Step Two—Loving Integrity, Honesty, Humility, and Truth
(This part two of my 10-part strategy for to become the loving voice of the Savior to our increasingly antagonistic culture. You can read my explanation and review my 10 parts here or go to part one here)
Years ago, when I was sending copies of articles I’d written via email, I sent something to my former pastor, seminary professor and adviser, and most admired preacher. In it, I made the statement, “Love is more important than truth.” I may have lost a bit of his respect at that time. I always meant to follow up with a better explanation or a clarification, but I waited too long. I regret I didn’t explain myself better at the time.
Ironically, I have always held a high value of truth. How can we expect to live well if we ignore truth or fail to live honestly? Of what value is our confession or testimony, if our lives fail to show a high regard for what it true? Sadly, I believe we are far from where we ought to be, from who we ought to be, without honesty, integrity, fidelity, credibility, veracity, and genuineness, all that encompasses a commitment to and consistent regard for truth. Clearly, I have little respect for dishonest politicians; pretense and evasiveness are bad enough, but blatant lying is unconscionable. Without honesty, integrity, and transparency, they cannot be trusted. Most who hold office don’t care as long as we believe them until the next election. Leaders should be accountable for their words, but they often won’t be unless we make them by holding them accountable for what they say. Sadly many seem more committed to their ideology, than their promises, though even that is worthless without them keeping their word.
Do Christians have a higher commitment to truth? I suspect many do not. If we consistently stood for truth and honestly, I believe people would respect us, at least for that, despite their problem with our values. I don’t see that respect. Perceiving oneself or one’s group of being right is not the same thing! The Master’s Church is rife with what appears to be a war of truth claims. I say, “appears to be” because, apart from some actual combat as occurred in Ireland and Lebanon, it is often more a war of words. Frankly, this verbal war is less discussion, debate, and argument and more divide and throw verbal stones at a distance. Rather than work through conflicting opinions and beliefs, we prefer to separate ourselves from those with troublesome views, especially those that are hardest to dismiss. Our obligation in the Lord’s name to truth and honesty get lost in division and animosity.
Our culture is attempting to substitute political correctness for honesty1, and it is a poor substitute. While it requires a measure of courage at times, honesty is easy; it is either true or not true. Political correctness is an awful game of attempting to use an always changing set of acceptable words and phrases where, as long as unacceptable choices are avoided, truthfulness is not required. For example, suppose I wish to speak about my neighbor whose ancestors were slaves. He is not a Negro (old word for black) or a black, perhaps an African-American or a person of color; the n-word is absolutely forbidden, even though that may be exactly what a person is thinking. Mind you, it is only forbidden to white people, blacks use it all the time. Word games aren’t likely to change people’s thoughts or hearts, but playing this miserable game may well change them in the wrong way!
This problem isn’t new to me. I first encountered it as a college student, not on campus, not yet at that time, but at church! I call it spiritual correctness, or maybe religious correctness would be better. I learned that much seemed to rest on having the right label—fundamentalist, evangelical, liberal. I discovered that denominations weren’t merely like different branches of the same family, but that some were considered outcasts, not of the family at all! Christians of different stripes weren’t quite so honest as to claim to be spiritually correct, but they bluntly claimed to be the true Christians, true followers of Christ, often exclusively the only ones!
I spent some years in a group that practiced the doctrine of separation. Most who haven’t been taught will have difficulty finding this in the Bible; if they do, they will understand it to refer to the need for believers to be, in some sense, separate from unbelievers. Sadly, this particular doctrine is actually taught to require correct Christians to separate from incorrect Christians, often with the implication that the incorrect Christians are, in fact, not Christians at all. Never mind that this behavior runs afoul of several other rather clear commandments like “In honor, prefer one another,” “Be one as I (Jesus) and the Father are one,” “Don’t judge lest you be judged,” and, so bluntly, “Love your enemies!” Yet, unbelievably, Christians often get along better with non-Christians than with Christians who have slightly different beliefs.
