injured in the process but blessed with a deeper knowledge of God and of himself. Sharing the full truth, in content and in method, trusts the readiness of others to accept it, and that very process, rather than silence or a dilution of or apology for the truth, is what shows the love.