By the time I reached adulthood, honesty had become a defining principle of my character (at least, I meant it to be). While I could identify reasons such as the influence of parents and grandparents, I am persuaded that ultimately it was God’s working in my life. As I grew in the ability to understand the Word of God, I knew that truth was inherent to his character and that he intended we also be people of truth, honesty, faithfulness, and promise-keeping. Sadly, I fear that it easy for pride to put the emphasis on truth in the wrong place. God doesn’t intend to nurture pride, and he desires us to live in unity as believers, not in perpetual conflict. So the question is, what how do we develop “lives of truth” that are positive and constructive influences in church and culture.
During my years of schooling, I learned to care deeply about what is true, both that which is reality and that which is factual. Not surprisingly, I became interested in science and journalism, both representing the quest for truth. It was a great disappointment for me to learn that people questioned truth in both realms. Scientists, who who seemed to prefer an existence without God, began to speak as if reality was “relative,” not in the Einsteinian sense, which is perceptual, but as if something could be and not be at the same time. While the former describes a sense in which two observers see things differently, a clear mathematical relationship defines them, absolutely. The latter affirms that two different ways of seeing or understanding are, in fact, two different realities; this notion has no true merit, except to those who prefer a world ungoverned by absolutes. Of course, science without absolutes in nonsense, non-science (Just try operating in the world as if gravity were relative!). Instead, many simply transferred the notion of relativism to the moral realm, where it is not quite so immediately catastrophic, although evidence demonstrates that the results for human society are far from beneficial.
I could easily be unbending in my insistence on truth and honesty, not just for myself but for everyone. “Fighting for truth” has become a scandal among religious adherents, even to the extreme of violence, and Christians are fragmented over their disagreements about what they consider to be essential truths. The error comes in ignoring how God relates truth to another essential quality: “Speak the truth in love,” writes Paul, who earlier in the same chapter wrote, “Make every effort to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
Jesus plainly desired his disciples to seek truth, saying, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” However, he also said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another. By this the whole world will know that you are my disciples because you love one another.” Genuine disciples clearly hang on his every word because they want to know him, understand him, and respect everything he teaches. When the one they follow is Jesus, their devotion leads them to know truth and the freedom it brings, as a direct outgrowth of that dedication. Disciples commit themselves to love each other because their master also expects it; as a result, truth cannot be used to excuse unloving behavior. In other words, no believer has the right to belittle or condemn another believer because they disagree; they may not reject a person’s faith in Christ because they disagree over doctrine, certainly not a minor one!
This commitment to love and truth extends to every relationship and every endeavor whether inside or outside the Church. Here is where it becomes even more challenging. Unbelievers often lie without compunction, despite saying otherwise. In the realms of politics and, sadly, media, claiming truth for lies has become standard operating procedure, as is accusing one’s adversary of lying whether there is actual evidence of an ethical lapse or not. People claim truth for opinions, label theories as facts, and decry errors as intentional deceit. Adversaries often claim knowledge of the thoughts and intents of others, again without evidence; virtual mind-reading is a common activity that many accept without proof. How does one sort out the truth amidst such a confusion of misdirection, partial truths, and downright fabrications?
When I was younger, I found it so disconcerting to read some publication, from a position opposed to mine, asserting as incontrovertible truth an idea I simply could not reconcile with what I already knew or believed. Occasionally, that still happens to me; it makes me wonder if I live on the same planet, since their perceptions are so far removed from my own. When I take the time, which I do occasionally, I typically find a mix of the problems I mentioned above. The more clever and well-written the material, the harder to sort out the half-truths, distorted facts, unsubstantiated claims, and outright lies.
To be fair, I don’t always do a stellar job on my side either. My mistake tends to be assuming rather than explaining ideas that I have studied and concluded to be true, without the supportive information that convinced me. I sometimes forget that other people don’t know every piece of information that I have gained over a lifetime. I confess that I tend to use words with definitions that I believe to be best; these are the definitions I use to teach and explain ideas, but they’re not always the same as those used by others. Meanings change over time, different people have used the same words to mean different things, and people interject their own thoughts as they use these words, as well. Some even intentionally redefine words to create confusion. In such a complex arena, communication and understanding aren’t easy, and misunderstanding is common. In a sound-bite, twitter world, interactions occur too quickly for really effective comprehension.
Are some topics too controversial to discuss in polite company (assuming “polite company” still means something)? A local newspaper, for which I offered to write, would not let me discuss politics or religion…too controversial! Why? One problem may be our tendency to interject terms representing the parties and positions we prefer, without making sure our understanding of the terms is the same. People trying to come to agreement would usually do this, but people who argue seek only to win. Actually, most political and religious arguments end without an agreed winner, meaning most walk away confident they have won, ignoring that the other side has not conceded. We rate such “debates” on points for technique—who had the best “gotcha,” which made the best points, who used the most relevant facts, which one seemed most in control, and so on.
Suppose instead that you want to persuade rather than win in your argument. To convince an adversary requires several things including coming to some mutual agreement on terminology. I recall a conversation with a pastor from a very different background than my own. We knew each other from serving together in a peacemaking organization, so we had a basis of agreement. However, as we talked, it was striking just how different our view of things might have been, since, to a great extent, we didn’t refer to the same important teachers, hadn’t read the same books, and didn’t use the same theological terms. However, since we had begun in agreement, we almost laughed to realize how diverse our viewpoints might have seemed; yet we had arrived at the same place anyway.
