Love is not afraid to speak the truth, but is always doing so in context, and in kindness. Far from being "judgmental," this kind of truth-speaking earnestly desires the best for the beloved. Several years ago I watched a movie version of Emma, the last novel written by Jane Austen. Although over the years I wouldn't have been able to tell you much of the plot, there has remained lodged deep in my psyche a line from this story. Recently I've returned to Emma, wanting to find again this passage that I remember so vividly. It comes near the end of the book when Mr. Knightley, a family friend who cares deeply for the character of his young sister-in-law, sees Emma act in a way that is carelessly but cuttingly unkind to one of the older ladies in their circle of friends.
After the exchange, which happens at a picnic where Emma is a bit out of sorts, he pulls his friend aside and says: "Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? ... Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!"
(More after the break)
These words, and the emotions they evoke, are the pivotal point in Emma's growth. They lead her into a period of deep remorse and soul-searching. "Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representationn there was no denying. She felt it at her heart." And what adds to her pain is the awakening reality that Mr. Knightley's opinion of her is very important. That he would think her unrepentent is more than she can bear.
I left the movie with that phrase ringing in my ears. It was badly done, Emma. Badly done, indeed! Why did these words of admonition cling to my memory? Why did a remonstance ring so truly in my heart? Why was I drawn to it, as if something I myself desired, rather than be annoyed at someone calling Emma out?
There's a lot in Emma that I could resonate with (especially when I was younger). She's happy and clever, although not very self-disciplined and slightly spoiled. She cares about others but is not given to much personal reflection or spending time in things that are unpleasant. But like Mr. Knightley, we the readers know that Emma is not flowering into maturity. She is frittering away her intellectual gifts and stuck in her shallow, self-centered, albeit well-meaning, way of life. Without an intervention she will never realize her true potential.
Throughout the book, Mr. Knightley speaks to her and about her with much warmth and affection. But this does not keep him from noticing the truth. It's precisely because he cares for her and for her developing into a young woman of character that he speaks to her when he sees her choices affecting not only herself, but the larger community. It's this willingness to speak the truth, although it may be painful to the speaker as well as the receiver, that stirred my heart. For truth is the only antidote that will save Emma from herself.
And so it is with God. God cares about us so deeply, and loves us so much, that He cannot sit to the side while we do things that are harming ourselves and others. Like Mr. Knightley, God desires our best. He is not afraid to speak the truth in love, for it is only the truth that will set us free. But oh, the kindness with which he communicates with us! The gentleness that takes our immaturity into account, and sees the true desire of our heart to do what is right. God does not want to shame us, but to form us, making us into members of a better society.