Further Thoughts on “I Say This in Love”

After the earlier essay on the topic, I find that there is much more to think about here than I managed to say. And so, I will say a little more.

Whenever I hear (or see on-screen), “I say this in love” (or some close cousin), my crapometer goes a bit crazy. I wrote the other day about some of the reasons. It’s a way of signaling that something unpleasant is about to be said; that because the unpleasantness is cloaked in “love” the speaker cannot be challenged; the speaker is attempting to claim some kind of advantage in the semantic environment; the speaker rarely has a relationship with the recipient where “I say this in love” is appropriate (because, when the relationship is appropriate, it doesn’t need saying).

Forty-eight hours later, I realize I was just getting started.

What disgusts me even more than what I said the other day is that “I say this in love” is an attempt to control and diminish the recipient of this bit of nonsense.

When was the last time you heard “I say this in love”, and it is followed by anything like this:

1. …you did a beautiful job singing that solo at the offertory this morning.
2. …thank you for working so hard on the fundraiser.
3. …I appreciated your insights at the last committee meeting, and although I’m not sure I agree completely, you left me with a lot to think about.

I’ve never heard an appreciative, positive comment follow “I say this in love.” Because these true expressions of love do not need that qualification.

“I say this in love” is a warning that something un-nice is going to happen.

Here is the breakdown.

1. I say (or do, or even am) something that makes you uncomfortable.
2. You decide to express your discomfort, but preface it with “I say this in love….”
3. Because “love” is invoked, you are absolved of the responsibility of reflection as to why you are uncomfortable.
4. If I play this language game the way you want me to, I acknowledge your right to an unreflective, discomfort-free life.
5. What I say (or do, or even am) is diminished and maybe even silenced.

All in the name of “Christian” love

Well, as they say, “Isn’t that special?

Oh, yes. For the speaker, perhaps. In the short term, perhaps it keeps the church “nice”–but it may mean that important ideas don’t get heard, and it may mean that people leave because the baptismal vow of “respecting the dignity of every human being” doesn’t really mean that when one of their own has a dissenting voice. Particularly if those who have real power in the church are the ones invoking “love” as a way to silence and correct.

It is sometimes necessary, even loving, to correct another person. But rarely does “love” need to be explicltly invoked. If you notice that your travel partner is driving the wrong way down a one-way street, correction is in order; love need not be invoked. If a dinner guest keeps flicking his cigarette lighter at the corner of the tablecloth, it is an act of love and care to other diners to ask him to stop (but it doesn’t need to be said). It is loving to tell one of your children not to practice their chainsaw skills on a sibling’s neck.

But real, imminent danger is not how “I say this in love” is invoked in most churchy contexts.

It is a control mechanism built on a falsehood.

The falsehood is that church is supposed to be cozy, supposed to make sure everyone gets along and there is never any disagreement–and anyone who disagrees, or (worse) is willing to show a different pattern of thinking from everyone else, gets silenced.

In love.

Hmm. Jesus had something to say about idolatrous agreement, and peace for its own sake. (check out Matthew 10:34-36) Within a house (or church), there might be a lot of dissent and disagreement. It’s going to get uncomfortable, but who has the right to enforce agreement?

To invoke “love” as a way of creating group-think (“herd” might be better) is ugly and wrong. The same people who decided the canon of the New Testament could include Matthew’s warning about dissent could also include John 13:34-35: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Not “agree with one another.” Not “think like one another.” Not “make each other comfortable”.


Love has a lot of room for discomfort, for differences of opinion. What it doesn’t have room for is silencing and diminishing.

So, what would happen if, the next time you’re at coffee hour (or in another churchy or ministry-training setting) and some other Christian opened the conversation with you using “I say this in love”, you did the following?

1. Put a hand up as an indicator to stop before s/he went any further?
2. Asked him/her what you had said/done/been that required the warning that they were speaking “in love”?
3. Did not let them go any deeper into their objections to your words/action/being before they could give an honest and satisfying answer (which would include a justification of the appropriateness of invoking “I say this in love”)?

How would you respond if someone did this to you?

We need to be far more aware of, and careful about, the language games we play in church. A good place to start would be awareness that we are almost always playing language games, and that they have a real effect on people.


8 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on “I Say This in Love”

  1. I agree absolutely – I would far rather have the complaint directly than the mealy-mouthed, self-exonerating, nay smug ‘I say this in love’ as an introduction. It reminds me rather of the phrase, supposedly always used by schoolmasters just before they were going to cane you “This is going to hurt me much more than it hurts you”. John Cleese even made a training video about it: http://www.ideasandtraining.com/VA-Hurt-More.html

  2. Yes, my father once tried to spank me, using those exact words. I was about 7. I said, if it’s going to hurt you so much, why do you want to do it?

    (I did not get the spanking…)

  3. You are very insightful here! As a pastor I have had this type of thing ‘used on me’ a few times and always by someone with an agenda of manipulation. Not only will I be self vigilant never to do that to anyone, but I will twice as vigilant about others who start off on that footing.

  4. A good reminder not to play games with people who deserve better from us. Also I guess we need to stop using the language of Zion, which we can so easily slip into. Thanks for this.

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