Imagine if we had begun in disagreement. We each would have been grounded in our own view, citing our separate sources, and confident in the expertise of the authorities we trusted. It would make a lively argument, but without effort; little mutual understanding would have occurred. This is the normal state of affairs when it comes to most political and spiritual arguments; often bitter exchanges pass for meaningful efforts at understanding and resolving important issues. The various positions people take have names—ideology and sectarianism.
I try very hard not to adopt a party spirit in either realm. As a citizen of each—the kingdom of God and the United States—my duties are too important to yield to a party spirit. In other words, I may have been ordained as a Baptist pastor, but I don’t regard Baptist doctrines as authoritative for me. God and his word, guided by my knowledge, reason, and wisdom, come first. Were I ever to believe that thinking for myself placed me outside the fellowship of Baptists—a pretty loose association at that—then I would seek another, more suitable fellowship of believers. In a similar sense, I have voted for Republicans, but I am not a member of the Republican Party; I frequently disagree with positions many Republicans take. As I noted above, while I consider myself conservative, classically liberal, and 90% libertarian, I qualify those designations with meanings that don’t always fit the way others use them. I have the same issue with words like fundamental, evangelical, orthodox, Biblical, or even Christian, all of which I would say fit me, as I see and explain them!
The point here is my desire to represent myself honestly. Frankly, I don’t find it necessary for everyone to know that. People are prone to misuse labels by making the very assumptions I am trying to avoid. Take “libertarian” for example. I do not support legalizing drugs, which seems to be one of the main points associated with libertarians. I feel we must fight the war against terror, preferably on their turf, not ours. Many libertarians like Ron Paul would withdraw from all engagements immediately (if I’ve understood him correctly); I would not and, in fact, fear it would result in us fighting a much bigger war later, perhaps in our own communities. I am, no doubt, a “social conservative,” though right now, I am far more committed to the economic issues our country faces, like a 16 trillion dollar debt!!
I believe in both individual liberty and cooperation, two values that seem often not to work together. I feel the “rugged individualism” of our American heritage is prone to go too far, at times, especially when it colors our relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ. As far as the country goes, a danger is looming over us in the opposite extreme, with a potentially oppressive, far too powerful government routinely stomping on our individual freedoms. As a result, I reject individualism that neglects friendship, brotherhood, and community and socialism that would make all our lives the same.
I believe in both hard-earned, capitalist prosperity and unbounded generosity, in unreserved opposition to a socialist government spending, borrowing, and taxing our prosperity into oblivion in the name of imposed sacrifice for the “truly needy.” The purpose of a “rule of law,” as opposed to the rule of men, is to preserve, protect and expand individual liberty as a “natural right.” If certain persons have been deprived of freedom through demonstrable mistreatment by others (as proven in a court of law, not argued based on statistics), then the inequity should be corrected. Categories of people considered to be either victims or oppressors are unsupportable, leading not to freedom but to shifting oppression.
Here terminology comes frequently into play. “Evil rich?” Hard work and success are not inherently evil. “Lazy, irresponsible poor?” Tragedy, disability, illness, circumstances of birth, and economic reversals also create poverty, even for good people. Compassion as political rhetoric? Often bogus! Fairness? Mothers have been teaching their children for generations that life isn’t fair, and government isn’t going to change that.
I have deep misgivings about the word “tolerant.” I have known and enjoyed people of nearly every kind and culture; I prefer the culture I live in and believe our value system, rooted in a Judeo-Christian foundation, is superior to most others. Yet I readily interact with people of other cultures and beliefs; often the intolerance flows toward me, not from me, if I openly express faith or political preferences. Why? I don’t understand the degree of hostility from those who claim to value tolerance; it is supremely illogical and runs counter to their supposed intent. Of course, their kind of tolerance is often a cynical deception by unbelieving relativists who accept nothing rather than tolerate everything.
As a person who loves words, striving to be honest and truthful, all of this is troublesome, to say the least. Frankly, it is painful to live in a time and place where dishonesty and deception have become so deeply entrenched into the very fabric of our culture and discourse and where twisting the meaning of words is part of the deceit. To make matters worse, many scorn the disciplines of language, reading, and verbal comprehension; such people are easily mislead…and are! Even the ones who want to learn and understand find obstacles: educators who value political correctness more than intellectual freedom, news media committed to influencing events rather than merely reporting them, and politicians who seek to control information in order to control people. In this environment, a commitment to truth is crucial and a dedication to the fight for truth is vital.
Believers in the God of truth ought to be best equipped to take up this challenge. Rather than waste our energies and corrupt our relationships by arrogant insistence on being right, we have the opportunity to demonstrate what lives lived in truth should be—truth always affirmed in love, integrity the measure of our lives, and a clear commitment to seeking always to understand and to be clear and open in our communication. If you don’t already know this, a person who is truthful always and respects and seeks truth will be a person of influence. However much people seem to reject it, truth is what they really want, and truthful people are the ones they will ultimately trust (revised October 20, 2012).