I Used to Say Cruel Things in Love: A Tale of Evangelical Cognitive Dissonance


Back in my anxious, overly zealous evangelical days, I had this habit of telling people horrible things or insulting them all for the sake of the Gospel and being “loving.’ I told them that I was saying these things for their own good—the ends had to justify the means. I reasoned that they were on the brink of eternal destruction, so any means of getting the message to them had to not only be justified but loving. This was just sharing the truth in love, right?

This is a common problem: people hear unloving things from Christians and then Christians assure them, no, this is actually the most loving thing I could do.

No wonder so many people thought I was crazy back then. In truth, I was living in a delusion.

I’ve found that I don’t get to tell someone how to receive love or an insult. Evangelical Christians struggle to understand that good intentions do not make up for a smug or dismissive tone, hateful words, or damaging actions. We can discuss the merits of “tough love” in some situations and we all need some boundaries in extreme situations, but in our day to day interactions, some evangelicals say genuinely hurtful if not hateful things.

Even just sharing a perspective that isn’t particularly hateful can be done in an angry, belligerent, or dismissive manner. I regularly receive emails from and read articles by Christians who take great umbrage at my support for women in ministry, and their typically mix their rage with just enough condescension to make their words sting.

When such Christians are accused of being hurtful or hateful, they either claim they’re misunderstood or bemoan persecution and our “politically correct” culture.

Let’s step back to consider a hypothetical situation: If I insulted and badgered my wife in order to convince her to make a particular decision, no matter how beneficial it may be for her, anyone with a functioning brain would tell me to lay off. She would clearly not feel loved. Anyone witnessing my behavior in this scenario would surely take her side and roll their eyes at me if I said, “No, this is for her benefit. I’m being very loving.”

Back in my days as a zealous evangelical, if I had been challenged to be nicer to the people on the receiving end of my aggressive evangelizing, I would have probably ranted about political correctness and then said, “If I kid was about to run off a cliff, wouldn’t you stop him by any means possible?”

Aha! Checkmate, no? Well, not so fast… This is the kind of reasoning we use to stop someone in the midst of a split second, life and death scenario. This isn’t necessarily how we help someone start a relationship—which was the other thing I would have told you quite emphatically about Christianity. I would have gone to the mat to argue that Christianity is a relationship, not a “religion.” And yet, I used extremely pushy and impersonal means to start that relationship. If this is a relationship with God and we’re speaking to other adults about it, we can’t adopt a scorched earth policy that attempts to make them have a relationship with God AT ALL COSTS.

Actually, we can do this and enjoy some success… with children.

In my seminary class on evangelism (I’ll pause here so you can roll your eyes that I took an actual “class” on evangelism), we learned that high school and college students are the most important years to share the gospel. These are the years that we make our life-changing decisions that can alter the courses of our lives. To a certain extent, this is true. That’s why brands send free stuff to college students. For instance, the Bic razor handle I received for free in the mail is still in our medicine cabinet because I use it every morning.

However, there’s another side to all of this. High school and college students are also at a very black and white point in their lives. They’re sorting things out, and an aggressive, take it or leave it evangelism pitch that’s trying to save them from an eternity in hell may actually work more often with them than with older adults who will be more likely to question any angry or insulting means of sharing “good news.”

As one of the many evangelicals who is now repenting of my scorched earth evangelism that was trying to get people saved no matter what, I can now recognize the cognitive dissonance of my message. If I tried to share about God’s love through guilt, judgment, shame, or fear, I was only sharing my own guilt, judgment, shame, and fear. People were actually learning nothing about God from me. I was using the devil’s own tools in order to shove people toward a loving God who absorbed our anger and insults rather than dishing them out.

Even more disturbing, I see cognitive dissonance all over evangelical Christianity today.

When pastors teach against women in ministry or mutuality in marriage, they assure us that these limitations and restrictions actually free women to serve… in a much smaller sphere.

