What is truth?
Is it real, or merely a social construct of the human mind? Do we live in a world of many more than fifty shades of grey, or is there such a thing as absolute, concrete truth, impervious to relativity? And, if such truth does in fact exist, where should we look for it? How should we even know when we’ve found it?
Do you know the truth? Do I?
It turns out that Pontius Pilate’s fateful question still echoes through the ages. Here we are, two thousand years later, still depleting our days desperately trying to answer it. Many of us, those with any semblance of religious, political, or scientific beliefs, think we have much, if not all, of the truth. Others, conversely, argue that either truth doesn’t exist, or that none will ever ascertain it, and thus the pursuit of truth is but chasing after the wind. Ironically, those who say there is no absolute truth make this statement as if it itself is absolute truth, thereby refuting their claim.
Furthermore, in today’s sociopolitical climate, truth seems to have been rendered irrelevant at best, and mutable at worst. With warring political factions each proclaiming that their truth is true, and with misinformation, alternative facts, and fake news filling much of truth’s original bandwidth, truth seems to have been relegated to the antique bin. If you can simply create your own truth, one that conveniently agrees with your points of view, why search for a truth that might prove more disruptive to your worldview?
Ask any artist, and they’ll tell you that black and white paint, when mixed together, make grey. It would be easy to concede that truth works in much the same way.
Growing up, my sister Rahel and I had a slippery relationship with the truth. To this day, we still recall certain stories and their details differently, but we do agree upon this: We each lied to get the other in trouble. Not one or two times. A lot.
One instance that stands out in my mind began in the midst of a friendly one-on-one basketball game in front of our family’s garage. I had the ball. I went up for a layup. She made contact with my arm. I solemnly swear on that basketball. I know my truth. So, of course, I called a foul, certain that my call was the correct one.
It turned out that my sister’s truth was different than mine. “All ball,” she said. “Impossible,” I retorted, pointing to the still-invisible welt that was sure to develop on my forearm as a result of her devastating blow.
Our argument over the truth escalated from there. Rahel, two and a half years older and still bigger and stronger than me at the time (truthfully, she’s still stronger), finally exclaimed, “You want a foul? I’ll show you a foul,” as she used her formidable size advantage to tackle me and grind my face into the concrete.
Her truth beat my truth. Until, that is, we went inside to face a higher truth: the judgment and wrath of our parents. Though we were both in the wrong, and though we had both distorted the truth to gain an advantage, mine was the bloody face. Thus, in the end, my truth was victorious, and Rahel was sent to her room.
Though I knew it not at the time, this was not the first war started over a disagreement about the truth. Sadly, this story has repeated itself throughout human history in much larger, much more deleterious ways.
Our truth is more truthy than your truth. The very existence of your truth threatens our truth. Therefore, we will fight you until there is only one truth left. May the best truth win.
Conceit begets conceit. Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence. War after war, atrocity after atrocity, and genocide after genocide, and still, we are no closer to deciding who has the ultimate truth. Muslim versus Jew. Catholic versus Protestant. Christians crusading across Muslim and American lands. The Inquisition. ISIS. Buddhists of the 969 Movement. Even secular, godless society has gotten in on the fight, as Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and others have killed tens of millions in the name of Communism, of race, of political ideology.
Could it be that we have made truth in our image? That the second we think we know the truth is the second we stop looking for it, and instead start fighting for it?
Perhaps truth is not a stale collection of rules and precepts to be disagreed upon. Perhaps it’s not a precious group of doctrines worth starting countless wars over. Truth, I believe, is a person, a person who is also God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” he said. He meant it.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Little did he know that the Answer to his question was standing before him, bloodied and beaten.
I would posit that the endless quest for truth throughout the ages, from Plato to Socrates to Descartes to Nietzsche to you and me, has been, at its core, whether consciously or subconsciously, the search for the Truth himself.
Author and pastor Shawn Brace, a longtime friend, put it this way on Twitter: “My safety does not come from having a perfect knowledge of the truth. My safety comes from knowing Him who is the Truth.”
When we know the Truth, the Truth will set us free. Free to grow. Free to learn. Free to be wrong.
When we know the Truth, we are free to love those we disagree with, not shun them. When we know the Truth, we live lives of compassion and purpose the way he did, not existences hell-bent on preserving a doctrine or belief from contamination.
When we know the Truth, we know that we are forgiven when we inevitably fail. Accepted exactly as we are. Loved more than we could ever comprehend.
When we know the Truth, we live lives of joyous expectation, barely able to contain our excitement at what God will do in and through us next. When we know the Truth, we finally begin to understand that God’s love for us is in no way contingent upon right living, right doctrine, and right theology, as much as he wants all of these things for us.
We give up our need to be right and embrace our need to be loved.
I believe that the single biggest cause of unbelief in the world today is that we the church strive so hard to know, share, and enforce what we believe to be the truth without ourselves knowing the Truth.
You see, Jesus cuts through our clamorous craving to be correct, through our insatiable thirst to complicate the simple truth of the Gospel. Love God, love people, he succinctly states in Matthew 22. “These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
Yes, there is a place for theological discussion, for hermeneutics, for exegesis. The Spirit of Truth indeed longs to guide us into all truth. Wouldn’t you want to know as much as you can about this God who offers us a love so recklessly lavish? But, if these important truth-seeking exercises don’t point us to love the least of these, the most different of these, the most heretical of these, then we can count them all as rubbish. “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day… but I don’t love, I’m nothing,” Paul declares.
I would venture an educated guess that not once in the history of the church has a well-meaning believer convinced another of any doctrine or precept, large or small, through coercion, anger, ostracism, hatred, or aggression. There is one, and only one, means by which hearts and minds are changed. That means is love. We can still speak the truth, yes; but that truth must be spoken in love, the way the Truth himself spoke to prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, Pharisees, and Gentiles alike. The way the Truth speaks to broken people like you and me.
When he speaks, The Truth calls us to know him, not to understand everything. To fall in love with him, not to ostracize those who don’t. To grow in relationship with him, not to simply increase in knowledge.
The Truth stands in front of us, on trial. Will we, like Pilate, wash our hands and turn away? Or will we humbly lay down our pontificating pride and recognize that he is the Answer to every question, every doubt, every need?
Do you know the Truth? Do I?
Because when we know the Truth, the Truth will set us free.
This article was originally published in Spectrum Magazine.