What about truth, you may ask? When it comes to knowing the truth, we sinful and fallible humans will never know truth exhaustively in this life. Is Calvinism right, or is it Arminianism? I favor one, but I know the other has some valid concerns. Should we baptize by immersion or by sprinkling? Is baptism necessary for salvation? Is baptizing babies acceptable? I’m an ordained Baptist, but I have friends who aren’t whom I accept as fully Christian (without condescension). Is the bread and wine (grape juice?) the literal body and blood of Christ? Is it transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or neither (with them being mere symbols of the body and blood)? Entire libraries are filled with books trying to sort out these and numerous other questions. I know this: if a person denies Christ, he or she is not a Christian, by their own judgment, not mine. I know if people do not trust Christ for salvation in some regenerating sense, they’re not believers, for salvation is by faith through grace. If a person denies the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement for sins, a literal resurrection from the dead, I rather doubt they are true Christians, but it’s not my job to judge them. If a person “went forward,” “raised their hand,” or “prayed the sinner’s prayer,” but they haven’t chosen to live as a Christian or have fallen completely away, I would treat them as an unbeliever and love them. My only concession to the “doctrine of separation” would to avoid spending the bulk of my time with those who show little concern for living and walking in faith, especially if they revel in attacking it.
Paul stated so plainly that we are to speak truth in love! Truth is not a club for beating your brother or a weapon to drive your sister away. I love these words in their clarity:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.–Ephesians 4:14-16
I believe if we focused on “speaking the truth in love,” we might settle some of the more divisive issues, and the unity of the body of Christ would be an evident reality in this world. Our neighbors need to see our unity and our love. Only through our commitment to this approach to truth will they be impressed by the credibility we earn through our loving cohesion. It’s not about having the best argument or being the most persuasive. That is religious thinking, that is proud thinking, and that is disobedient thinking.
That doesn’t mean that truth is optional or unimportant. God forbid! The same Jesus who said, “By this everyone will know that your are my disciples, if you love one another,” also said, “To the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
Just notice the direction of the promise in each case. In both, he’s speaking to prospective disciples, learners, or committed believers. Love will show the world that we are truly Jesus’ disciples. This is our proof of authenticity; this makes us credible and our message, or very worldview, compelling. By comparison, truth is not for the world or outsiders; our continued study in the Word is proof, to us, of our genuine discipleship, it is our access to knowing truth, and truth is our key to freedom. He says nothing about showing truth to others, persuading, cajoling, or manipulating. Indeed, one might suggest that one truth our abiding in scripture might reveal is the absolute necessity of loving our brother, our spouse, our child, our neighbor, our fellow believer, our contentious brother, our enemy. That’s not to say truth will be hidden. No way! Our very lives will reveal truth in practice and likely invite questions; then we will have an open mind with which to share.
So, is love more important than truth? In relationships, truth and love are almost equally important; without truth there is no trust, and without love, there is no relationship. In the sectarian realm of a multiply divided, contentious church, loving is far more important than arguing truth claims until we hate each other. God never commanded us to separate from brothers and sisters with different opinions or cultural worship practices. In the practice of credible evangelism, love must lead; love is the proof; love is the connection to God’s love. Evangelism is not about being the best presenter or persuader; it is not a professional career. God’s word is powerful, but the best way to share it is not anonymous stranger to stranger where love can never be more than affirmed. Only people who experience our compassion and thoughtfulness, our kindness and generosity, our patience and willingness to listen in love to their hurts will truly find our faith story of interest.
Jesus said love is the greatest commandment for a reason, or perhaps for many reasons. Surely he meant it, he commanded it, he practiced it, and encouraged and supported it throughout his inspired Scripture. Take Paul’s “Love Chapter.” How do people ignore the first three verses of warning?
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
His subsequent verses remove any doubt of love be nominal or passive: “Love is patient, love is kind, …does not envy, …does not dishonor, …does not boast, …is not proud, …does not dishonor, …does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Does this imply that truth is the opposite of evil? If so, it is clear which belongs in our relationships. Sadly, even Christians tend to muck up their loving truth and truthful love with untruth.
