“Before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call, and when God speaks, who can but prophesy? I answered a call which left the Spirit of the Lord upon me and anointed me to preach the gospel. . . . I decided then I was going to tell the truth as God revealed it to me. No matter how many people disagreed with me, I decided that I was going to tell the truth.”¹
These words have been bouncing around in my mind while I’ve been sick in bed all week.
I’ve been thinking about how the notion of truth is sometimes pulled apart in philosophical and theological attempts to offer a precise definition. For centuries philosophers and theologians have believed that truth must be more than a replication of facts. There must be a larger context. For followers of Jesus, I think truth can be described as claims on reality that are consistent with the compassionate purposes of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. But before truth is ever a proposition, it is first and foremost a Person. Jesus said, “I am the Truth.” So it’s from there followers of Jesus have to understand what is true.
The thing about truth is that it creates movements, life-giving or death-dealing. Society’s understanding of truth helps it determine how the world works and what kind of life can live up to it. Truth matters. We see it in history. We see it now.
What happens when society gets truth wrong? What happens when people in power or people with influence offer society an understanding of truth that is nothing more than a lie? Truth that isn’t true creates narratives that run contrary to the narrative we find in the gospel of Jesus. The script it hands society to study and work from inevitably concludes with a death-dealing ending. False truth cannot produce life. It’s a lie. And those who spread it, especially in the name of Jesus, are to be seen for what they are–untrustworthy. It’s why the apostle Peter said with boldness:
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their unrestrained ways, and the way of truth will be blasphemed because of them. They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3)
How can we know the difference between truth-tellers and false truth-tellers? It’s actually not complicated. We only need to pay close attention. Jesus said we can know the difference by the fruit they bear–their actions. False truth-tellers are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who, in the end, cannot fully embody the love for God, neighbor, and enemy Jesus taught because they do not tell the truth. Like Peter said,
By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:21-23)
Truth is the soil upon which love flourishes. One necessitates the other. Truth is life-giving and love is what truth looks like embodied. It’s what we see in Jesus.
In these polarized times, I believe one of the reasons followers of Jesus are struggling to love each other in the way Jesus taught is because we’ve allowed our understanding of truth to be co-opted by a commitment to nation over neighbor. This is where I find the apostle Paul’s words helpful. It’s out of his commitment to truth and love for the Church that he issued this summons to his young disciple Timothy:
“I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
As a pastor, along with all who have been called to the task, I have a responsibility to tell the truth, even if some in the Church disagree. Truth-telling plays a significant role in:
“training the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.
Paul goes on:
Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.
But that is not how you learned about the Messiah, assuming you heard about Him and were taught by Him, because the truth is in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:11-21)
Truth telling, even to people who follow the One who said, “I am the Truth,” is a costly and unwelcome business in an age of nationalism. Idols are subtle and tricky things.
But truth can reveal idols.
Tell the truth. Do so with love and boldness. Trust God with the consequences. Lives are at stake. Fulfill your ministry.
¹ Dr. Martin Luther King in an address given April 30, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.