Truth is Not Whatever We Want It to Be
JULY 4, 2018
As one of postmodernity’s cultural downsides, it isn’t that there’s a loss of truth, but there’s doubt about its very existence.
There’s an old joke about a businessman interviewing applicants. He asked each of them a simple question: “What is two plus two?” He got a variety of answers. Someone said, “I don’t know, but I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss the issue.” A guy who pulled out a slide rule said, “Somewhere between 3.000 and 4.0901.” A lawyer referenced case law where two plus two proved to be four. The final applicant, an accountant, got up from his chair, closed the door and blinds, sat back down, leaned over the desk, and whispered, “How much do you want it to be?”
He got the job.
In our culture so often truth is “whatever you want it to be.” Whatever you want it to be includes gender, morals, marriage, race, and theological and political truth. Not only that, anyone who questions the freedom to make truth whatever one wants it to be is labeled intolerant, bigoted or worse.
When you expressed a deeply held conviction or a truth that changed your life, have you ever had anyone respond with, “I’m glad it’s true for you!”? Nothing comes closer to making me into a “serial killer” than someone speaking that kind of drivel. Frankly, I don’t want to fly with a pilot, be treated by a doctor, or have a mechanic work on my car, who is that cavalier about aeronautical, medical or mechanical truth. And I’m not buying a used car from them either.
When we’re passionate about the biblical message of radical grace and freedom (and I am…on steroids), there is a danger. It’s the danger of setting aside the revealed, propositional truth that makes radical grace and freedom matter.
A number of years ago Tony Campolo and I were discussing what was, at that time, a movement called “the emergent church.” I had read a number of books on the subject and interviewed some of the leaders. I commented that I felt they had sort of invented a new religion. Tony said, “It does feel that way. Frankly, the old one was just fine.” I agreed but added, “With the provision that the old one is properly understood.”
When we get grace, the danger is saying that sin doesn’t matter, and right and wrong are flexible. It’s one thing to say that you’re forgiven; it’s quite another to say that you don’t need to be forgiven. It’s one thing to say that you’re free; it’s quite another to say that you weren’t in prison in the first place. It’s one thing to say that you’re loved; it’s quite another to say that you’re loved because you’re lovable. It’s one thing to say that you’re redeemed; it’s quite another to say that redemption isn’t necessary.
The truth of the Christian faith is the basis of grace. Grace is not the basis of truth. When truth is whatever you want it to be, everything is irrelevant.
There’s a play (I don’t remember the title) where an adolescent said to her mother that she has decided there isn’t a God. “From now on,” she said, “I’ll be good not because I’ll be punished for not being good, but because good is good.” Her mother said, “But if there’s no God, why is good good?” That’s profound.
I’ve been working on a new book. (I’m not beneath pushing my books.) The manuscript is now at the publishers and they will fix what needs to be fixed before it’s published. They will also change the title and I won’t get a vote. I think the new title is Talking the Walk or something like that. I thought my working title—How to be Right Without Being Insufferable—was better. But then as I said, I don’t get a vote.
At any rate, the book is mostly about attitude. If we think of ourselves as better (or smarter, more attractive, more sophisticated, etc.) than those who don’t know truth, we should just keep quiet about our faith. However, if we have been loved and continue to be loved when we don’t deserve it, it changes everything about how we speak truth. But it’s still truth. As my friend, Jessica Thompson (Elyse Fitzpatrick’s daughter and co-author), says, “Grace levels every playing field.”
As I worked on the book, I was convicted (I think it was the Holy Spirit but it might have been indigestion) that I needed to add a full chapter on the importance of truth. It wasn’t a half bad chapter; but more important, it was a necessary one. It’s so tempting for me (and you) to change or soften the hard truths of the Christian faith. We so want to be accepted and loved.
Peter said, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2 Peter 1:16). Paul said that Christians have been given the precious gift of truth and “none of the rulers of this age understood…” (1 Corinthians 2:8). The Psalmist wrote, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
I’ve been reading Thomas Howard’s great book, Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism. It’s about how modern secularism has severed its relationship with the connection we once had with angels, demons, gods, heaven, hell, the supernatural and the beautiful. The “new myth” is dark, meaningless and boring. He writes that art, ceremonies of life and death’s passages, poetry, sex and so much more once pointed to and depended on God—the reality behind the reality. Now there is no reality behind the reality. There is just what is. Now there is nothing to which to point. Our art, music and poetry show the darkness, emptiness and meaninglessness.
That’s the world to which Christians are called. Frankly, if we sand down truth we have nothing left to say. That’s why doctrine is important. Biblical doctrine/truth defines who we are, where we’re going, and why we’re here. Grace, love, freedom and forgiveness without truth are only schmaltz.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two weavers con the emperor into believing that they have given him a new suit of clothes that will be invisible to the stupid riff-raff. Almost everybody pretends to see the wonderful new clothes…except a little boy who yells out, “That sucker is buck naked!” (Well, he actually yells, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”) At that point the gig is up and the naked emperor becomes a laughingstock.
That’s what Christians are called to do. We’re called to go into the world with an important message: “That sucker is buck naked!” Truth is uncomfortable for emperors, but necessary.
Christian truth declares that we’re needy, weak, sinful, afraid, lonely and confused. Christian truth doesn’t speak in generalities. Christian truth is specific and painful. But Christian truth’s bad tasting medicine is also the remedy. It redeems us and makes us whole. Both the bad news truth and the good news truth are so connected that we can’t have one without the other. And don’t forget: both are not just about how we’re saved…but also about how we live. While there is some evidence that we are better than we were, there is a whole lot of evidence that we are still needy, weak, sinful, afraid, lonely and confused.
The graffiti message on a bathroom wall said, “Jesus is still the answer!” Underneath someone had written, “What’s the question?” If we say, “Whatever you want it to be,” we cut the legs off the Christian faith and it becomes irrelevant.
It’s so important that we never compromise, change or soften Christian truth. It should always be spoken out of compassion by those of us who know the truth about our own suffering, sin and need. And the answer is always Jesus’ healing, forgiveness and sufficiency. But it must be spoken clearly.
So don’t shilly-shally!
He told me to tell you.
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