The term tough love may have been coined in recent years, but the idea has been around since biblical times. Merriam-Webster defines tough love as “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.” Proverbs 27:5–6 describes tough love like this: “Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (NKJV).
Open rebuke refers to confronting someone’s misbehavior frankly and truthfully. It may be perceived as harsh or wounding to the recipient, but when the intent is to promote another person’s well-being and help him change his behavior, the real motivation is love. “Wounds made by a friend are intended to help,” says God’s Word Translation.
A genuine friend won’t hold back the truth. He or she will be honest and say what needs to be said, even if it hurts. The wounds of a friend are faithful because a true friend’s criticism or candid speech is based on a relationship that is loyal, sincere, trustworthy, and authentic. We can rely on a friend who cares enough not to hide his or her true feelings. “You can trust a friend who corrects you,” says the Contemporary English Version.
The apostle Paul encouraged the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT). If we live in fear of offending a brother or sister, we don’t love them as Christ loves us. The Lord says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation 3:19).
David knew that the wounds of a friend are faithful, and he welcomed open reproof from the godly: “Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it” (Psalm 141:5). Sometimes, to get well, we have to take our medicine in the form of a godly rebuke. A faithful friend dares to correct what is wrong, and a wise person is courageous enough to receive correction from a trustworthy friend. “Rebuke the wise and they will love you,” says Proverbs 9:8.
The Bible teaches us to administer correction wisely and always with love as the principal motive. When false teachers threatened the early church, Paul instructed Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:3–5, ESV; see also 2 Corinthians 10:1).
Tough love can be bold and firm and still accompanied by gentleness and kindness. Paul said, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, ESV; cf. 2 Corinthians 10:1). He urged the Galatians, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1, NLT). Paul taught Timothy to “gently instruct those who oppose the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). Jesus, who is our ultimate example, said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
The wounds of a friend are faithful when they are delivered honestly and earnestly in love. To humbly receive such a painful rebuke is an honor and a blessing. By helping turn a friend back onto the right path, these wounds become a healing balm like medicine to a sick soul.