ANYONE WHO’S dealt with a loved one struggling with addiction knows that “tough love” is a tricky thing. Most of us tend to overcompensate one way or the other, seesawing between too much toughness and too much love, before finally finding our way to some sort of uneasy balance.
The truth is that too much toughness isn’t really being tough at all. It’s got anger and fear and all sorts of other things mixed up in it.
The same goes for too much love, which isn’t really love at all. It’s got co-dependency and fear and all sorts of other weakness in its bag.
One of the best examples of tough love I have found is in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This may seem strange, because it’s commonly viewed as a picture of God’s bottomless love for the wayward. Well, yes and no.
Here are three examples of healthy tough love I see in the father in the famous Luke.
Releasing. Having given his son the inheritance he had rudely asked for (basically saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead”), he let the kid wander to the end of his road. Dad doesn’t seem to have sent search parties after him. He knew that the young man would not turn around until “he came to his senses” (verse 17). That’s not something you can talk someone into. They have to find it for themselves. The hard part, of course, is that some people hit rock bottom so hard they never get up again.
Weighing. Momentary remorse is easy, often brought on by some kind of discomfort. But serious repentance takes time. The prodigal didn’t call home after a rough night and have his father book him a flight home right away. He had to literally put feet to his turnaround—he walked home from a far country. That must have taken some time and effort, offering a demonstration of his seriousness.
Limiting. Yes, the father welcomed his son home with open arms, a wonderfully loving gesture. But he didn’t pretend everything could go back to the way it was. The ungrateful son had already squandered his money; there was no more for him. Maybe after the party the father offered him a paying job? The relationship was restored, but it was changed. There are consequences we have to live with for wandering.
Offering tough love is like walking tightrope. You may sway a bit, but you need to place your feet carefully one in front of the other, on a narrow way stretched taught between two opposing sides, toughness and love–where the balance is found.
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