Tough Love

I Corinthians 13:4-8a states: Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

Most believers are familiar with the above Scripture passage because God is love and these verses are an encouraging description of God’s love of flawed people. On my best day, I need God’s patient, kind, and non-irritable love; how grateful I am for His grace and mercy. The passage above describes love to us in a way that is reassuring to sinful mankind.

Our church has been teaching us how to love our neighbors in practical ways through an expository sermon series through several passages of Scripture including the book of I John. This year’s theme, Loving Our Neighbors, reminds us of God’s love to us and how we are to manifest that love to others without compromising the truth of the Word of God. Difficulties arise within our own sinful hearts as we heed the call to love our neighbors, and so I have been challenged recently to ponder the concept commonly called tough love.


Where does one go to discover the definition of tough love? Well, I went to Wikipedia, which is not always the most accurate source of truth because it’s written and edited by almost any willing internet volunteer around the globe. However, I deemed that this is precisely the place to obtain a fairly accurate picture of what our culture thinks of the concept of tough love. The Wiki definition is that “tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. The phrase was evidently coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book Tough Love in 1968…In most uses, there must be some actual love or feeling of affection behind the harsh or stern treatment to be defined as tough love. For example, genuinely concerned parents refusing to support their drug-addicted child financially until he or she enters drug rehabilitation would be said to be practicing tough love.” If you are familiar with many of my publications, you will not be surprised that I find it interesting that the first example of tough love they mention is addiction-related!

Let’s take a look at this definition. A person receiving tough love is being treated “harshly” or “sternly” but note that this can only apply to human love since God is never harsh in His love to His children. Another note is that this definition is based purely upon the human perception possessed by the recipient of tough love. If we Christians believe that mankind is sinful from head-to-toe, then we understand that while mankind may perceive harshness in the love of God through discipline and that perception is not true since His love is anything but “harsh.” According to I Corinthians 13:4 above, love is patient and kind, not harsh or stern.

Here’s an encouraging thought: God’s children will never experience His wrath directly since that righteous wrath was poured out on Jesus at the Cross for our sins. I am grateful that the Lord is never harsh toward me – whether I realize it or not – though God’s discipline of me may seem unpleasant in the moment according to Hebrews 12:11-12:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees…

Do you see what God’s Word is exhorting His children to do here? They are not to be discouraged (evidenced by drooping hands and weak knees) when disciplined by the Lord because He is loving them by practicing what the world calls tough love—albeit, tough as defined by the one who is being disciplined and in the moment views it as painful. The “long run” goal of those described in Wikipedia’s definition of tough love is to “help the person” being disciplined while God’s long-term goal when disciplining His children is for them to be trained to yield peace and righteousness. Ultimately, through the trying, unpleasant moment of tough love, God’s goal is always to glorify Himself as that person becomes more conformed to the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This Hebrews 12 passage warns God’s children NOT to incorrectly view His sometimes painful discipline as “harsh.” While the phrase tough love may be an accurate way to describe a form of human love (like when parents set tough limits on a person who is killing herself with a drug habit), it simply conveys the human perspective of the one either doing the disciplining or being disciplined; it’s tough because of how unpleasant it seems at that moment for both human parties. Yet the worldly concept of tough love only describes human love and falls woefully short as a description of God’s love since His agape love is never sinfully harsh and is always constructive.


Helping someone become more like Christ thereby glorifying God is never easy. In biblical counseling sessions we are tasked with the assignment of ministering the Word of God in the love of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth and the correction needed to become Christ-like. Then, it is up to the counselee to respond in a way that would please God. Some who have patterned their responses to life’s circumstances in a fleshly-driven way may not recognize our counsel from God’s Word as love, but some will, and will praise God and rejoice in the process.

The counselor’s ministry of the Word to the counselee may bring conviction if needed, encouragement if needed, strength if needed, wisdom if needed, discernment if needed, comfort if needed, and discipline if needed. Notice the “if needed” because it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the counselor’s own skill set that provides what is needed though a counselor must pray to be skillfully led by the Spirit of God to counsel in a wise and gentle manner. God truly knows what the counselee needs. The counselor’s duty is to faithfully minister the Word of God and deliver His message of truth accurately.