We don’t need to bludgeon those we are to love with our pseudo-truths. Husbands who do are lousy husbands; wives who do are no better. Parents who do, supposedly with good intentions, become less than effective parents. A child cannot be taught right and wrong without love; he will learn the silent messages of the unloving, weakly loving, nominally loving parent, and he will misunderstand the values they mean to teach. We have a need for truth, but first it is for ourselves.
Our world, ruled by the enemy, is a matrix of lies—subtle, obvious, clever, and simple. This world, our own flesh, and the devil excel in twisting truth, poorly copying truth, opposing truth, proclaiming truth that is anything but. It has always been that way, since the very first temptation, but modern media add a whole new kind of deception and misunderstanding. So much of what we hear isn’t really true, but an ever greater amount of what we get via the Internet, smart phones, and social media are false. It is striking to me to see how readily people accept what they find online. When I was in radio, we often spend time debunking myths circulated by letters, then by faxes, and finally emails. People would assure us that the story they passed along was true, when we knew it was not. To this day, I believe some of them were intentionally designed to make gullible Christians look foolish. Now with the massive amount of information available through technology, the possibility of deception is even greater. Long ago, I learned in reading to check for sources that might verify assertions put forth. If I didn’t find them, I regarded dubious notions as likely false. I do the same for the Internet.
Recently a friend posted a rant against a popular beverage. As I began to read, I immediately spotted an error. The rant suggested that the beverage was a stronger acid than in a car battery. For proof they showed a pH of 1 for battery acid and a pH of 3 for the beverage, higher right? Actually, wrong! The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, with the strongest acid at 1, neutral at 7, and the strongest base at 14. In other words weaker acids have higher numbers, while stronger bases have higher numbers. It’s a basic mistake than any high school chemistry student would likely spot, but the person assembling evidence for his rant clearly did not. Whether a mistake or intended deception, we must accept “truth” with caution supported by verification. It’s not good enough to believe it because it supports your prior assumptions. When we fail to do this, we become abusers of truth.
Many of us will experience what happens with falsehood and deception targets us, our loved ones, our job, our community, or our beliefs. This is the source of much suffering, mental agony, depression, fear, worry, anxiety, and frustration. Here’s where knowing the truth not only proves us disciples of Jesus but provides much needed comfort. As Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Of course this ties directly into Jesus’ promise, “…you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Before anything else, we should look to the Word for revealed truth to guide and comfort us in our worst trials and tribulations. After that, we must be careful to make every effort to verify the truth of information we use and share, remembering that such information is secondary to what God has given us directly.
Truth leads to freedom, and we ought to live freely. Here’s another connection between truth and love. In Galatians 5, Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Reaffirming what I just wrote, truth is the key for our own peace of mind; in it is true freedom. However, shortly after, he writes, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.‘” Truth leads to freedom, but freedom isn’t for our own selfish gratification. It is freedom to serve, to love our neighbor. I think it might be fair to say that we love others by granting them—teaching them if necessary—the same freedom we enjoy.
One of my friends recently posted a statement saying that God’s highest attribute is holiness, not love. I haven’t researched this, but my immediate reaction is to say that God is love. Love isn’t an attribute; it is his very essence. His holiness, his set-apart-ness, is the very unique character of love that is his nature. In genuine love, there is no sin; sinlessness is also his nature, arising from his love I believe. He desire us to love and not sin. So Paul could write in verse 15, “The entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
In the end, I find I still believe that love is greater than truth. Truth is nevertheless essential, for love requires truth in all its aspects. It is truth, God’s truth, that points to love’s greatness. It is truth that ministers to the needs of our souls. Truth will keep us from being sucked into this world’s confusion. Truth is a tool to share, but it must be shared in love. Without love, truth is harsh and may not even be truth.
1Ignore the claim of tolerance. Political correctness is plainly intolerant and severely so. It interferes with honest communication and discourages simple kindness, courtesy, and understanding.