When I receive angry, insulting, or dismissive emails because I hold the “unbiblical” view that women should, in fact, preach and serve as pastors, the senders completely miss the fact that Paul noted his words are a clanging cymbal without love.

As church leaders overstep their authority through far-reaching covenants with their members that hand over enormous power to the leadership hierarchy, they assure us, no, we’re actually just caring for people.

While unraveling my false conceptions of God, love, and Christian community, this cognitive dissonance has been the hardest thing to untangle. On the one hand, our faith does appear to have these dissonances wrapped up in it.

There is liberty in discipline and the practices that help us remain connected with Christ, our vine, help us to receive God’s gift that we could still never earn. The more we surrender to God, the more freedom we will enjoy. The more we give up fleeting earthly indulgences, the greater chance we have to find the abundance of God.

In all of these instances of potential dissonance, keep in mind that our sacrifices all come at our own expense and help us draw near to God. We don’t have to look someone in the eye and say things like: “Yes, I just insulted everything you believe and hold dear, but it’s all in love so that I can save your soul.” “Yes, I just told a woman that she can’t be a pastor, but now she’s free to work at our children’s ministry at no cost to us.” “Yes, I just told a woman that she has to stay in an abusive/unfaithful marriage, but she signed the covenant that gives us the power to care for her.”

Speaking the truth is not automatically loving, and that has been a hard lesson to learn. We can only communicate the truth in love if we actually speak and act in ways that people recognize as loving. When people said I wasn’t acting very loving, it was on me to recognize that a message of love has to be communicated with genuine love and care as well.

Am I actually loving someone when I talk about Jesus? The answer is as simple as the standard we use for telling a joke. If you have to explain it, then the answer is no.

4 thoughts on “I Used to Say Cruel Things in Love: A Tale of Evangelical Cognitive Dissonance

  1. In response to this line: “Actually, we can do this and enjoy some success… with children.” Though on the surface, this is true, the price is too high. As a recovering evangelical, I went through a lot of pain and suffering to get out from under what was done to me as child. I also watch one of my own grown children reject and struggle as a result of such methods as well. It really is damaging. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

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  2. Ed, I too in my early years was over zealous. I was so broken, that when I read the Word of God, I read it through my own lenses of how I saw God, and saw myself, not as Who God really is, and how He truly sees me. Preachers will preach the same way. A gentleman named John S Savage whose life work was studying, teaching and training others in communication found out by research that preacher’s/teacher’s early messages whether spoken to them or inferred, or misunderstood the meaning of the communication, gave messages of what they saw through their own lenses,.
    He named the messages given to us that we believe “life commandments” Unconsciously, people see these life commandments as going deeper than the “Gospel” as “Truth”. People will live and die on these messages. They can on a side note be useful to help us maneuver through life without starting over every morning. When they are false and no longer are useful because we are growing and have “grown up”, it causes problems when we don’t discard them. When we have grown as a person, and healed more we discard the old commandments, and replace them with new commandments that are truthful, and as Gospel because we have new lenses. Dr. Savage discusses this in his book “Listening and Caring Skills” It’s fascinating, and I’ve taken to listening carefully to what the preacher/teacher truly is saying, “life commandment” or the Word?
    I have discovered the life commandments have come through mixed in with the Gospel very strong. I have found in my own life knowing this, the more I heal, the more the message of grace and mercy, along with God’s justice as a balance, comes through, and His longing for relationship for me comes through instead of the fear of punishment He gave. I can only give what I have experienced, along with understanding other people can only give what they have experienced. I do still get frustrated and angry.
    Ed, God has been taking you on a journey and you can see things you could not see before now. I am so glad, and I see your humbleness, and the righteous anger toward what these people are doing. Are these things you see as injustice okay to continue doing? Absolutely not! I have to keep praying my actions show otherwise, keep repenting of my old behavior and thinking, and keep praying their scales on their eyes will fall off, and can now see truly the Word. Sorry for the book I just wrote….Blessings, Joanne

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