The counselee’s response does not hinge solely upon the counselor’s ways. All of us are flawed, sinful, men and women, so we cannot take the praise for the counselee’s progress, nor can we take the blame for the lack thereof. For example, when I counsel, even if I do not speak in the most winsome manner possible (though I would hope to), the counselee is ultimately responsible to respond to the biblical counsel given in a way that honors God and overcomes evil with good (Rom. 12:21). It is the responsibility of the counselee to see God in the situation and to listen to the Word of God whether or not the messenger has offended the counselee. Obviously, I want to reiterate that I hope nothing in how I offer counsel would be sinful, angry, or hurtful but the reality is that I am not nearly as loving and genuine as Jesus who counseled speaking the truth in love to others. Look at the historical account recorded in Mark 10:21-22 when Jesus gave wise, loving counsel to the rich young ruler:

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

The man’s response to what he might have mistakenly viewed as tough love from Jesus was not one of immediate repentance or thankfulness or joy. Instead, his response was to give up, which is what “disheartened” means. He lost heart. Not only that, but he was full of sorrow and sadness. In today’s terminology, he became clinically depressed, gave up his pursuit of knowing God, and walked away from Jesus after this message of truth – it was an unrighteous response. This rich young ruler wanted to quit after hearing the hard truth about the one thing he lacked and what he could do to inherit eternal life – which was his original question to Jesus in Mark 10:17. He asked the question but he was not willing to receive the true answer and less willing to respond to it righteously. Jesus was being very gracious to him by telling him the truth and His counsel revealed the ruler’s heart to serve self rather than God and the poor. The rich young ruler failed to love his neighbor in failing to love the Messiah.

As a fallible biblical counselor, why would I ever think that I could be more loving and kind than Jesus? I cannot be. I can’t convince every heart to turn to Him by my own ideas. Why would I think that anyone would ever receive what I have to say more readily than they would receive what Jesus had to say? Do I sometimes wrongly decide how much truth a person can hear and can bear so I withhold truth so as not to offend my counselee? But in those moments, I now see that instead of being loving, I am actually being unloving and even borderline hateful to fail to speak the whole truth in love to someone regardless of how I think they might respond! How arrogant to think I know the outcome and how selfish to think I want to avoid rejection! In those moments, I am not thinking about my relationship with God and His calling upon my life to deliver His message no matter what the circumstances. I become an editor of God’s message of the Gospel rather than a messenger of it. How sad for me to think I know better than the Lord. How sinfully prideful, also. My duty is to be faithful to God and to view myself as a biblical counselor who delivers His message to a counselee regardless of whether they are viewing it as tough love or not. It is love, plain and simple, because it is the message from God. The response of the counselee must never motivate my ministry of God’s Word.


Tough love is tough on the giver and the receiver, humanly speaking. No question about it. As a human, it’s tough to give tough love because it’s speaking the truth of God’s Word in the love of the Holy Spirit while recognizing how sinful I am. I must approach every counseling session with great humility in my personal need for a Savior and forgiveness of my sins. I need the Holy Spirit to speak through me as a counselor and minister of His Word. And as a counselor, I must remember that I do not decide what truth is or how much I think a counselee can handle though I do want to exercise caution not to push my own agenda when counseling. One skill of counseling is knowing how and when to say the hard things that the counselee needs to hear so I am not excusing poor methods. I am simply to be a faithful steward of the Gospel which is offensive and often viewed as foolish (I Cor. 1:18-19).

As a human, it’s tough to receive tough love because it means I must need a correction; I must see that I am doing something wrong. My pride makes tough love tough to receive.

But from God’s perspective, it’s not tough to give tough love. In fact, there is no such thing as tough love from His perspective because everything He is and everything He does is perfectly loving as I John 4:8-9 reminds us: Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

God’s love – manifested most powerfully in sending His own Son into the world to die a cruel and bloody death – models how sacrificially He loves and how we are to love others, too. While I might struggle with the reality of tough love in this life as a human being, I am glad that tough love from God’s perspective is simply the love and discipline that He knows I need!


Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw has 22 years of counseling experience working in a variety of settings including faith-based residential programs, dealing with issues surrounding “addictions” of all types, and supervising staff positions. His experience in the biblical counseling field began in 2001. He has written 14 published works including The Heart of Addiction; Relapse: Biblical Prevention Strategies; Divine Intervention: Hope and Help for Families of Addicts; Addiction-Proof Parenting; and Hope and Help for Self-Injurers/Cutters. He also co-authored a chapter in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling (2013).